When I met Miguel for the first time a year ago, he was managing Dollar Variety at 1211 Chestnut, where he said that shoplifting was rampant. I thought of him last week when I heard about the UCLA basketball players who shoplifted designer stuff from high-end stores while on a team trip to China. The sticky-fingered freshmen – LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hall – faced up to a decade in prison until Donald Trump intervened on their behalf last week.
Neither does Miguel.
Each time he caught alleged thieves in the act – which was actually pretty often, given how many surveillance cameras he’d tucked into secret spots around the deep, skinny store — he’d give them a choice: He could call 911, which would probably result in criminal charges and an arrest record that would follow them forever, like a loyal dog.
Or they could let themselves be photographed while holding their stolen merchandise. Miguel would then hang their photos on a “Wall of Shame,” a gaudy collage of ill-lit portraits that crowd the store’s front windows — a warning to customers of the humiliation that awaits those who attempt to filch a floral baby onesie or a set of earbuds.
Many opted for the wall. Including a woman who’d been a friendly regular.
“She broke my heart,” said Miguel, who asked that I not use his last name if I ever wrote about him.
“She bought two dollars of things and left. Then she comes back. She says she dropped something in the back of the store. I see her on the camera. She steals a $10.99 window curtain. I say, ‘Why did you do that?’ She says, ‘I’m in here all the time!’ She thinks I owe her!”
Others would berate him for detaining customers. When Miguel nabbed a shopper for purloining a blow-up mattress, they rallied to the perp’s defense, he said.
“They were like, ‘Why are you giving him a hard time? Look how much you have!’ ”
The mattress man, too, chose the wall over an arrest, joining scads of forlorn-faced customers holding the most depressingly mundane of dollar-store merch: A bag of Sour Patch kids. A jar of Hellman’s. Feminine products. Pickles and room freshener. Nubby work gloves.
Some were accompanied by some rather gleeful come-to-Jesus captions scribbled by Miguel, a self-described devout Christian.
“Sister, you need God in your life. He will set you free,” he wrote beneath a grim-faced woman holding red dish towels.
Under the picture he snapped of a man holding the backpack he’d allegedly stolen for his little boy, Miguel wrote: “Thou shall not steal to send your kids back to school, it’s a curse, not a blessing.”
I wondered if Miguel was enjoying his Wall of Shame just a little too much.
“No!” he said emphatically. “I am teaching them! I help people all the time. They come in here and say they’re hungry, I give them food. I help them think of ways to make money. One man was so glad I didn’t have him arrested, he was crying. I said to him: ‘Let me help you think about ways to start your own business. You don’t have to steal.’ He said no one ever tried to help him before.”
Still, when I checked in with Miguel again, over the summer, he couldn’t say that shoplifting had declined since he erected his wall. Maybe that’s because “shaming” schemes like his don’t really work, says Barbara Staib, spokeswoman for the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention.
“Studies show that the only thing that reduces recidivism among non-professional shoplifters” — as opposed to those who steal for a living, re-selling their booty — “is education and behavioral modification,” says Staib. Her group, which works with court systems and other groups to rehabilitate shoplifters, has the most success helping first-time offenders nip their bad behaviors in the bud.
Although, she admits, “first time” is a relative term. By the time non-professional shoplifters are caught for the first time, she said, they’ve usually gone scot-free 48 times before, their total haul averaging about $1,800.
“Seventy percent said they didn’t go into a store with the intent to shoplift,” says Staib of the one in eleven Americans — about 27 million — who had or currently have “involvement” in shoplifting. They’re busiest when the rest of us are — between Black Friday and Christmas, for example, and on big shopping weekends, like Presidents Day.
“Shoplifting is like any maladaptive or compulsive behavior, it’s something they did without thinking,” she says. “They felt great shame.”
The UCLA players, who fessed up to their China sins at a news conference last week, certainly seemed mortified by their behavior. I wanted to ask Miguel what he made of them, but when I got to Dollar Variety, he was gone.
“He went to Canada,” said the store’s spokesman, Issahk Abdal, who had no further info about Miguel’s whereabouts. Abdal had no comment about UCLA’s wayward hoopsters, either, but he did have an opinion about Miguel’s wall.
“We’re taking it down,” he said. “If we catch anyone shoplifting, we’re calling the police.”