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Robberies net little, cost much

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 30, 2002

The cryptic greeting meets the woman before the door closes behind her.

"One and one."

It is a question, but Chad Bechar's tone says it doesn't require an answer. By the time the woman walks from the door to the counter, Bechar has gathered a scratchoff lottery ticket and a pack of one of those off-brand cigarettes whose lower prices keep name-brand smokes on the shelf longer.

One and one. One scratchoff ticket. One pack of cigarettes.

Just as the woman has not needed to answer, Bechar doesn't bother to tell her the cost of the purchase. The two have performed this dance so often that when they speak it is because they want to, not because they need to.

It is that way with many of the customers who file into Teresa's Food Store, which Bechar and a partner own.

"All our customers are friendly and nice," he says. Amid the string of knowing exchanges and familiar discussions, Bechar's assessment does not sound corny or patronizing, just descriptive.

"I see the same customers two, three times a day," Bechar says. "They come in in the morning for coffee, then for cigarettes or something else in the afternoon."

The store is in St. Petersburg's Ponce De Leon neighborhood at 2601 30th Ave. N. It is a convenience store, just a convenience store, not unlike the countless others in neighborhoods across the nation, where you pay a little more for toilet paper or milk so you don't have to get dressed and deal with parking and checkout lines at the big stores.

To Bechar, however, Teresa's is more than just a convenience store. "This is an old neighborhood. Everybody knows everybody. Now they're getting to know me," he says.

He has owned the store 2 1/2 years. In that time, he has made a point of hiring people from the neighborhood to work there. "I like to keep it a part of the neighborhood. I'm making my living off the neighborhood, so I want to keep it part of the neighborhood, to give something back. All the people who work here live in the neighborhood, and I try to keep it as cheap as I can, cheaper than most places."

Customers, who arrive in lettered work vans or work trucks, on bicycles and on foot, seem to appreciate Bechar's efforts. There is back and forth banter no matter who is behind the counter.

"We have some of the friendliest customers in town -- and we have some of the friendliest help in town," said Dorothy Jones as she worked one morning last week. "I guess we got it going on."

Teresa's, where decent people work to earn a decent living while being decent to others, makes an impression in a time when rudeness and confrontation have become the norm.

That is perhaps why another scene that must be playing out in another Tampa Bay area neighborhood is so offensive and appalling.

In that neighborhood, someone who's not too bright is trying to figure out where his next few bucks will come from.

His last payday was last week, and by now he's broke again with nothing to show for the money. The dope he bought with it was gone the next day. Almost immediately, his body started telling him he needs more. As soon as his nerves and his desperation get strong enough, he will try to rob another convenience store, just as he and a partner did a few days ago.

This time, though, he'll be caught. Or shot.

This time, or the next. They always try again. Driven by desperation, governed by stupidity, they always try again.

Until then, it won't dawn on him that there is no such thing as a profitable convenience store robbery. At best, the robber leaves with about as much cash as he would make with an honest day's work -- where he wouldn't run the risk of being shot or jailed. At worst, he leaves as the pair that robbed Haines Road Corner Deli last week did: with piddlingly little cash, their faces on videotape and a clerk recovering from a shotgun blast.

Haines Road Corner Deli, barely 20 blocks from Teresa's, is a neighborhood store much like Teresa's in a neighborhood much like Ponce De Leon.

Bechar slowly wags his head as he searches for words to make sense of the robbery. "He was cooperating. He was doing what the guy told him to do. He was lying on the floor, and the guy shot him anyway. There was no reason for it."

Bechar's inability to make sense of the violent course the robbery took is understandable: Anyone who would consciously decide to rob a convenience store can't have more than an occasional, accidental brush with logic.

All crime devalues and disregards human life: that of the criminal, who is willing to sacrifice it for what he expects to gain, and of his victim. All crime is dumb.

But the convenience-store robber is the poster child for dumb criminals for many obvious reasons. The first -- one that should be a decisive deterrent -- is that convenience stores have very little cash on hand. They also have surveillance cameras and customers showing up unannounced, making the chances of getting out unseen and unphotographed slim. Some may even have extra employees who may be out of sight, while some may even have armed security.

Sgt. Al White, who heads St. Petersburg's robbery division, said most convenience store robbers do get caught. The few who evade immediate arrest usually get caught trying to repeat their crime because they net so little the first time, and their dope runs out. Most of those crimes are committed by people who are drug dependent, White said.

Every crime exacts a cost, most of which can't be assigned a dollar value.

It is too bad that anyone dumb enough to rob a convenience store isn't smart enough to know that.

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