NEW YORK — After 25 years in business as an independent jewelry designer, Melissa Joy Manning never envisioned that in-store crime would become such a constant concern.
As retail theft is increasingly weighing on many retailers nationwide, the independent jewelry designer’s Cobble Hill store in Brooklyn was robbed Tuesday afternoon for the second time in six weeks. There was $200,000 worth of jewelry stolen in the first one and $50,000 worth of goods stolen this week. Earlier this year Manning shifted all of the company’s operations to New York, due partially to an overnight theft in her Berkeley, California, store and studio, and the rash of robberies there.
Given that, a restructuring was already underway when Manning’s store at 196 Court Street was struck twice. “Everything we have lost fiscally and mentally is incredibly challenging. Catastrophic is the word I would use,” she said Thursday.
There have been at least 12 jewelry stores thefts this year, according to the New York Police Department, which is seeking the public’s help in identifying the suspects for those crimes. The male suspect in Tuesday’s heist in the Cobble Hill store is believed to be the same person who was responsible for last month’s crime, Manning said. The same store employee, who had been held up at knifepoint last month there, was threatened again during Tuesday’s robbery, she said.
The individual could be responsible for at least seven jewelry store thefts in New York City this year based on what investigators told her. The suspect returned to the Cobble Street store at the same time as last month’s robbery in the midafternoon, when local NYPD patrolmen have a shift changeover, and the amount of police presence on Court Street is limited, according to Manning.
“We did everything that we were told to do. We posted the policy that you have to remove your mask to be photographed before you come into the store. We have a buzzed entry. We upgraded cameras and [security] systems. We went to having two employees in the stores,” Manning said. “We’ve invested so much money in systems and staffing to try to keep ourselves safe, but it is such a false sense of security.”
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After the first robbery in Manning’s Brooklyn store, the Council of Fashion Designers of America flagged that incident and the recent upswing in robberies “and dangerous assaults” in independent jewelry stores in its newsletter to help raise awareness about the problem. The crime spike also prompted the Atlantic Avenue Business Improvement District’s executive director Kelly Carroll to arrange for a NYPD detective to visit area stores to evaluate their security systems and advise owners about improvements. Manning’s Cobble Hill store was among the stops on their safety tour.
Organized retail theft and shoplifting became more of a concern for many big-box, department and specialty stores during the pandemic. There were 63,000-plus shoplifting complaints filed in New York City last year — a 45 percent increase compared to 2021, based on NYPD figures. While that presents its own set of challenges, robberies, including a few that involved threats of bodily harm, have ratcheted up concerns.
This week the robber used an unmasked female decoy, who rang the bell. After she was let in, he pushed in behind her, Manning said. “He actually said [to the same store employee whom he had threatened previously], ‘Hey, I’m back. I don’t know if you remember me,’” Manning said.
After one of two employees pressed a panic button, the suspect allegedly “started freaking out and said he was going to kill them. He was in and out within a minute. He emptied an entire 6-foot case again — 22 to 34 necklaces, handfuls of rings, bracelets and earrings.”
The Court Street store was closed immediately after Tuesday’s theft and that Cobble Hill location, as well as the company’s Dumbo one, were shuttered Wednesday to give the unsettled employees a mental health day. The Dumbo store reopened Thursday and the Court Street one will reopen Friday.
Noting how the suspect wore a neon green tracksuit, Manning was dismayed by his brazenness. “He was flaunting any kind of authority, feeling so free to do it.”
Last year commercial robberies — crimes that occur when businesses are open, employees are present and force or intimidation are involved — in New York City reached 2,237, nearly a 65 percent hike compared to the annual total for 2021, according to the NYPD. To try to draw attention to the recent uptick in crime, New York City Mayor Eric Adams appeared at a safety event on March 4 at Diamonds by Direct, the Queens store, where thieves stole $1 million worth of jewelry and pistol-whipped a 79-year-old female employee. NYPD have subsequently increased patrols in Queens.
Planning to have in-store security guards by this weekend, Manning said, “It’s relatively catastrophic for a business of my size. Beside the investments in security systems, additional staffing and now security services, there is the loss of inventory that you only get reimbursed for at cost prices after an insurance deductible. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost profits and opportunities, as well as stock that we made and I can’t make again. On top of that, all of the costs of doing business have just soared. I’m having a really hard time seeing the path forward.”
An overnight theft in Manning’s former studio and store in Berkeley last September was part of the impetus for her decision to move all operations to New York earlier this year. The fact that the company has been robbed in broad daylight, when children are out on the streets after school in a “super-affluent neighborhood felt terrifying and disheartening. At this point, I just feel really empty. We’ve been doing everything we could to come back with our heads held high. We thought, ‘OK, this happened again. We’re just going to move forward, restock and imagine the best-case scenarios we can.’ To be hit again so blatantly, so disrespectfully and hatefully, it felt personal.”
Uncertain if there is any emergency funding in the jewelry industry or New York business community that Manning might be eligible for, she said, “Crime happens to people every day. I recognize and acknowledge that I come from a space of privilege. The opportunities I have had have been easier for me because of who I am. That doesn’t exist for everyone. There are people who walk down the street and have something happen to them.”
Open to taking on a partner to oversee some of the company’s operational responsibilities, Manning said that would allow her to do what she does best — make jewelry. Since last fall’s first theft, she has been in a constant state of emergency trying to restructure, keep the business functioning, serve customers, fulfill orders and building Instagram followers. “I’ve got a brand and it’s working. It’s just challenging to do it alone any longer. I love what I do. I love making jewelry. A lot of the joy has gone out of it for me right now, because of how to run the business.”