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Merchants remain uneasy, but shoppers unfazed following Union Square thefts

Businesses in Union Square are adding extra holiday decorations to their storefronts this year in the form of plywood barriers, making for an unusual holiday scene on Monday as tourists shopped and relaxed in the city’s central plaza. 

Families ice-skated beneath the Union Square Christmas tree, shoppers browsed the luxury storefronts that remained open and lines of tourists waded past police vehicles to board tour buses. Visitors trickling into Union Square ahead of Thanksgiving and the Black Friday shopping weekend were unruffled by the visible fallout of a weekend crime spree in the area that saw several luxury stores damaged and ransacked. 

Samantha Strickler, a tourist from Wyoming, arrived in the city on Saturday and said she wasn’t fazed by news of this past weekend’s break-ins, which caused extensive losses and damage at nearby shops on Friday night. 

“I would not have felt unsafe without all the police officers down here,” Strickler said. “I didn’t really have any nerves coming in. It just seems like overkill.” 

City and law enforcement officials sprung into action over the weekend following a string of brazen thefts on Friday night targeting Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Lauren, Bloomingdale’s and other retailers in and around Union Square. The next morning, Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott announced a plan to increase police presence in the area and enact legislation that would ban vehicles from the plaza in an effort to deter store burglaries. 

While many business owners in the area worry that crime concerns could scare away customers, several questioned the efficacy of the city’s reaction.  

Isaac Ayala, a store manager at Journey’s shoes in Union Square, said he had just locked his doors when he saw police cars zipping by on Friday night.

“It makes me uneasy in the sense that it’s obviously going to drive down sales,” Ayala said. “Yes the police are here and they’re readily available, but it also makes it seem like once they’re gone everything’s going to go back to the way it was…What about after the holiday season? I’m still going to have all of this inventory. It’s going to be vulnerable.” 

In July, in an effort to aid the city’s economic recovery, SFPD deployed 26 additional officers to areas popular with tourists. London Breed later followed the announcement by offering up to $100,000 rewards for people who report information leading to the arrest and conviction of those involved in organized fencing operations

According to SFPD, vandals targeted eight retail stores in the city, including JINS eyewear on Powell Street. 

Chris Carranza, a team lead at JINS, said that about five people broke into the store and stole over 100 eyeglass frames at around 1 a.m. Saturday morning. He said he isn’t expecting the burglary to drive down holiday sales. 

“The holiday season is a big time for optical stores in general. People want to use their insurance before the year ends, so it shouldn’t affect us too much,” Carranza said. “There are already cops patrolling all the time. I guess we were just caught on a really bad night.”

Joseph Amster, who’s known by some as Emperor Norton for his reenactment of the city’s former self-appointed Emperor, has guided tours of San Francisco for ten years but said he hasn’t noticed a significant increase in crime during that time. He worries that the decision to restrict cars downtown may have an adverse impact on businesses. 

“I don’t think London Breed’s announcement of limiting car parking around Union Square is going to make a huge difference to safety,” Amster said. “In fact, I think it might cut down the amount of people that come here and might impact businesses in a negative way.” 

SFPD booked nine suspects on various charges of theft, conspiring to commit crime and carrying firearms in connection with the thefts that occurred in Union Square over the weekend, according to an SFPD spokesperson. Six of the suspects have addresses in San Francisco, while the other three are from Concord, Riverdale, and Oakland. 

All but one of the suspects remain in custody at the time of publication.

David Sjostedt can be reached at