Island vendors keep a watchful eye for shoplifters


Artisan festivals and flea markets flourish on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer. For residents and visitors, the markets provide an opportunity to shop and meet local artists in a laid-back atmosphere. Unfortunately, that air of relaxation also attracts thieves.

Andrea Rogers, founder of the Vineyard Artisans Festivals hosted at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury said shoplifters are not a big problem, but they exist. A veteran of the art community for more than 20 years, she has become familiar with techniques thieves employ.

For example, a shoplifter may distract a vendor at one end of the booth, meanwhile someone else may be “ripping you off big time on the other end,” she said.

There are even repeat offenders on the Island, she said, who vendors begin to recognize.

“They make their rounds,” she said. “We tend to give each other a heads-up when one of us spots them.”

Over time, she said, vendors have had to adapt to the issue.

“Jewelers get hit the worst,” Ms. Rogers said. “Vendors oftentimes pin down jewelry, or put more expensive items behind glass. The small items are easier to steal and stuff into a pocket or purse,” she said.

Not immune

Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, a local organization with a mission to sponsor and encourage community involvement in the arts, said the Island is not immune. “Shoplifting happens, even on this beautiful Island,” she said.

Featherstone hosts a variety of art shows, including a weekly flea market and numerous workshops. Ms. Smith said the community among artisan vendors provides a valuable network of communication. She said vendors will oftentimes text each other if someone spots a repeat shoplifter.

“As soon as they come on campus, the word goes out,” Ms. Smith said.

Given the number of markets each week, it is important to keep the problem in perspective, she said. “The rate of incidents of shoplifting and theft are so small,” she said. “It’s a fact of life. It’s certainly something we don’t dwell on every day.”

Ms. Smith said Featherstone vendors take the same precautions as many other Island vendors do. “Pinning down jewelry, putting expensive items closer to them at the back of the booth or in locked cases,” she said.

“There’s a fine line between being really guest friendly, so people can try things on, but you may have 20 people in your booth at a time,” Ms. Smith said. “And it can be hard to keep your eye on all of those people.”

Unfortunately, she said, these shoplifters are really good.

“They know what they’re doing,” Ms. Smith said. “They carry their bags, know how to conceal them, they may go in and out quickly, and they really try to distract you.”

Got your back

The silver lining in the disquieting practice would have to be the camaraderie among vendors. “It’s like a family here,” Ms. Rogers said. “We all have each other’s backs.”

Vendors may ask friends or family members to help watch their booth, she said, especially in August when the population on the Island balloons, and there are around 100 different vendors.

Vendors rent space for $50 to $60 a day, depending on the location. “We’re very fortunate and privileged to be here and have this trust amongst one another, and manage to earn a living here,” Ms. Rogers added.

Security at the Vineyard Artisans Festivals consists of a detail police officer who usually keeps the peace and may walk through the festival from time to time, but mostly helps with parking. The officer has been in place since the start of the festivals in 1995.

Ms. Rogers said she has not seriously considered having someone constantly monitor the grounds, since everyone is fairly exposed and willing to help each other out.

Last summer, Ms. Rogers’ daughter, Jamie, a vendor, had a ring valued around $300 on display. At some point, the ring disappeared. Jamie became so upset that she left the booth and asked someone else to watch it for her. A gentleman asked why Jamie was so upset.

Someone told the man a ring had been stolen from Jamie’s booth. “He asked how much it was, and put $300 cash in her hand,” Ms. Rogers said. “There’s always a rotten apple. But there’s also angels.”

Quick action

Not every theft is solved by an act of generosity. Sometimes, quick detective action is involved.

On June 9, Warren Gaines was in the parking area of the Artisans Festival when he spotted a man carrying four un-bagged prints that appeared to be from his wife’s booth, Debra Gaines Fine Art Booth. He called his wife and asked her if she had sold anything. She replied, no.

Mr. Gaines told The Times that he walked over to the man who was now near an orange car, and the man asked him if he wanted to know about the car, which he replied was a rental. Mr. Gaines asked if he had purchased the prints that were now in the backseat of the car.

Mr. Gaines said the man said no, and told him he was going to show them to a friend. Mr. Gaines took the prints back to the booth, and called the police.

Police arrested the man, Scott S. Murphy of Pembroke. He was arraigned on June 10 on a charge of larceny over $250 and freed on a $300 cash bail.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gaines said, “You may not know anything is taken until you take inventory.”