The Hustle

In the underworld of counterfeit fashions, everyone's happy except the designers.

Julius Caesar Presented by The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival June 12-15 at the Shaker Heights Colonnade, 3450 Lee Road June 19-22 at Tri-C Metro, 2900 Community College Avenue; and June 26-28 and July 3, 5, 6 at Tri-C West, 11000 West Pleasant Valley Road, Parma, 216-732-3311.

Editor's note: All names, except those of experts, store officials, and detectives, have been changed to protect the American Dream.

You get a real sense of Rudy Giuliani's legacy when you park your car in a midtown Manhattan alley, looking for some shut-eye the way Mookie is doing this morning.

He left Cleveland at 7:00 and rolled into NYC at 4 a.m. He should be smarter than to park in a place where no one can hear you scream. But times have changed. The city still smells like a urinal, yet he doesn't have to worry about getting accosted in the wee hours. Cops are everywhere.

Mookie has arrived early. The bootleg merchants off Broadway don't open shop till 6:30. This gives him time to reflect on his craft. "Every man needs a hustle, 'specially with no college degree and no big-time job experience for any position that's gonna pay you, like $35, $45,000 a year," he says with a yawn, checking his dashboard clock. "Without a hustle, you not gonna make it. Everybody wanna do more than pay the bills and go out to eat once a week."

Mookie lowers the seatback in hopes of catching a catnap. Down the alley and along the adjacent street, there are cars with plates from as far west as Texas, all with Mookies in them sawing wood until daybreak. "Anybody can survive," he adds, "but a hustler makes a livin'. When you got extra money comin' in, then you're alive."

For seven months now, Mookie has been in the business of providing the best counterfeit goods that money can buy -- at a price you can afford. Piss off your mistress? Nothing says "I'm sorry" like a Louis Vuitton purse. How about shoes, hat, and a belt to match? If you know somebody who knows somebody who knows Mookie, he'll pop his trunk for you.

The rest of the economy may be tanking, but in Mookie's world, business is good. While he's shy about exact figures, he estimates that he's already netted a little over $30,000.

But for now, he's going to catch a catnap, before he makes his way through Manhattan's underground fashion network, where he restocks once or twice a month. He knows how to maximize his time.

"That drivin'-around-the-whole-city-lookin'-for-deals shit is played out," he says, drifting off a bit. "'Cause you spend all day, then have t'get a room, jackin' off time and money."

He's blinking away a nod, laying back, slipping into darkness. "And that ain't no way to get rich, boy."

Let's make a deal
It's 6:30 a.m. on the second floor of a musty, gray Manhattan warehouse, and Mustafa has a problem. He's in his "store," one of the 9-by-10 rooms that make up this drywall mall, staring intently into a pile of purses on the floor, working a cheap calculator. Mookie's monitoring the figures over his shoulder. The pile includes 50 purses, along with matching accoutrements. All the better fashion houses are represented: Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Coach, even relative upstarts Kate Spade and Prada.

The two gentlemen are at odds about the price of one Coach purse that comes in a variety of Candyland pastels -- just in time for Easter Sunday. Mustafa won't take anything less than $19 apiece. Mookie's holding at $15.

"You like dat. You do real well wit dem," Mustafa says in a heavy French-African accent. "Dat eez hot right now. I sell you all dee hot shit. Prada, Louie, Coach -- look at theez." He reaches into the pile, picks up a clutch purse, and pulls a smaller one from within it.

"Theez eez two-in-one. Very hot. What will it take to do theez business?"

Mookie cuts a look from the corner of his eye and nods down at the calculator.

Mustafa works it again, and shows Mookie a total. Mookie nods and removes a roll from his wallet. They settle on $16 per purse, $720 for the lot. Twenty people wait at the entrance of Mustafa's room. Many more, carrying empty duffel bags, walk through the other rooms.

"Man, I ain't see you last time I was up," Mookie says.

"Aw, I got ray-ted a mont' or so ago," says Mustafa casually.


"Yeah," he says as he pulls out a box of garbage bags, "eet was bad, mahn. Took all my sheet. But as you see, we are bock in business, retty to go. With all these good prices . . . just for you, my friend."

While Mustafa packs the purses, he picks a nicer Prada handbag off of his wall display.

"For your girl," he says, tossing it in. "Tell 'er I say hello. She coming next time, no?"

"I dunno, man. She ain't down for the drive like me." They laugh, grip, and part ways.

"Whenever you see an African with this many purses on the floor dealin' with somebody," says Mookie as he lugs his bag down the street to the trunk of his car, "you about to see them get real popular."

Innovating the game
Mookie isn't a hardened criminal type. He's basketball-tall, skinny, light-skinned, with a goatee. In a shirt and tie, he cleans up nicely for his day gig in the office towers of downtown Cleveland, surviving off 20 grand a year. He was as content as anyone can be shlepping mail, until one day he was inspired.

"Someone came down to the job selling purses and knickknacks. They only had, like, T-shirts, scarves, bullshit-lookin' bootleg purses -- just little common stuff." To really make money, he reasoned, you need to have something for everybody -- diversify the inventory. That means purses, shoes with matching belts, cologne, CDs, everything -- because people will buy whatever you've got, as long as you're giving them a good deal. Mookie saw an opportunity to innovate.

"It wasn't hard to get started," he says. "I just got directions and went to the spots people were talking about."

He found his way to Canal Street and Broadway, and on through the back streets of Queens and Flatbush, in search of vendors with a good wholesale price. In time, he found his sweet spot. You just have to find those rare spots where you can get a good deal and be loyal, he says, and the vendors will be loyal to you. Mookie gets great prices on coveted merchandise, and he passes the savings on to his customers.

"I sell jeans, hats, colognes, shoes, sunglasses, CDs, DVDs," he says with an Aquafresh grin, while walking a few blocks to the next vendor. "I'd sell toothpaste if I could, because the person that wanted a purse yesterday may not want one tomorrow."

He walks into the lobby of a non-descript building near 28th and Broadway. About 50 people wait for an elevator. He leans against the wall and lights a Sweets. "You got to keep yourself in business," he continues. "When you limit yourself, you missin' money."

Everyone's gotta make a living
"The thing about this kind of crime -- the sale of purses, CDs, or any variety of intellectual property -- is that it is a high-reward, low-risk venture," says Darren Pagoda, lawyer for the International Fraud Complaint Center, a federal agency that monitors trademark and intellectual-property theft. "There is a low risk of getting caught, and you have this situation where someone can make a lot of money, but the chances of them serving any time are slim to none."

Pagoda knows of guys like Mookie, who buy purses in New York and take them back to cities across America for resale. "The theft of intellectual property is pervasive in every major metropolitan city across the globe."

China is the biggest manufacturer of counterfeit goods. On a good day, U.S. Customs might check between two and five percent of the import shipments -- leaving all sorts of contraband to slip onto docks undetected.

But it is not a victimless crime, says Pagoda. Large fashion houses lose billions of dollars a year, and people lose jobs when companies lose revenues.

But who cares if some 11-year-old Cambodian, sewing designer purses for 25 cents an hour, loses her gig? Selling purses is a fairly decent hustle, as hustles go, and no one is likely to get shot over a purse, right?

"Yeah, that's true," Pagoda concedes. "But where is your money going?" Organized crime is behind some of these bootleg networks, and proceeds fund their other activities.

"Maybe the Mob selling the T-shirts won't get your attention," he says with a touch of melodrama, "but al-Qaeda selling T-shirts should."

If the business conjures up images of guys in trench coats, flashing passersby with their goods, think again: Everyone wants to get their hustle-on. "There are purse men, and there are people that have posh parties in the suburbs," says Pagoda, "because there is so much money to be made."

Julie Nehri understands this better than most. The wife of Browns scout Phillip Nehri had her purse-party operation shut down in Westlake in February. She operated like a Tupperware saleswoman, hosting parties in various homes. A neighbor, feeling cheated that she paid full price while others had not, dropped a dime on Nehri, according to Westlake Detective Tim Tilaro. It's how most people get caught.

On the day the warrant was executed, says Tilaro, Nehri was hosting an open house. An undisclosed amount of money and contraband purses was impounded, but no arrests were made. "We intentionally served the warrant after the party was over," Tilaro says, "because we didn't want to have a bunch of other housewives in the residence. As a matter of fact, we made a late entry and woke the Nehris out of bed."

"They had to make an example out of her, to make it look like they trying to stop something," says Mookie. Nehri received a $250 fine and lost her inventory. If there is a lighter slap on the wrist, Mookie hasn't heard of it.

Tilaro disagrees: "I'm sure if you sat down and looked at all the money she invested in the bags, she had a substantially larger loss than $250 . . . Look, this was a housewife who was doing something that she probably chose to be ignorant of. Would I put her in the same level as someone dealing drugs in the street? Absolutely not."

Gator -- uncombed, wearing a dirty Members Only jacket, and smelling of rest-room soap -- stands inside the front of Tops Supermarket on Superior, trying to get his grind on. One problem: His inventory consists of only a 6XXL pleather jacket, an automatic card shuffler, and a few metal bracelets. "I got that hook up," he pitches to shoppers as they enter the store. What he has, in all likelihood, is an addiction, and his stock could be from any number of closets, garbage cans, and back seats in the neighborhood.

Hard Knox isn't a roller, either. But the duffel bag full of CDs and DVDs he's flashing for potential customers in the Euclid Arcade keeps a little change in his pocket. Hard Knox is business smart: He has a network of other dealers he supplies. He made $5,000 -- a phenomenal success, by his standards -- his first year.

"I can work for The Man and get $5.35 an hour," he says; "then they want me to stay for so-many-odd years. Then I can't get any work incentives or bonuses. Fuck that. I can pay myself better than I can get paid."

He has disdain for the rappers whose CDs he sells and feels like he's settling a score by undercutting them.

"The people that represent us on CDs, selling triple platinum, talkin' about they still in the streets selling dope, makin' kids think that's the way to get rich -- when they ain't seen the streets in a dog's age," says Hard Knox, shaking his head. "So if they can steal our kids' innocence, I can take a little bit of they money. Besides," he says, lowering his voice, "if I wasn't hustling, I'd been climbing in your bedroom window right now, trying to take what you got. Ev'ryone wants a piece of the pie, man."

He packs up his bag, heading off, then yells back down the hallway: "Tell Snoop, if he has any problems with me, he can give me a call and we can have a one-on-one."

Up the yang
Wekesa's room is in a warehouse/office building a few steps from Mustafa's, accented with Arabic posters and graffiti -- and guards near the entrance.

The rooms are big and well appointed, with clothing displayed the same as you'd find in the better chain stores. The space fills with the sounds of bangra, Chinese pop, and merengue. Some Middle Eastern merchants are praying and chanting, only barely acknowledging customers. Every ethnicity has set up shop here: Mexicans, Arabs, Africans, Indians, and Asians all fret over their inventories of fake Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Ecko, Sean Jean, and Baby Phat.

Wekesa, from New Guinea, is Mookie's clothes guy, and he's happy to see him. He turns down a Jay-Z mix tape blaring from a cheap deck and stands in the middle of his room, arms wide. "What do you need today?"

Mookie grabs garbs from Baby Phat, Rocaware, NBA, a few Gucci sweatsuits -- all in bigger, real-people sizes -- and piles them on the floor. Wekky looks at the pile and pulls out a calculator. Six garbage bags later, Mookie's back at the trunk of his Buick.

"The Africans are kinda like a network here," he says. "They put all they money together, buy the inventory, and split the profit. You got your A-rabs, your Mexicans, Chinese -- everybody is selling. They put people on the street to pull you into their spots -- 'Checkmeoutcheckmeout! Got that good deal!' and like that. My first time, I went to Canal Street, man. Messin' with those Chinamen and those people is a trip. They rip you off every time. You go up there, you tell 'em you gonna get six or seven purses, and he thinkin' you a tourist, he gonna charge you up the yang."

The Africans gave him better deals, because he was buying in bulk. He packs his trunk and slaps it down. "The average Cleveland muthafucka? It would take 'em six months to move this kinda inventory. Me? I'll need to re-up in three weeks."

Knock the hustle if you want, but you have to admire Mookie's business acumen. He knows how to navigate a competitive marketplace.

"I lowered my prices to the point where people can afford to buy a lot of it," he says, "and that keeps them comin' back to me. With prices like mine, I always have money comin' in. It ain't one month that's slow. It's about payin' attention to what people want and being able to give it to them at a price they can afford. Once you start getting greedy, then the game is over. Because somebody will come along and undercut you, like I did, and then you'll never see your loyal customers again. Why they gonna come to you, when you charge what the mall charges?"

Yet malls and department stores are in on the game, whether intentionally or not. Mookie says he constantly sees bootleg stuff selling for premium prices.

"For example, I went in this store, and they had a pair of Timberlands with Burberry effects, and they wanted $200 for them, even without the trademark stamp on the boot. But I know I can get those things for $35 or $50 . . . You look at some o' that shit in some o' your better stores and malls . . . and that shit is bootleg, too."

Italian philosophy lesson
"Cool Connections" -- as far as names for kiosks go -- has a better ring to it than "Bootleg Purses." Situated in front of a Coach store, the Beachwood Place stand allegedly sold fake Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Kate Spade purses.

Bert Epstein, or "King Kiosk," as he's known around the mall, owns the stand, as well as a string of others -- with names like Image, Shade Shop, and Fad Friendzies -- at Beachwood Place and Great Lakes Mall. Epstein is also the proprietor of the Subway shop in the food court.

Beachwood Police have sealed their report, citing an ongoing investigation, but Epstein's Cool Connections kiosk was allegedly closed after customer complaints reached a mall administrator. The kiosk was raided and closed in late April, according to the managers of nearby stores.

(Beachwood Police could not comment on the investigation. Epstein also declined comment.)

Nancy Tucker, spokeswoman for Rouse Company, which operates Beachwood Place, apparently doesn't think it's good business to talk about the raid either. "I'm not going to answer any questions regarding that situation," she says. "It's a police matter, and you should talk to the police."

Bob, a mall security guard who swaggers slightly as he hitches up his pants, looks like he could live in a van down by the river. He might chase a Cinnabon with a cup of coffee, but any mallrat with a palmed pair of earrings and one good leg can rest assured: You're home free in a foot-chase.

Bob has his finger on the pulse of mall leasing policy, and he's a bit more forthcoming than the management on the subject of its inner workings.

"Well, mall policy is that they don't give a shit what you sell, as long as you keep your rent up," he says. "No one checks out what you are gonna sell -- I mean, who cares? Bert probably just said he was gonna sell purses, and they gave him another lease."

So, theoretically, someone could open up a Crack 'N' Chronic kiosk and the mall brass wouldn't blink?

"Nah, c'mon . . . that's silly," he says. "Dope is illegal."

Is the mall going to reconsider Epstein's other leases?

"Naw, that isn't mall policy," says Officer Barriston, another mall Mountie. "I guess it's an ongoing case, and he ain't been convicted of no crime yet. It sounds more like . . . what's that I-talian proverb? Caveat emptor?"


Mookie the benefactor
"Most of the purses I deal with are bootlegs," says Mookie, on the way to his eighth warehouse. "It's important to tell people that these are fakes, because if people are vain, they gonna get 'em checked out. So you might as well be honest."

He makes it up the elevator into one of the better one-stop shops in Manhattan. It's vast, cavernous, and crowded, with large rooms that specialize in a single item. The place is exclusively run by Middle Easterners.

In one room, a woman waits while a seamstress puts the final touches on a Baby Phat cat-suit, made to order on the spot. In another, a man has over 1,000 square feet of knockoff shoes -- Nike, Avirex, Burberry.

There are debutantes in mink coats and families looking for deals. "These folks are here on one of the many shopping trips that come here," says Mookie. "Some of these vendors have they shit so tight that they have people sellin' shopping bus tours of New York, and just like I drove here from Cleveland, they come from all over to get they gear-on."

He turns and picks up a pair of Manolo-style Louis Vuitton boots -- not on his list of shoe orders, but a hot item nonetheless. "Where else in the world you gonna get this kinda shit? These warehouses are everywhere. I mean, it's quiet-kept, to a degree? But then again, it ain't. Every time I come up here, these cats are in different places. Sure, they get busted. They get they inventory took, pay a fine, and boom -- they back up in a week. And that's good for America, man."

Mookie doesn't see what he's doing as dishonest. As a matter of fact, he says it's good for the economy. After all, his customers give him money, and he turns around and pays bills and rent, buys food, weed and other essentials. Anytime people spend money, he reasons, they are stimulating the economy.

Ned Hill, a Cleveland State economist and former retailer, takes exception to Mookie's theory.

"That's crazy," he says after recovering from a fit of laughter. "That sounds like something you tell the judge when you get caught unloading stuff off the truck. His assumption is that the money he earns would not go elsewhere in the economy, and it would."

In reality, that money would get spent on something, so it's a net wash, says Hill. And Mookie isn't paying taxes on his loot, so school and city services lose out. He does, however, give customers a perception of value, the professor acknowledges, and that's a benefit the marketplace at large doesn't offer.

But, adds Hill, "He's keeping himself occupied in a less nefarious way than some choose. And there is something to be said for that, I guess."

Satisfied customers
By noon, Mookie is on the road home. He does some math: His wares are marked up 250 to 300 percent, depending on the popularity of the item. He spent $1,800 on his restocking trip and expects to gross $4,500 in less than a month. He has a healthy customer base waiting to check out his new inventory.

He fields calls from strippers, hoodrats, and high-class housewives with Bratenahl addresses, wanting private shows of his inventory. He comes to New York looking to fill orders, and a good part of his selection is already sold before he gets back to Cleveland.

Priscilla is among his best customers. She's beautiful, brown, and professionally appointed -- of course -- with one of Mookie's purses.

"I love Mookie," she says. "He has such a wide variety, and the stuff looks so good. I throw him as much business as I can."

Priscilla buys all her purses and music from Mookie. She knows the stuff's counterfeit and has no moral qualms about it, but "Maybe I should," she concedes.

Then again . . . "I think the bootleggers perform a service in our community. Most people that want to go to Saks or whatever will go anyway and spend that $700 or $800 dollars. Those of us who can't afford it? We goin' to the streets . . . we gonna go to the bootleggers. And besides, the stuff looks so good.

"Most people don't believe me when I tell them the stuff is bootleg," Priscilla says. "As a matter of fact, I have a real Burberry purse, and it looks faker than the fake one!" She pats her purse knowingly.

"I love my Coach purse," says Amanda, another satisfied customer. "It wears so well, and I always get compliments on it. I have bought several pieces from him, and they are all top-notch."

Besides, it's better to keep you money at home. "Why not buy from Mookie?" asks Priscilla. "Why should I keep making Christian Dior rich? I don't understand why they charge so much for that shit anyway."

Ask the expert
The fashion industry doesn't complain just about the money it loses through bootlegging. It maintains that consumers lose too, by getting stuck with inferior products.

Keith is a big mother, with hands blacked, browned, and blued from 43 years of working with leather goods. He's round, red, with an easy grin, and except for the overalls looks a lot like the Kool-Aid Man.

He works at Brass Tacks Shoe and Leather Repair, reputed to be one of the best places to get your leather goods tended to in Cleveland. He's looking at two purses, both purported to be Coach. He deliberates for a moment, checking the innards of each. Forty-five seconds into the examination, he looks up.

"This here one, the red one?" he says. "It has the Coach markings and stuff, but I've never seen a vinyl Coach purse, unless it's something new." He's caught the Fugazi with uncanny speed.

But, he adds admiringly, "I tell you what, this ain't no cheap piece of vinyl. The quality of it looks good -- it's a good piece of vinyl, and the construction on it looks good.

"This black one is all leather and, as far as durability, this one will hold up longer. They are comparable in quality, though. The only difference seems to be that one is vinyl and one is leather. We get a lot of vinyl 'designer' purses that people pay big money for. But leather, like I said, is just a better piece of goods."

How do they compare, on a scale of 1 to 10?

"I'd give this black one here an eight," says Keith. "But this one?" he says, grabbing the red herring. "Yeah, this one would get about an eight, too. The quality, the construction on both of them, looks great."

Ghetto fabulous
Three weeks after he returned from his New York trip, Mookie's inventory is nearly gone: 50 purses, 25 scarves, 12 pairs of jeans, 10 ladies' joggers, 10 men's joggers, 25 T-shirts, 24 pairs of sunglasses, 5 designer tank tops, and 5 dresses. Gone.

He's at a house in the Hough neighborhood. Three daughters, many grandbabies, and the family matriarch watch as Mookie removes what's left of his wares from four garbage bags. He turns each item around, describing it just enough to whet the palate. "This is a Louis Vuitton bowling bag," he says, holding it just so. "Works as a backpack, has all the Louie affects. Lots of room on the inside. A good deal at $65." Melissa, the middle daughter at 26, grabs the purse and holds it like a teddy bear.

Mookie looks around the room and decides he needs slightly larger sizes in the clothes he has available. Still, he shows some choice fits.

"I can't wear that after having three babies," says Mildred, another daughter. "No one wants to see my stretch marks -- I'll scare somebody!"

"That's small," says Marilyn, the oldest, "but you should sell that to my girl Santoria. She'll wear that, f'sho'."

Mookie pulls out a thinner Baby Phat shirt-and-skirt set, and gasps fill the room. "You know I would wear this, if I could," says Mildred. "This is so nice."

"I could wear this, if my tummy din't stick out," says Mary, holding an NBA Baby tee to her chest.

Mookie ends up selling a denim Coach purse and satchel, a pair of men's Roca-Wear jeans, and six kids' designer T-shirts. Mom buys an Exclamation bath-and-body set. Gotta treat yourself, she figures. She pays for everything, even as she reminds her family that there is a car in the shop and rent to be paid. She fusses, putting $275 into Mookie's hand, as her daughters promise to repay her.

"The white man don't know nuthin' about you paying me back to pay him!" she says of her pending bills as her daughters run upstairs, eager to match their purses with corresponding outfits. She counts the rest of her money anxiously, trying to figure in the grocery bill. "I hope you can eat those purses!"

Ghetto fabulosity comes at a price.

"Basically, being a female, I can tell you that these types of priorities are an individual decision," says Mookie's girl, Dee Dee, who arrived late to the party. "Very often you have a choice to make. If they gonna be so shallow as to spend their bill money on an outfit, that's on them. If it's between them looking nice and keeping the lights on -- hey, it's not like he's taking their money."

She counts the money, doing the math in her head, pocketing a bit and putting the rest aside. After all, it's almost time to return to New York.

"Purses don't harm some people the way drugs do," she says, folding the money into her Coach purse. "It's a way better hustle. The economists are all just mad they didn't think of it."

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