A customer walks into the Dollar Plus Food Store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, takes three sodas from the drink cooler, and carries them to the counter. The 44-year-old store manager at the cash register, Said, gets ready to transact business.
“I don’t want to sell nothing to you,” he tells the man. “Just put it down and leave the store.”
“Can I get a pack of cigarettes?” asks the man.
“No, sir,” Said says. “I want my safety. Just put it there and leave the store.”
The man holds up the sodas. “Put this in a bag for me?”
“No, sir. You know what you do.”
The man’s watery, inflamed eyes spin around for a bit, scanning packs of Newports, a hanging display of incense sticks, a carton of nail polish. Then his gaze swoops down upon stacks of shirts behind the counter. “Know how much these are?” he asks, indicating a black long-sleeved one.
“How much are they?”
“No for you.”
Sensing he’s hit an impasse, the man looks around for help. He isn’t getting any today. “He said you steal,” a woman behind him in line explains. “You make him lose profits. So he’s not going to sell you anything.”
The thief is silent for a minute. He shakes his head: This can’t be happening. After a while, he shuffles out of the store, defeated.
“The worst,” says Said, invoking the Dollar Plus designation for trouble customers. After ringing up the woman who was next in line, Said explains that it takes a lot of hard, criminal work to become “the worst”: a dubious honor shared by maybe 5 percent of his clientele.
Said remembers how this guy became a 5-percenter. He came in to buy a shirt months ago, and when Said turned his back to pick one out, he couldn’t get a straight answer from the guy on his size. “‘One X,’” he said. “‘No, no, no! Three X. No, no, no! Four X.’” The guy never thought to check his tag. When the man left, Said noticed that a box of six watches, a $60 value, was missing.
The man came in again later that day and approached the counter. “He says, ‘Give me T-shirt,’” Said recalls. So Said went to the stacks again. This time, however, after rifling through the cotton for a few seconds, he spun around. The man was emptying a plastic jar of Slim Jims down the collar of his shirt. “He put them…awwwgh!” Said groans in frustration. “I was mad. I jump over [the counter]. I hit him in the stomach. ‘Get out of my face! I don’t want to see you!’” The thief screamed back: “‘You crazy! You crazy!’”
“I don’t know,” says Said. “I thought he was a nice guy.”
Said and his two brothers, Zayed Tasew and an oldest brother who doesn’t wish to be named, placed similar faith in humanity when they opened their Dollar Plus in 2001. (Said also declines to give his full name.) The store, on Pennsylvania just east of Minnesota Avenue SE, squats along with a Chinese restaurant and a lawn-equipment and vacuum servicer in a homey shopping center a block from the Metropolitan Police Department’s 6th District Substation. But as the brothers have found, running the only major variety shop in the area has made them one big-ass crime magnet, police substation be damned. Their obscure Q-tip cousins (Petals, Pride Tips), cut-rate electronics, and baby booties in plastic wrap have manifested some cosmic connection with disorderly conduct, death threats, assaults, armed robberies, and shoplifting, whose flagrancy approaches circus-act proportions.
The troublemakers have a wide distribution. The worst of the worst, the ones who might punch or (knife-)poke one of the brothers, tend to motor away into the hinterlands, never to be seen again. But clots of sticky-fingered children and down-on-their-luck pedestrians live in the area—a cracked-concrete plateau overlooking both the muddy crawl of the Anacostia River and a traffic-choked 295 interchange—and make pilfering the Dollar Plus a part of their weekly schedule.
“Everybody goes there and shoplifts: kids, ladies, grown ladies, old ladies,” says the Slim Jim bandit, standing on the sidewalk outside the store. “I was doing it ’cause I needed the money.”
Tim, as he identifies himself, is a 44-year-old carpenter who lives and works in the neighborhood. He still seems to be in disbelief over having been put out. “It’s a nice store,” Tim says. “Convenient for everybody.”
He breathes in the cold air: “Damn. I needed that shirt.”
The fortification of the Dollar Plus began with the garments. Shirts, for example, used to hang on a round rack about 15 feet away from the counter. “We thought people were buying them like this,” says 38-year-old Zayed, snapping his fingers. But after talking with his fellow workers, he began to realize all was not right: “Did you sell [any] today? No?’”
The shirts went behind the counter, a move in keeping with Zayed’s mantra: “If you display it, then it goes.” They were quickly joined by the more expensive electronics, such as headphones. Then toothpaste and soap moved from the middle of the sprawling shop to shelves near the counter. A huge, convex mirror appeared above these shelves. Tables and cabinets popped up everywhere to channel customers along visible routes.
“They don’t just come and get something,” says Zayed. “They study.” For that reason, a ceiling-mounted TV monitor had to go, because it showed security-camera footage from around the store. People were using the monitor to locate the clerks’ blind spots, and blind spots invite trouble.
Best Check Cash, an independent money-ordering/lotto-purveying company located within the store, once inhabited a blind spot in the main customer area. In September 2003, a huge man in a red hooded shirt slipped around to the business’s door and commenced ramming it with his shoulder. “I was trying to hold on” to the other side of the door with both hands, says the attendant, who declines to give his name. “I was nothing compared to him.” The hulk crashed through the door frame, pointed a handgun at the attendant’s head, and made away with over $6,000. After that, Best Check Cash carved out a new position: behind a wall and two doors. “We were here the whole night” doing the construction, says the attendant.
Has the retail feng shui stymied shoplifters?
Zayed stopped ordering shoes from New York after he found his shoe boxes breeding old, nasty footwear, the new shoes apparently having flown the nest on their own. He recently stopped a woman using her purse and underarms to conceal 40 pairs of socks. Last May, a guy wearing two bandannas (one black, one white) tried to steal five more bandannas (two black, two white, one camouflage). When Said confronted him, the thief pulled a knife, said, “I’ll shoot you,” and, to quote the imperfect grammar of the police report, “slashed the rubber mat on the clerks counter 3 times. [He] then fled outside the store, jumped on a silver color bicycle and head west on Pennsylvania Ave. S.E.”
With five new bandannas for his collection.
What’s worse than having your merchandise ripped off and never seeing it again? There’s always having it stolen and seeing it offered for sale the next week. Last winter, Zayed spotted a man inside the Chinese restaurant next door, hawking scarves, gloves, and a thermos that had gone AWOL from his shelves. The gear still bore the store’s orange price tags. “He was a big guy,” Zayed says, “so I didn’t say anything.”
The Dollar Plus word of the day—every day—is voracity. Apparently, there’s something about the glowing red-and-green sign out front that awakens memories of Christmas and the accompanying itch for presents. Zayed claims he has no idea how much the migration of his merchandise is costing the store, but it’s got to be hurting his bottom line. It was only last year that the proprietors’ family and friends joined the thieves in seeing returns from the operation.
“We are trying to survive,” says Zayed. But when talk of a security guard comes up, he scoffs. “How many times is the security guard protecting your business?” he asks. “Never. You go to CVS, people are still stealing things.”
Instead, the three brothers from Ethiopia’s Gondar Province rely on the power of kin. The oldest brother no longer works inside the store. Said, however, is there every day. A former employee of Logan Circle’s Whole Foods Market, he has quiet, watchful eyes—and the requisite speedy feet to shoot under or over the counter. Zayed is a charming conversationalist with scar tissue on his neck resulting from a recent altercation with a customer. He is usually at the store in the evening. One of his major duties is to patrol the aisles. “I am in constant rotation,” Zayed says, noting that keeping tabs on potential shoplifters demands a special knack for undercover work. People can get confrontational if they sense somebody’s eyeballs boring into their backsides. So what Zayed will sometimes do is trundle behind them with a broom, sweeping up invisible trash.
The brothers are joined by Zayed’s sister Hidra, who operates the register, and friend Jemal, who stands silent and statuesque by the front door: a not-so-discreet human security camera. When business is slow, all the employees rush around to restock items, much in the manner of ants trying to rebuild the hill after a flood. But when it’s busy, each individual worker has his or her antennae unfurled to catch the first tremors of trouble. And when trouble strikes, the entire Dollar Plus staff functions as a single, graceful organism.
One afternoon, an old man, all wrinkles and grizzle, approaches the counter to buy some batteries. Said turns to pull a pack from the wall. When he turns back, the old man is gone. One second he’s standing there, softly asking for triple-As; the next second it’s a woman holding bathroom tissue and disinfectant.
A shout in Amharic comes from somewhere back in the store. Hidra takes over the register for Said, who darts fast to the left. He ducks underneath the counter’s doggy-door aperture and pulls the old man from the box-cluttered stairwell leading to the store’s office.
“He said he wants to go bathroom,” explains Said, returning the man to the counter. The man doesn’t look like a thief—in fact, he just looks confused—but at the Dollar Plus, you can’t take any chances. “Sorry,” says the old-timer. “That wasn’t cool.”
About six months after it opened, the Dollar Plus unveiled a new strategy: Give away stuff.
“If they steal food, we don’t really bother them,” says Zayed. “You can just walk out with it. It’s no problem.”
The brothers kicked off this big-hearted business strategy after Zayed surprised an elderly man attempting to leave with a lifted tin of luncheon meat. “When I caught him the first time, he said, ‘I don’t have anything to eat,’” recalls Zayed. “Since then, I found out people steal because they need that food.”
Luckily, giving away bottled water and snack cakes was in the spirit of zakah, the Third Pillar of Islam, which prescribes allotting money to the poor. Said and Zayed are Muslim; they have an electronic prayer caller who croons from behind the counter to announce as much. “You got to give when you make something,” says Zayed. It helps when the beneficiaries are genuinely needy, of course. But hey, if they’re not, it’s not on the brothers’ shoulders. “[Lying] is not my problem,” Zayed says, “because the more you give, the more blessed [you are]. And it makes you happy. And God always will give you more.”
Such generosity has indeed reaped benefits. “I moved from around the corner [to] around by Bolling Air Force Base,” says David Ward, a 47-year-old drug counselor. Standing outside the store with a plastic bag of instant noodles, he notes that there are “20 stores” closer to his new home, none of which he likes as much as the Dollar Plus. “I still come here just because the way I was treated when I lived around here,” Ward says.
“Frequent times, when I might be short, know what I mean, just say the baby needs some Pampers and I’m short a dollar or two…I can come and say, ‘Said, I need this until I can get a couple more dollars.’ And they allow me to go. Why would I steal?”
But hold on a minute: The giveaway policy is valid only for food and essential provisions (e.g., baby-saving Pampers). The Dollar Plus has drawn a line in the carpet when it comes to other items. “They gonna steal something like, for instance, a light bulb. That is just not acceptable,” says Zayed. “They have to ask for it.
“Food…they might feel bad about [asking for] it,” he says. “If you grab something like shoe polish and you want to walk out with it, I wouldn’t let you. That’s different. You can live without polishing your shoes.”
Not every shoplifter, however, respects the distinction. To counter those rude enough to walk out with unpaid-for polish, the brothers rely on the threat of calling the police. In the ideal scenario, that would be enough to get their merchandise back.
On June 9, 2002, for instance, Said stopped a woman at the door who was showing nonbiological bulges under her T-shirt. He told her he was phoning the cops. The woman pulled out a hidden cargo of air fresheners, hair dye, picture frames, and a 10-inch dustpan. Then she threw it all on the floor and left, according to the police report.
One, two, three. Easy.
Things get more complicated, however, when the brothers actually want somebody arrested. Summoning the cavalry is trickier than it sounds. “I try to be sly and quiet when I make the call,” says Zayed. “They’re watching you.” But it’s hard to be discreet about the dispatcher’s routine list of questions: business name, address, phone number. Suspect age, clothing, current behavior. “They want us to stay on the phone. They want play by play,” says Zayed. “[But] he’s gone already. Nobody’s gonna catch him.”
Then you get the oddballs who actually stick around to wait for the police. This situation never ends well. “So many times I report [to the police] that a person was threatening to kill me…and [the police] show up in three hours,” says Zayed. “And I tell them: ‘I had to deal with the person because I thought you were going to come. You did not show up, so I had to be a bitch for this guy. You know what I’m saying? ‘I’m sorry. I apologize….Just take anything. Don’t do anything stupid.’”
After a few of these embarrassments, the brothers began a different strategy: One of them would sneak away to the police substation, a 30-second jog southeast. They figured they could spare the lost calories in exchange for prompter service. But the tactic proved just as effective as calling from the store. In fact, that’s what the desk officers told Zayed to do. “Every time something happened, I started walking up the street,” he says. “When I went up there, they told me to use the phone.”
“The shopping center always has problems…all kinds of problems,” says the officer behind the substation’s front desk on a recent November afternoon. He explains the walk-in policy while a group of fellow officers run out the door to assist an undercover cop who had a gun pointed at him. “We can’t just hang a sign on the door saying, ‘Be right back.’ When we call for a unit, we have to go through the same procedures: dialing 311 or 911, whichever is appropriate.”
That left the fight solidly in the Dollar Plus theater, which has continued to wage a grueling, sometimes bloody campaign against shopping gone amok.
Whenever somebody makes a play for a nonnecessity, a brother is morally obligated to jump into the fray. Said and Zayed pursue this duty with tremendous passion, almost as if they were competing for the Steeliest Balls Award. In March, a man held a knife to Said’s waist while his accomplice loaded a backpack with boxers, pantyhose, socks, and soap. Before leaving, one of the thieves punched Said in the nose. Rather than wilting, Said, dripping blood, chased them into the parking lot and tried to retake the bag. Unfortunately, the other thief punched him in the nose again and they escaped, according to a police report.
On another occasion, Zayed followed a man who had stuffed his waistline with a spare tire of stolen merchandise, only to be surprised outside the store by the thief’s friend. The two struggled violently, but Zayed broke loose, tracked down his man, and liposuctioned the goods from his body.
“I’m concerned for them. It doesn’t make sense,” says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation. Butler says he’s never heard of such a deal: The general rule, he says, is you don’t negotiate with shoplifters.
“It sounds like, to me, it’s encouraging [the thievery],” he says, suggesting an alternative strategy: “What they should do is have a community outlet, a donating program….Big retail operations who donate have processes and procedures to do that. They don’t hand out stuff.”
It’s a few days before Halloween, and all’s okey-dokey at the Dollar Plus.
People getting off from work drop by to pick up their $3.40 cigarettes, their $8.99 steering-wheel locks, their four-for-a-dollar, just-add-water soup. Other folks seem surprised to be here. They come in with puzzlement written on their faces, as if they had followed an urge to hit up the dollar store and now don’t know what to do. “What I want?” wonders one man, turning in circles. “What I want, what I want…”
A blimp of a child has tethered himself to the glass case protecting movies. “Saw that. Saw that. Saw that. Gonna see that. Saw White Chicks.” He looks up. “Is that the bootleg version” of Dawn of the Dead? Nope: genuine item. “I’m gonna come back and get that.” Two women in line are comparing purchases. “Are those candleholders?” one asks. “Yes, they are. I already bought 15 of them. It’s for a prayer weekend.” There’s a period of silent appreciation. Then the first says, “I’m a candle fanatic….I got, like, 26 auburns.”
This is what the brothers were hoping for back when they opened: a friendly ol’ corner store. But it took them a while before they could enjoy peaceful, profitable days like this. At first, things were so slow that Zayed, with no work on his hands, banded with some business partners and opened another Dollar Plus on Benning Road NE.
“Most dollar stores that operate in low-income areas, they do fine,” says Maruye Ayalew, a 53-year-old partner at the Benning Road store. People receive food stamps and other subsidies, Ayalew says, and there’s pressure to spend the monthly allotment before the next month rolls around. That’s where the dollar store comes in. “With little money you can shop a lot, which you can’t do in bigger department stores.”
Zayed spends his time shuttling between the two stores. Despite its tribulations, he prefers hanging out at the one on Pennsylvania Avenue. Benning Heights gives him the willies. “That store is really very serious business,” he says. “People don’t want to be bothered….They want to come, they want to pay and leave—‘You got a problem with that?’”
Here, the brothers can hobnob with their 95 percent decent people. They do it with glee, hollering, “Hey, honey!” to the women, amusing disgruntled men with a casual “You look like Bush,” and playing practical jokes. Today, Said has a woman riding his ass because he informed her girlfriend (erroneously) that he’d seen her smooching another girl. “That’s why I haven’t had sex in like a month,” the woman complains.
All the bonhomie sloshing around inside the Dollar Plus owes something to its crime-ridden history. Years of thievery, threats, and instances when workers substituted for punching bags has encouraged a strange, intense extroversion in an enterprise that’s fighting for neighborhood respect. That the proprietors, with their accented, article-dropping English, are distinctly foreign persons only encourages their outgoingness.
“Black people is supporting for black people,” says Said. “If you’re a foreigner…[even] a black foreigner, nobody likes you.”
So with each new assault, the brothers get bolder in their public-relations campaign. They have yet to slap up plexiglass walls, as many retailers who expect to see the wrong side of a gun or knife have done. You will never catch them flinching when a loudmouthed ruffian walks through the door and starts beefing. “If you’re scared,” says Zayed, “people will stomp on you.”
Retail operators often like to swap stories of their most annoying customers. In the Dollar Plus world, such chats take the tone of war vets comparing near-frags.
Sure, there are the minor gripes. Counterfeit bills are a never-ending problem. Said tests them with a special pen and holds them up to the fluorescent ceiling lights to expose the lack of watermarks or security strips. Sometimes the shoppers take the bogus bills back; sometimes they demand redemption. “The attitude…[is] you are the one who is the guilty person here,” says Zayed. “You mark it: It’s black. Even though you see the truth right there, people justify that it’s real money, you got to take it.”
There are the insults, “Go back to your country” and “I’m calling the INS” being the most common. And then there are the threats. Felony threats, as the police call them.
In late October, a tall, skinny man accosted Hidra over what he claimed was $13 in missing change. He waved his hands toward the counter and predicted, loudly, “There won’t be any more dollar store!” “[He said,] ‘I’m going to come and shut it down,’” says Zayed, and presumably not through code violations. Needless to say, the man got his money. Later, a security video showed him sticking the missing change in his back pocket. On May 1, another angry customer was more specific on how the Dollar Plus would meet its demise. He wanted a refund on two Panasonic 9-volt batteries, and when he couldn’t get it, he “became enraged and stated he would be back to burn the store and the reporting person down to the ground,” according to the police report.
Having your life or property threatened every week seems to be a requirement of doing business in the area. So you can’t blame Anthony, a manager at Scott’s Beauty Center a block up from the Dollar Plus, for sounding a little jaded when it comes to the intimidation.
“They say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna kill you for this, I’m gonna kill you for that,’” says Anthony. “They think it’s a big deal.” But the words have simply lost their force. “You can’t worry about dying,” he says. In Anthony’s view, it’s the thieves in his store who should get worried—he twice shot robbers while running a beauty-supply shop in Baltimore. “You think I pay attention to little kids running around and saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you for this’?”
But there is no sawed-off behind the Dollar Plus counter, no Louisville Slugger resting against the back of the DVD-display case. “You go to jail,” says Said. Without armament or police intervention, it’s blades and flying lead vs. the soft flesh of Said, Zayed, and kin. To its credit, the crew has performed admirably in an unfair battle. It’s rare that things get as bad as they did on June 7.
The trouble that day began when a heavyset woman and a middle-aged man dressed all in white came into the store. Said accused them of shoplifting. They left, but later returned for a backpack they’d forgotten. Said wouldn’t give it to them. Zayed slipped out to notify the substation of the dispute. The customers followed and ambushed him on the sidewalk, the woman grabbing and pinning his arms while the man pulled a pocketknife and went to town.
What made it an excruciating experience, says Zayed, was not the slashes to his face or the still-visible puncture wound in his neck. It was that he could see a group of policemen standing outside the substation door. It was a clear day and he was screaming, so he thinks they noticed him, too. But the attack ended only when a Dollar Plus regular broke the woman’s restraining grip, and he says he got an ambulance only because one happened to be passing by. The worst people to date walked across Pennsylvania Avenue and disappeared.
A subsequent police report backs up Zayed’s account of the violence of the ambush. The ambulance driver and Good Samaritan customer, however, could not be located by press time to confirm the cops’ voyeurism.
Now Zayed and Said see worst people everywhere. “The worst, the worst, the worst,” moans Said on a November evening, staring at an angelic-looking boy in an ankle-length shirt dawdling by the ice-cream freezer. The child can’t be over 6 years old. “If he see me, he’s coming here to attack me,” says Said.
“I scratch his face up,” murmurs the tot.
It’s pouring down oil drums of frigid rain. Zayed stands outside the doorway of his Benning Road Dollar Plus, hugging his sides and staring at passing traffic.
Earlier today, John, a regular customer, borrowed the Ford Explorer that he and Said use to drive to their homes in Hyattsville, Md. John said he needed to pick his daughter up from school. That was a long time ago. “Sometimes it’s tough, man,” says Zayed. “They don’t want me to give it to anybody, my partners.” But on the other hand: “I don’t want my daughter walking in the rain.”
This isn’t the first time somebody’s made off with the truck. Another man once used it to go to Home Depot. He said he’d be “a minute,” which turned out to mean three days. The man left the keys in the store with the explanation that he’d been sick.
“Now this guy, I don’t know where he went to,” frets Zayed. “And he’s gonna tell you, probably, ‘Oh, the traffic,’ or I don’t know….I don’t even know where he lives at. I don’t even know his phone number, man. It’s making me distracted right now.”
Zayed got into the dollar-store business after going belly-up as a stock trader in the 2000 dot-not disaster. He says he found the same sort of enjoyable challenges in bargain-rate retail that he did in swapping stocks, though they came in different forms. First, there was the demucking of the Pennsylvania Avenue location, a deserted CVS outpost buried in mud and mold from a burst pipe. Then he and the brothers had to go to West Virginia to obtain affordable shelving. And once the store was shipshape, there was the daunting task of stocking it. They went for everything: Sept. 11 commemorative flip-flops, dog toys shaped like bowls of spaghetti, video slot machines (no cash payout—sorry), glittering, preframed Jesuses resurrected by the Pride Products Corp. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
Whatever they got, they always needed more. Hunting and gathering was the best part of his day, says Zayed. “You have to really fulfill people’s interests,” he says. “[If] I don’t have it—I hate that.” He used to travel in a rented truck to New York to pick up one or two special items his customers had expressed an interest in. “I drive [at] 3 o’clock in the morning….I’ll be there, like, 7:30 in the morning, and I’ll be right back” to return the truck at night.
The reason his own truck is now missing, he muses, is also tied to his desire to satisfy “people’s interests.”
“Part of why I lent my truck was that we’re trying to fit in,” he says. “We want to fit into the community.” But it’s evidently going to be a while before he and his brothers can fit in and still stay in business. Just two weeks ago, Said says, he was accosted as he led a young shoplifter (spray confetti, toy gun) by the arm to the substation. “All the block, the neighborhood is coming. [They] want to fight with me,” says Said, mimicking their cries: “‘Motherfucker.’ ‘Bitch.’ ‘Why you touch him? You don’t have to touch him.’”
At the substation, he says, a police officer suggested she should arrest them both, because he wasn’t supposed to touch the kid.
A woman pops out of the store to exclaim, “Sir! Can I get a ‘Happy Birthday’ balloon from you?” Zayed shakes his attention away from the road to reply, “We don’t have any helium,” causing the woman to retreat back inside mumbling, “Every time I need something from you…” Zayed is delighted. “They come to me. They don’t trust the others,” he chuckles. “They have to make sure that everything is, like—when you say you don’t have it, they got to come to me.”
Zayed envisions a grand future for the Dollar Plus on Pennsylvania. “We’re trying to do a lot of things,” he says. “It’s going to be a dollar store, but it’s going to be more attractive for youngsters, young people.” There will be higher-class merchandise and groceries, “like frozen foods, salad, health foods,” he guesses. “I will have the coffee shop inside.”
That night, John returns the brothers’ truck. It has a V-shaped dent in the front, the indentation you might expect coming from a gentle nudge of a locomotive’s cowcatcher. In reality, John only hit two cars. He doesn’t offer to pay for the damages.
Zayed shrugs it off: “That’s life.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.