Inside the Mind of the Bookstore Bandit


"I had a girlfriend who worked at a bookstore, and there was a robbery, and she explained that some guy came in with a gun and wanted all the money, and she said to herself, you know, 'I can't stay in this company ... here, take all the money and here's this register as well,'" Nelson said.

"That information just stuck, this little larcenous kernel stuck in my head."

That kernel, Nelson said, would fester in his mind for some time until he found himself broke and in possession of a movie prop .38 revolver. Being broke is one thing, but what pushed John Nelson to actually take the step of robbery?

He couldn't blame it on a troubled childhood.

"I grew up in a middle-class household. Church on Sundays," he said. "It was a good neighborhood. There were a lot of things to be happy about."

With unflinching honesty behind thick black-rimmed glasses, he sums it up simply: He said he was aimless, lazy and "ethically spoiled" by his early 20s.

Growing up, both of his parents worked hard and Nelson found it easy to play them off each other to get out of trouble -- a lesson he carried with him right into that first bookstore, along with a useful kernel of information about employee apathy and a prop gun in his waistband.

"I explained to the person behind the counter that it wasn't about, you know, harming anybody. I didn't want to hurt anybody, I just wanted to get the cash and be on my way," he said.

"I got essentially that same sort of apathetic, well, I don't care, here, yeah, it's not my money. And I applied that [to] about 45 more robberies. Essentially just walking in and pulling my T-shirt tight behind my back to reveal the handle of the revolver in my waistband. People would tend to go from there."

Nelson was hooked. He says it wasn't about power, but rather the rush of the crime, the pocketful of cash and the secret he kept from everyone he knew.

"In the moment your heart is racing, and you know you're doing something very, very wrong. I didn't think the consequences applied to me. I didn't think that far ahead," he said.

For all the yelling, criminal masterminding and gun play typically seen in movie bank robbery scenes, Nelson said his experience was very different.

"It was about displaying the proper credentials. A note, and the butt of the revolver in my waistband. Something that shows the people behind the counter that you're here for one thing, and like any other transaction, we can get this over with and I could be on my way," he said.

"It's almost as if both the people behind the counter and the people executing the robbery itself are both trained in a certain way to act out a certain role. I basically depended on those roles being played."

Nelson insists it's no justification for what he did, but he said he was always polite, always kept his voice down and nonthreatening to make sure the situation remained in control.

"The implication was that there was a threat, of course -- which technically is the crime, but I was good in that, again it wasn't about bullying," he said. "It was just get in, display the proper credentials, be given my prize, and walk out."

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