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The prospect of spending 12-hour days behind bullet-resistant glass never much appealed to Amare Lucas. When he opened Best-In Liquors on P Street NW in 1987, Lucas decided he would take a pass on the popular security barriers, even as other business owners around 14th Street were reluctantly installing them in the late ’80s to discourage armed robberies.
For Lucas, there was too much to lose by erecting the thick plastic barrier around his cashier’s counter: valuable breathing room; control over his inventory; any lingering aesthetic charm in his gritty shop; and, perhaps most important, the ability to chat, laugh, and shake hands with the regulars who came in each day for their Wild Irish Rose and Mad Dog 20/20. Lucas placed a premium on human contact. He could sacrifice the sense of security.
“For the first three or four years,” he says, “I dared to do it without glass.”
Lucas’ defiance finally wavered under a terrifying show of force. One day in the early ’90s, two men entered his shop wearing black masks, one with a handgun, the other with what looked to be a submachine gun. The former made a point of loading his gun in Lucas’ face to prove his will. Lucas gave them all the money he had, then started re-evaluating his theory on customer comfort and the drawbacks of protective barriers.
He settled on what shop owners commonly refer to as “the cage,” a design in which only the cashier’s personal space is enclosed by bullet-resistant glass, leaving nearly all his product beyond his own reach. The three glass walls reached about 11 feet into the air—still short of the ceiling, but high enough so that only a pole vaulter could get to Lucas and his register. His relationship with customers transformed immediately. It was difficult, if not impossible, to hold conversations through the glass. There was now an air of mistrust and sometimes hostility in the store, and Lucas says he could see the discomfort in his shoppers. Work, as he describes it, was a safe kind of misery.
“Even though it’s self-imposed, people don’t understand: I was a prisoner,” says the garrulous Lucas. “I didn’t like it all along…. Some customers, when they see you inside the cage, they feel very uncomfortable. Some of them really get angry. It’s not by choice [for me]; it’s out of fear. It is the possibility of life endangerment.”
Lucas endured over a 10-year term behind the walls, waiting patiently for the crime to drop to a reasonable level and for developers to make over the 14th Street corridor. Or, perhaps, for a Whole Foods Market to open up just two doors down. That’s precisely what happened in late 2000. Lucas figured the young professionals shopping for bel paese cheese at the upscale grocer would be too turned off by his glass cage and steel bars to buy their pinot noir at his shop. He decided to toss out the security measures and go upscale.
Carol Felix, the retail designer who led Best-In’s remodeling, noticed that her client had developed a peculiar bond with his protective glass. “We took it out in sections just so he wouldn’t feel too uncomfortable,” says Felix. “He really was reluctant to part with it—it was his security blanket.” (Lucas says the piecemeal removal of his glass had more to do with the construction schedule than any reservations he may have had about taking it down.)
After he finished his six months of renovations, Lucas, 54, was manning a shop with fresh wood shelving, newly painted maroon and lime walls, an open-air counter with a copper top, and a stock of fine wines and liquors. With the new accouterments also came a small bit of celebrity within the local business community. Alex Padro, a Shaw resident and voice for commercial revitalization, refers to Lucas as “the pioneer” in liquor- and convenience-store disarmament.
Not everyone, however, can expect a gourmet market to move in next door. On the grittier blocks to the east of Best-In Liquors, the majority of workers inside convenience stores, liquor stores, and carryout restaurants still find themselves barricaded behind security glass born out of the 1968 riots, even as home prices have skyrocketed and violent crime has fallen off. Some store owners installed it years ago after harrowing experiences; others inherited it from previous owners and have known no other way of business. In gentrifying pockets such as Shaw and Petworth and the H Street NE corridor, shop owners now face a dilemma with their security glass: Ditch it to court yuppies and armed robbers, or maintain their low-risk but cramped existence?
At least for now, the degradation seems to be worth it. In D.C., plexiglass will be the last relic of riot architecture to go.
The security glass inside D.C. shops is usually referred to as “bulletproof,” though this is actually a misnomer. The more common material, which is about an inch and a quarter of mostly plastic, is merely “bullet-resistant”; specifically, it can resist about three slugs of 9 mm full metal jacket before it will give way.
Any glass sturdier than that—such as the kind designed to fend off .44s and .357 Magnums—is reserved for shop owners with unique anxieties. “Maybe you’ve got a guy worrying about his wife working in the store, so he might spring for it,” says Jim Beinert, who installs such glass through his Maryland-based company, Waldorf Glass. “They’ll say, ‘I wanna stop a big gun.’ You say, ‘How big?’ Then you go from there.”
Or, if it’s not guns that stir fear in a clerk’s heart, there are also store fixtures tested to withstand minutes of steady attack from a 2-pound claw hammer, a 3-foot reinforcing bar, or a propane burner.
Shop owners didn’t always feel the need for such fortified barriers. Like those in other eastern cities like New York and Baltimore, D.C.’s shopkeepers initially reached for a more modest glass shortly after the ’68 riots, when the clerk-customer trust was pretty much shattered. Wayne Bills, who spent decades behind the counter in a Logan Circle liquor store, remembers first spotting security glass inside a competitor’s shop at 12th and N Streets NW in around 1970. “They put it up after the riots, after they got robbed a bunch of times,” recalls Bills, who now works at a liquor store near Gallaudet University, sans glass. “We never had it. But of course, we got robbed a few times.”
What Bills saw inside the shop at 12th and N was probably what’s known as “riot glass,” a relatively meager slab (about 5/16 of an inch) designed to keep out the masses but not necessarily the bullets. Riot glass popped up in District shops throughout the ’70s, when owners hoped to put some space between their customers and their inventory. But it was the rip-and-run crack days of the ’80s and early ’90s that had D.C. clerks hunkering down behind ballistics-tested glass and passing soda cans through “bullet-resistant rotary package passers.”
Like other shopkeepers in his neighborhood, Clarence Kearney decided to invest in the glass around 1990, nearly two decades after he first opened Kearney’s Market, a beer-and-grocery joint at the corner of 1st and O Streets NW. He’d resisted it for years for financial reasons—today the glass goes for about $200 a square foot; even back then, a typical setup could run into the thousands of dollars after installation—but Kearney had a change of heart, understandably, when a masked thief put a gun to the head of his 12-year-old daughter. “Other people around there started putting it up around the same time I did,” says Kearney, who sold his shop just two years after the installation. (The buyers still operate the store under the name Kearney’s Market, and they still sell tallboys from behind the same glass.) “During the time, drugs were really taking a toll. The glass made you feel more secure.”
Nowadays, you can’t buy a stick of gum in the shops in Kearney’s neighborhood unless you pass your change through security glass. And yet for a product so entrenched in D.C., bullet-resistant glass doesn’t carry much in the way of legend. Apparently, there is no epic tale that gets passed from one anxious shop owner to another, recounting a glorious, long-ago day when the plexiglass managed to stop a spate of bullets dead in their tracks. That’s not to say it isn’t capable. Years ago curiosity got the best of Beinert, and, “like an idiot,” he admits, he and a friend tested an inch of plexiglass behind his old shop. His pal hid behind a doorway and fired a .38. The bullet ricocheted off the glass and through an oil barrel. Beinert gives fair warning to the hood who would fire at close range in a plexiglassed C-store: “I can tell you this: If you’re dumb enough to shoot it, you’re probably dead.”
Rosemary J. Erickson, a criminal sociologist and security consultant, has studied the impact of bullet-resistant glass as a deterrent and finds it to be negligible. Erickson’s team asked more than 300 convicted stickup men to prioritize a list of 14 possible deterrents. Plexiglass was only the eighth most powerful, falling well behind such concerns as the escape route and active police patrols. “One reason it doesn’t affect them is they know people [will] give up the money anyway,” says Erickson. “The other thing they know is they can just wait for [the clerk] to come out.”
Erickson’s studies, however authoritative, don’t necessarily speak to your average liquor-store owner. Says Beletesh Ogbe, who runs Serv-U-Liquors on 9th Street NW, “To remove the glass completely—that’s not safe. Not with the customers we have.”
The shop owners along 7th and 9th Streets NW talk about the day they’ll remove their security glass the same way smokers talk about someday kicking the habit: in hopeful yet vaguely self-deluding tones—and with nothing in the way of a timeline.
“If the area changes to a point where we don’t need it, and it’s a safe neighborhood and block, then yes, we’ll take it down,” says Keyur Talati, owner of Joe Caplan Liquors on 7th Street.
“It’s not a good area, it’s not a bad area. I do want the glass down—when we get more walk-in traffic around here,” says Alfie Alloway, the new owner of Beverages Etc. on 9th Street.
“I never thought about taking it down,” says the owner of a liquor store at 9th and P Streets NW.
Those who dream most often of dismantling our commercial barriers tend not to be the people toiling behind them. Instead, they’re the very neighborhood residents who refuse to patronize plexi-shops because of the perceived indignity. As newer, more monied residents hope to have commercial strips such as Florida Avenue and H Street NE rebuilt to Jane Jacobs specifications, the presence of plexiglass has become one of the more common redevelopment gripes aired at civic meetings and on online message boards. Nothing galvanizes the revitalization troops like the prospect of yet another plexiglass-decked fried-chicken shack occupying a building where a perfectly good coffee shop could go.
“You feel like it belongs on the West Bank, as opposed to H Street,” says Joe Fengler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Stanton Park. “The challenge with the plexiglass is that it takes away the human interaction between the proprietor and the customer. In our community, that interaction is not only welcome but almost required now.” So strong is the dislike for security glass among some H Streeters that Fengler says his commission would probably be willing to strong-arm a new restaurant or shop owner out of his plexiglass if it had the authority.
Why such hostility toward an inch and a half of plastic? Even steel roll-down gates, another commercial eyesore spawned by the riots, surely have their fans who find in them a certain urban-romantic charm. Not so the plexiglass. It’s too demoralizing a feature, too overwhelming an affront, for even the gentrification haters to fuss when someone like Lucas decides to take it down. The plexiglass may someday disappear entirely—probably when Chinese carryouts and mom-and-pop C-stores themselves are no longer viable near downtown—and when it does, there will be about as much nostalgia for it as for the 400-plus-yearly homicide counts the city once generated.
Before the glass comes down in such neighborhoods as Shaw and Petworth, there will have to be a changing of the guard in our liquor stores and bodegas: from the old hats, who still bear a collective anxiety from the wild days, to a younger, more entrepreneurial class willing to disarm and seize the opportunity to serve yuppies. This generational rift is plain to anyone who buys his beer at the Fleming family’s Modern Liquors on 9th Street NW.
After buying their shop in 1968, Edward and Anna Fleming would endure three decades of relentless armed holdups. All the while, they resisted bullet-resistant glass. After they moved the shop out of its original building and into a new space across the street in 1983, Edward and Anna were held up 15 times, by Anna’s count, over a three-year period. One time a masked thief dragged Anna at gunpoint into a back room and threw her on the ground before relieving her of the cash in the register. Another time she was locked inside her own cold box during a robbery.
“They put a gun to my head so many times that my blood pressure—well, it’s still high,” says Anna, now in her 60s and still manning the register most days. “And nobody in my family has high blood pressure….As I tell you this, you can see my hands are shaking.”
Anna wanted the glass installed, but her husband was stubborn in his disdain for it. “‘OK, sweetie, maybe next year,’” laughs Anna, recalling how Edward would dodge the entreaties she made. “He was always saying, ‘Just gimme another year [without the glass].’”
Edward enjoyed giving counsel to the younger guys on the block, so much so that locals called him the mayor of the neighborhood—a title that would have been difficult to retain if he had been housed in a glass cage all day. “Eddie’s philosophy was that he didn’t want to become a prisoner in his own store,” says Jeff Harrison, 41, who now co-owns the shop with Anna. “But of course, being wounded tends to change one’s perspective.”
In 1995, Edward was shot in the leg during a stickup gone bad. Once he recuperated, he started looking into plexiglass. A cop friend of the family installed it for free as a favor. Customers would walk into a small vestibule, place their order through the glass, and Edward and Anna would go fetch. Customers had no access to the food and drink because of a locked steel door.
For Edward, the whole thing was a kind of defeat, a war of attrition he’d finally lost. “He never felt comfortable [behind the glass],” says Anna. “He kept saying, ‘I feel like I’m in jail.’”
Edward died in late 2003 of bone cancer, at 72. For the last year of his life, the Flemings opened up the steel door for customers so they could pick out their own bottles, talk with Edward, and make transactions on the open side of the counter. More befitting a shop that looks out at the new convention center, Harrison has also brought in a range of upscale liquors, wines, and cigars. They host monthly wine tastings at the store. They have a Web site.
Although Harrison would like to see it go soon enough, the security glass still stands along one side of the counter; he and Anna reserve the right to lock the door and force customers to deal through the glass whenever they get a weird vibe at night.
“We should’ve put the glass up a long time ago,” says Anna.
Asefa Tekalign inherited more than 50 square feet of glass when he opened his liquor store, at the corner of Florida Avenue and 6th Street NW, in 1996. The uninterrupted shield, which runs about the length of a stretch limousine, came with a pair of package carousels and two patches of unevenly spaced holes. These pores, each smaller than a dime, were presumably drilled to facilitate conversation through the glass. They easily could be mistaken for breathing holes.
Since taking over the store, Tekalign has spent about 13 hours a day, six days a week, locked alone behind the glass fetching bottles of low-grade fortified wine and half-pints of vodka for a small group of regulars who shout their orders to the man they’ve known only as “Shorty” for the last decade. A native of Ethiopia, Tekalign has no immediate plans to remove his glass. There are simply too many reasons not to.
For one thing, plexiglass is a valuable store fixture. For a lot of shopkeepers like Tekalign, who have only short-term leases, uprooting a protective barrier is akin to tossing out a perfectly good freezer that conveyed with the shop; profit margins on soda and cheap liquor are thin enough as it is. Besides, he considers the glass his last line of defense. A few weeks ago, when a suspicious customer walked in with one hand behind his back, Tekalign, who was outside of his cage, had to scramble behind his glass, lock the door, and dial 911. The customer simply turned around and walked out.
Even though he’s never had a gun shoved in his face, Tekalign seems to have grown so accustomed to his cage that he has a hard time imagining proprietorship any other way. When asked if he’d ever be willing to remove the glass, he quickly responds, “I’d get robbed.” When asked if he’d be willing to do so a few years down the road, provided the crime and grit had shuffled along from the neighborhood, he thinks deeply about it for a moment and then concludes, “I’d get robbed.”
Part of Tekalign’s trouble is that he already gets robbed, albeit not violently and not for cash. A flank of refrigerators and a rack of chips sit on the customer’s side of the barrier, ripe for the thief’s plucking. Local winos help themselves to 40s and tallboys. Sometimes they’ll work in tandem, one trying to distract Tekalign as the other stuffs his pants; sometimes they’ll work solo, unabashed and heedless of the owner’s shouts through the glass. He tells them never to come back. They always do, sometimes with the money they owe him, usually without it.
A typical exchange unfolds on a recent Thursday afternoon, when a 20-something regular in a Giants cap snatches a 50-cent bag of Utz chips off the rack and makes his way toward the door.
“Hey, Shorty, spot me a quarter,” he barks, flinging 25 cents into the carousel.
“No, it’s 50 cents,” says Tekalign.
“I’ll get you back.”
Tekalign laughs cynically. “All the time,” he says. “I lose money on that bag of chips.”
The customer returns a moment later but not with the outstanding quarter. Quite the contrary: He shouts through the glass that he wants a refund on his half-price, now half-eaten bag of chips. “This bag was already open,” he testifies.
“How I know you didn’t open it outside?” Tekalign shouts back, now sucked into an unwinnable game.
The guy pulls a chip out of the bag, sniffs it with feigned suspicion, then chomps on it. “You didn’t see me open it, did you?”
For Tekalign, the protection of the glass is worth tolerating the endless succession of miscommunications that it causes. In stores such as his, where the main inventory is behind glass, the clerk performs like a caged servant, shuffling off after liquor and candy at the customer’s bidding, and he’s inevitably treated as such. Come back with the wrong item or confound the customer about the price—“50 cents” can sound a hell of a lot like “60 cents”—and you’re greeted with a shout and an exasperated shrug, as if you must be the dumbest register jockey ever to man a store. It’s hard to fault the customers for their unveiled hostility; it stems from the indignity of being allowed to look but not to touch, of being a presumed threat.
“It’s despicable,” seethes Larry Clemons as he carries his groceries out of the B&M Market, at the corner of New York and New Jersey Avenues NW, one afternoon. Clemons has lived on the unit block of New York Avenue for most of his life, and he says he hasn’t been able to pick out his own groceries in this neighborhood for the last 15 years or so. His dreadlocks swing as he shakes his head. “Back then,” he says of the pre-plexiglass days, “you could walk into a liquor store and shake a man’s hand. Now you gotta yell at ’em, and they bring you all the wrong shit. ‘I want a can of Pepsi and a stick of margarine.’ Then they walk around and bring you something else. They look at me like I’m stupid! It’s like them Verizon ads: Can you hear me now, motherfucker?” (After serving Clemons, B&M owner Brenda Keys is asked how she likes making transactions through glass. “I hate it back here!” she shouts. “But I have no choice!” She declines to comment beyond that.)
The glass doesn’t instill much in the way of respect from customers, as Tekalign knows. One morning, a woman balancing herself with an aluminum cane hobbles to his window with a can of Pepsi she pulled from his fridge.
“Y’all got money orders?” she asks.
“No money orders,” Tekalign bellows back, apologetically.
The woman traipses back toward the door, leaving the can of cold soda on the counter. Tekalign stares down at it for a moment—it would be easily within reach, if not for the glass—then he shakes his head. He makes his way down his narrow corridor, unlocks the two deadbolts to his plexiglass door, and limps after the 60-cent can, which he returns to the refrigerator.
After Amare Lucas renovated Best-In Liquors, the shop was unrecognizable to anyone who’d walked into the place before. While the clerk himself was getting used to life without a glass enclosure, his customers were getting used to a shop with not only new products and fixtures but also an entirely new character. Gone were the single 24-ounce Buds and fresh cups of ice, and gone were the nickel-and-dime alcoholics who’d always sought them. Now customers were more likely to find a top-flight Riesling or special reserve scotch on the shelves.
In a testament to just how much more at ease Lucas was in his refashioned, open-air store, he started pumping jazz into the shop through a new stereo system.
“Some people called it discrimination,” Lucas says of the renovations and changes in inventory, “but what am I going to do?” He was just obeying market forces, he says; after more than a decade in the cage, a man is due some breathing room and maybe even a larger profit margin. Business, he insists, has improved, thanks to a brand-new yuppie clientele. He’s even roped in a few longtime residents who’d always avoided the shop. “Some told me they had been in the neighborhood for 15 years, kind of passing the store by because of the glass,” he says. “They’re in my store now. It really gives you a satisfaction.”
Even with this new walk-in traffic, Lucas’ now-more-vulnerable shop was to suffer a few setbacks in the security department. In the fall and winter months of 2003, Lucas started having regular encounters with a small posse of teenagers who made a habit of helping themselves to $37 bottles of Rémy and $57 bottles of Hennessy, which they loaded into their puffy jackets and hauled off unapologetically. He endured at least five such episodes, one of which spilled out onto the sidewalk in a nerve-wracking confrontation. He grew accustomed to hourlong waits for the police department, which considers such thefts low-priority.
And not long before his standoffs with the kids, Lucas’ renovated shop had been robbed twice after hours. Each time burglars came in through the front door—one time prying the glass door open with a crowbar, the other time smashing through it with a hammer. In both cases, the thieves made off with a trove of liquor. That kind of smash-and-grab operation wouldn’t have happened to his old store, which was protected at night with steel bars.
Since the remodeling, Lucas says, no fewer than 10 other proprietors have walked into his shop to ask him how he did it, how much it cost, and whether his work life and bottom line are really that much better without the glass. (Among them was Jeff Harrison of Modern Liquors.) He always encourages them to make the switch. After the robberies, some friends and customers suggested he re-install some steel bars. Lucas told them he wasn’t turning back. “It doesn’t mean there is no crime,” he says, “but you have to at least show some kind of confidence in the neighborhood.”
And Lucas’ confidence hasn’t waned. Asked if he’s ever felt a moment of such unease in his post-plexiglass days that he yearned for his old barrier, Lucas thinks on it for a second. “I’ve never wished for it to be back at all,” he says.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.