The Zen of Shoplifting

Forget bedbugs. East Village storekeepers said they’ve been dealing this summer with a persistent case of sticky fingers.

While the New York Police Department reported 100 robberies and burglaries in the area during the steamy summer months, storekeepers say it’s not only gun-wielding intruders they’re concerned about — it’s shoplifters.

From 2002-2009, the number of arrests for shoplifting in the city has increased to 23,237 from 13,826, according to NYPD reports.

“We see a lot of the professional shoplifters,” said Dwijen Byapari, 52, an assistant manager at Stuyvesant Stationery at 438 East 14th Street. “They come wearing a hood, they cover their face.” They know the stores have surveillance cameras, he said. “They are very professional.”

Mr. Byapari has worked behind the counter of the small, cluttered shop for eight years. It stocks everything from Hallmark greeting cards to decorative tchotchkes to Silly Bandz.

Strangely, Mr. Byapari said the most commonly shoplifted item is a Masterlock brand combination lock — an item that sells for $6.99. Other commonly stolen items are Gelly Roll pens and Hallmark cards, all easily shoved in a pocket or hidden under an oversize jacket.

DSC01878Rachel Morgan Dwijen Byapari, an assistant manager at Stuyvesant Stationery on 14th Street, says the store sees a lot of professional shoplifters.

Mr. Byapari estimates the store’s losses from shoplifting to be about $20 a month, making it more of a nuisance than a threat to the business. Nevertheless, the store installed a security system six years ago — one camera over the cash register at the front of the store and a monitor in back.

This being New York, thieves nabbed the monitor six months ago. Mr. Byapari believes they were casing the place for a future robbery. But the monitor was quickly replaced, he said.

Many store owners, like Mr. Byapari’s boss, don’t even report shoplifters to the NYPD since the losses are so small.

Eduardo Torres, 45, the owner of Gea’s Garden Jewels at 247 East 10th Street, said it’s not worth the trouble to drag in the police.

“It makes no sense because even when you see them, if you don’t film them or take a picture, there’s no sense calling the police because they cannot do anything,” he said.

Mr. Torres sells jewelry made from semi-precious stones, arranged in unlocked glass-fronted cabinets along the sides of the store and on either side of the front door. The jewelry sells for $3 to $50.

“When people come in here, they take jewelry mostly,” he said over white noise of soothing music and the faint trickle of a decorative waterfall.

Mr. Torres also sells lush potted plants like lucky bamboo and various ferns, most clustered near the middle of the store, their leafy branches reaching nearly to the ceiling. Another half a dozen potted plants are on the counter he sits behind, blocking his view of most of the store. But he said he doesn’t worry that the setup makes it easy for shoplifters to pull off their mini-heists.

If people are going to steal, he said, “they are going to steal even if you watch them. The real customer doesn’t like being watched.”

Mr. Torres said he adopts a Zen attitude when dealing with shoplifting.

“There is no other way to approach it. Otherwise you get all frustrated, you have to get cameras or pay someone to be watching and you spend probably the same if you bother or don’t bother.”

Angela Saka, 43, store manager at Rainbow at 504 East 14th Street, said she applies a more vigilant attitude when it comes to shoplifting.

“We try to provide good customer service to all the customers, even the shoplifters, watching them frequently,” Ms. Saka said. “But we cannot stop it.”