The Cheap Secrets of Harwin

The handbag shop is a long, narrow, shotgun affair, and the first thing I notice is an array of pocketbooks blanketing one wall. From a distance, they resemble purses by Coach, a line of trendy bags especially popular among businesswomen and known for their durability, sleek lines and unadorned look.

At the Galleria, Coach bags can run anywhere from $100 to $400. But this particular handbag shop is on Harwin Street, which, while only five miles southwest of the city's glitziest mall, is several worlds away when it comes to shopping and ambiance.

"Is this leather?" I ask, lifting a chocolate-brown purse with lanky straps from one of the shelves.

Two clerks have been eyeing me appraisingly, perhaps sensing my unfamiliarity with the rituals of Harwin shopping.

"No. We have leather ... Chanel," answers one of them, an Indian woman dressed in slacks and a flowered T-shirt. With a motion of her head, she quietly signals me toward the back of the store. Suddenly, it's as if we are two friends, sharing a secret, speaking our own private language.

She shepherds me past two long, white tables, on which bags resembling another popular and expensive designer brand, Dooney & Bourke, are lined up in neat rows. Two more tables near the shop's rear are overflowing with toy trucks and cars and a play policeman's kit, complete with a plastic gun, handcuffs and a badge. Displayed on a nearby wall are a multitude of clocks: purple ones, green ones and hot pink ones, all anchored by a huge timepiece notable for its statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Seconds later we're in a backroom, a cramped space about the size of a socialite's shoe closet. Spanning one wall are three shelves jammed with look-alike Chanel purses in black, navy, ivory and gold. The bags possess every feature that's made the French designer famous: tassels, gold chains, quilted leather.

"Eighteen hundred dollar in the mall," the clerk says as I reach for a black drawstring bag with the two interlocking Cs of the Chanel logo embossed on the front.

"I give it to you for sixty-nine dollar," the clerk says.
When that offer fails to elicit a response, she tries again.
"Okay, fifty-nine dollar."
A generic black tote bag resting on a box on the floor catches my eye.
"Coach," says the clerk.
"Is this leather?" I ask.

"Cow leather," confirms the clerk, pointing out the tiny pinpricks in the purse.

"Chanel ... lamb's leather," she adds, rubbing the buttery surface of the purported French designer bag.

"I give you good price. Forty-five dollar for the Coach."
I survey the rest of the small room. There's a ratty maple coffee table filled with shiny new bags that resemble Ralph Lauren purses. On another table, this one blanketed by a pink cloth, sit a stack of T-shirts bearing the Chanel logo, three open boxes of "Chanel" loafers and a stack of gimme caps and men's golf shirts with Ralph Lauren's polo player stitched on them. One wall sports more bags of the American-made Coach design draped on a pegboard. The other walls feature the foreigners: Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Picasso.

During the time it takes me to glance about, the price of the ostensible Coach bag has come down again.

"I give you good price," the clerk promises. "Thirty-two dollar." There's an urgency in her voice. "You have to buy now," she adds. "There was a raid last week and we won't get any more."

I must seem tentative, but the clerk is undaunted. Her voice dogs me as I retreat to the front of the store.

"We have Chanel wallets," she says to my back. "Chanel sunglasses ...." Relentlessly, she recites a litany of designer inventory, and then, out of desperation, makes one last stab at selling me on the black leather tote bag that had caught my attention.

"Coach -- twenty-nine dollar," she calls out as I'm about to exit the store.
Suddenly I'm turning around and reaching into my own pocketbook, feeling a surge of pride at having successfully bargained off $16 in my first clandestine purse deal.

Then comes the surprise. Without asking me, the clerk snaps a tag on the strap of the tote. It says "Coach Leatherware." Then she reaches under the counter, pulls a stick-on label from a bin and places it inside the tote. The makeshift label proclaims the bag was made in the United States of "completely natural glove-tanned cowhide." The label that was already inside says it was manufactured in China.

The clerk stuffs the purse into a brown plastic bag. And just like that, I have become yet one more initiate into Harwin's world of raw capitalism. Though my purchase included, at no charge, the thrill of having pulled a fast one, it was, in itself, perfectly legal. Everything about the transaction, in fact, was legal -- until, that is, the clerk tagged the bag with the phony Coach label. That's when the exchange crossed the line to become, in the words of the law, "theft of intellectual property."  

That's a trifling concern to many consumers in quest of a bargain, but it's a major one to many manufacturers. And according to authorities, thousands of such thefts take place on Harwin each year.

Indeed, buying and selling on Harwin is a magic act of sorts, an agreed-upon illusion between vendor and purchaser. The customers, more often than not, are seeking the status-conferring power of a designer label such as that on an authentic Chanel bag, which indeed can sell for as much as $1,800 in an upscale department store. But they settle for the illusion of status that can be obtained for $59 in the back room of a Harwin shop, knowing full well that the goods are fake and may fall apart.

The merchants, meanwhile, aren't necessarily perpetrating a fraud -- they know that the customer knows that the items are counterfeit. But on occasion a customer isn't a willing participant in the illusion, and the merchants can wind up being arrested.

Several days later, I take my "Coach" bag to the Coach boutique in the Galleria. The clerk there takes two seconds to pronounce my Harwin purchase a "bootleg." She says about five people a week try to return fake Coach bags to the Galleria store, after the bags have begun to fall apart.

Along the Harwin Strip, everyone takes their chances.
"It's kind of rough and wild out here," says Hedy Feder-Glaser, a landlord at the Harwin Discount Center near Gessner. "It attracts all kinds."

New York has Canal Street. Los Angeles has Santee Alley. And Houston has Harwin. The three cities are considered America's major hubs for the sale and distribution of counterfeit merchandise -- handbags, wallets, sunglasses, T-shirts, watches, key rings, gimme caps and audio and videocassette tapes. In other words, almost any portable consumer item a heart might desire.

When people refer to the Harwin shopping area, they generally mean a two-mile stretch of the street running west from Hillcroft to Gessner. It's a typical Houston vista: a flat, featureless street bracketed by a jumble of industrial-park warehouses, generic strip centers and larger shopping centers. The architecture is uniformly drab. At intervals, Harwin is sliced in two by treeless boulevards. Signs from area businesses crowd the roadside.

Most of the Harwin stores are owned by Asian, Middle Eastern or Indian immigrants, and there's a certain Third World-cum-border town flavor about the place -- without, of course, the native charm or character. On Harwin, you won't find the beggars or the shoe shiners or the colorful open-air stalls you'd expect in, say, New Delhi or Nuevo Laredo. The shopping experience on Harwin is less like wandering an Arab souk than like buying something out of the trunk of a car.

Yet Harwin has its secrets. Foremost among them is its number of stores. There are actually 300 shops on Harwin, as many as in the Galleria. That there doesn't appear to be anywhere near that number is part of the Harwin illusion: many of the shops are hidden in a maze behind the stores that are visible from the street.

The names of the establishments, however, are wholly devoid of mystery. The Galleria may have cutesy-named outlets such as Artifact and Catattitudes, but on Harwin, the shop names are strictly generic: there's Fashion Kid and Fashion News, Fashion Expo and Fashion Tree. Giant signs with bold letters often advertise the available wares: SILK FLOWERS, PERFUME, JEWELRY, MEN'S UNDERWEAR. They're easy to read from cars traveling along Harwin. For further enticement, merchants often hang their goods on their storefronts, so that drive-by shoppers can see denim dresses and glittering pageant gowns flapping in the breeze. Such eye-catching gambits are a necessity, since foot traffic is almost unknown along Harwin, where sidewalks seem to stop and start at random and at some points lead pedestrians straight into a muddy field.

Another thing that's no secret about Harwin is the profusion of illicit merchandise available there. The U.S. Customs Service claims that as many as half of the stores on Harwin sell at least one counterfeit item. Once a year, usually near Christmas, Customs raids a slew of shops and scoops up bags, watches, wallets and clothing being passed off as authentic designer or licensed merchandise. The volume of fake items in some raids has been so enormous that Customs has had to employ an 18-wheeler to transport the seized goods.  

Sun Nam Gepp, who reputedly sold the strip's best fake copies of the pricey and popular Dooney & Bourke handbags, was one of seven Harwin shop owners who were served warrants in 1994. Gepp, who is now serving an eight-month jail sentence, was ultimately convicted of trafficking in counterfeit merchandise. To a small coterie of avid Harwin shoppers, her imprisonment was a devastating loss. To Customs, it was a warning to other merchants that they'll be punished if they infringe upon trademark rights.

Gepp was among the first Harwin merchants to receive jail time. Prior to her imprisonment, shopkeepers were generally given a slap on the wrist in the form of a civil injunction to halt the sale of ersatz designer goods. Bogus bags and other merchandise were seized, but the store operators simply moved to another Harwin location, opened up a new shop with a new name, and started over again.

The business of selling bootleg merchandise is so profitable -- often, large quantities of goods are shipped out of the Harwin stores wholesale -- that merchants have been willing to risk having to start from scratch again. Court documents in the 1994 arrests revealed that one man was making $60,000 a month selling fake handbags, including a large volume of Dooney & Bourkes.

"It's a real cat and mouse game," says Mike McKenna, a private investigator who regularly roams Harwin making undercover buys for Dooney & Bourke. "As we have gotten better at enforcing, they have gotten better at avoiding detection."

While it's the chance of finding fake designer goods that attracts a certain segment of Harwin's customers -- people perhaps seeking that certain nervy jangle of excitement that comes from treading (safely, of course) on the fringes of the law -- there is a vast sea of other consumer goods on Harwin that are not counterfeit. The area is a crossroads for some of the best and worst products of fertile minds across the globe, a free-market bazaar for everything from Compaq computers to lime green plastic telephones shaped like cucumbers and ceramic cow sugar-and-creamer sets. On Harwin, it's not uncommon to find one side of a table loaded with handbags while the other is stacked high with frying pans.

If you can put up with the overall lack of display, there are many legitimate bargains to be found -- on rugs, costume jewelry, perfume, shoes and luggage. It's also possible to purchase merchandise wholesale, if a shopper possesses a tax identification number that will permit taxes to be deferred until the point of final purchase. Not that the Harwin shopper always needs a tax ID number to buy an item marked for wholesale.

One recent Saturday afternoon, a customer sailed into Polo-Ray Sunglasses, a Harwin store that displays a giant pair of eyeglasses on the outside of a nondescript brick building, seeking to buy a pair of sunglasses. Business was slow, and the spacious store was empty save for two young clerks dining on Chinese noodles and vegetables. For the retail customer, the store offered several kiosks of sunglasses and reading glasses near the front door. The rest of the place was jammed with tables full of cardboard containers, with samples of the contents -- nothing but sunglasses -- attached to the fronts of the boxes. The cost averaged about $10 for a dozen pair.

One clerk told the shopper the sunglasses in the boxes were reserved for wholesale buyers. The customer, though, was not to be deterred. After spotting a pair of tortoiseshell frames that were going for $7.50 a dozen, he asked if he could buy some; they're similar, he told the clerk, to a pair that cost him $20 in a department store. And then, for no apparent reason, the clerk changed her mind, selling him two pair for $5.

That transaction revealed another of Harwin's secrets: there are no rules governing the bargaining. Each shop operates by its own code. A customer shouldn't assume anything.

Some wholesalers will sell retail, and some won't. Some stores bargain on prices, and some don't. And the rules can change from day to day. When I stopped back at Polo-Ray Sunglasses a few days later, the store manager refused to sell me any wholesale sunglasses without a tax ID number. She explained that the clerk who sold the sunglasses had made a mistake.

One more thing: never assume you've gotten a good deal just because it's been presented that way. After thinking I had scored a bargain with my $29 faux Coach bag, I visited two other stores. A clerk at Jazz Trading informed me that the bag sells for about $15. At Kas Trading, a clerk offered to sell me the same bag for $16.  

The storeowner is in his thirties and from Pakistan, and one day recently he sat in the backroom of his shop and explained the facts of commercial life on Harwin. His story is typical of many other merchants on the strip. He worked for a Harwin shop owner before saving up enough money to open his own. Compared to some backrooms, his inventory of knockoffs is paltry. There are the usual Chanel bags of all shapes and colors resting on pegs on the wall. We are sitting at a table on which rest a few fake Polo T-shirts.

The storeowner knows, of course, that selling counterfeit merchandise is illegal. But he does it anyway, because that's what his customers want.

"If I stopped doing it," he says, "no one would buy from me."
Just at that moment, the voice of a woman customer echoes from the front of the store: "Do you have Coach? Can you put a Coach tag on it?"

Such a request is almost a Harwin mantra. Around noon on another day, in another Harwin shop, I was sitting with another Harwin merchant, watching as customers entered. One wall of the shop was covered in Dooney & Bourke bags, another with costume earrings. This merchant, who also is in his early thirties, moved to the U.S. from India a decade ago, began working at convenience stores and gradually saved enough money to open his own business.

"It's not as if we are trying to fool anyone," he said about the counterfeit issue. "We are not out on the streets trying to sell a fake Rolex as a real one. Customers know they are buying a fake. They want fakes."

As if on cue, a tall, well-dressed businessman strolled into the store and asked to see Rolex watches. A clerk headed to the parking lot, then returned shortly with a silver watch she had fetched from a car. It's not uncommon for a shop to store bootleg merchandise in the owner's vehicle, in case a private investigator hired by a designer comes cruising in.

The man slipped the fake Rolex on his wrist, then extended his arm to admire the timepiece. "It sells for $5,000," he said, speaking of an authentic Rolex. But this day, on Harwin, it -- or a reasonable facsimile -- was his for a mere $53. The customer pulled out a VISA card, but the store wouldn't accept it. Nor would it accept his corporate American Express card. And his wife, he told the clerk, had his checkbook.

Then another secret of Harwin was revealed as the storeowner intervened.
"No problem," he told the customer. "Bring the money by tomorrow."
The owner explained that the man is a regular, and he trusts him.

"Where else do you get service like that?" the businessman said as he departed, wearing his new fake Rolex.

When I checked back a few days later, the storeowner said the businessman had shown up the next day with the $53 in cash.

"Of course," he said. "He's a good customer."

In 1981, Rick Gilger came to Harwin and opened one of the strip's first stores, the Luggage & Leather Outlet, a shop that today anchors the Harwin Discount Center near Gessner. Gilger's store has a longstanding reputation for offering good prices on quality briefcases, luggage, wallets and, more recently, handbags.

It's all legitimate merchandise. So why does Gilger remain on Harwin? The answer is easy: low rent, the same attraction that drew him to the street 15 years ago. Gilger says he would have to pay four to five times as much for a lease in a mall. And to keep prices low, he says, "you have to have affordable rent."

In the early '80s, the strip had only two stores. The retail explosion began a few years after Gilger's arrival with the opening of General Goods at 8000 Harwin. That Korean-owned store paved the way for other enterprising immigrants, and by 1990, the block of Harwin between Fondren and Gessner was bustling. More recently, the growth has spilled over to the blocks between Hillcroft and Fondren.

Hedy Feder-Glaser, a lawyer turned landlord, arrived on the strip eight years ago, opening up the Hosiery Outlets of America, where today Hanes stockings sell for $2.95 a pair instead of the $5.99 charged in a mall. Glaser has since sold the business; now, she and her husband Rick oversee the 30-store Harwin Discount Center.

It was Feder-Glaser's uncle, Nathan Aptekar, who, in the late '70s, opened the strip's first store, Warehouse 18, a now-defunct discount women's clothing store similar to Loehmann's. A Holocaust survivor, Aptekar came to Houston from Poland via Israel in the early '50s. His son now owns Discount Perfumes, a store well known for deals on domestic and international fragrances. There, Beautiful by Estee Lauder sells for $29 an ounce; at Neiman's in the Galleria, it goes for $36.  

Feder-Glaser is a one-woman chamber of commerce for Harwin, and she can get downright rhapsodic about the street's virtues. She likens it to the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century, when Eastern European immigrants arrived en masse and started small, bottom-of-the-line businesses. Once a family was settled, it brought over other relatives from the old country, and they took over the business. The same story has unscrolled along Harwin. Like many immigrants, the Houston newcomers see America as the land of opportunity.

Stationed at her desk in her tiny office wedged between two stores in the Harwin Discount Center, Feder-Glaser proudly reels off her tenants' homelands: Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Taiwan, India E and one Texan. Altogether, it's a melting pot of a dozen nationalities.

As one merchant explains it, "I came to America from India because in my country, only rich people can dream about what they want to do. In America, everyone can dream."

Harwin is a place for new arrivals to get a foothold on the economy, a less costly alternative to staking a lease in one of the city's megamalls. The consumer only benefits, Feder-Glaser contends.

"Where else can you go and get a dollar off?" she says.
Or find earrings for under $5.

Louie Chen, the bespectacled owner of the Harwin Discount Center's Fortuna Fashion, is fond of standing in the doorway of his store and informing passersby that his jewelry is half-price. Chen, who's from Taiwan, says he isn't greedy and wants to follow the law of the land -- that's why he refuses to sell counterfeit goods. "I just want to be comfortable," he says, adding that the headaches that come with selling ersatz goods aren't worth it, even though he, like everybody else on the strip, has heard the rumors that some merchants rack up $60,000 a week in sales of fake Dooney & Bourke purses.

Like most Harwin shopkeepers, Chen takes a no-frills approach to merchandising. Fortuna Fashion is housed in a long, narrow space with industrial carpet on the floor. The walls are lined with small packages of earrings, necklaces and bracelets, none with designer logos. A long display panel cuts the store in two and is stuffed with more merchandise.

On this particular day, a businesswoman named Sherol Zuniga is shopping for earrings in the back of Fortuna. Zuniga flashes a pair of animal print discs dangling from her ears. She paid, she says, $7 for them at Fortuna; later, she saw a similar pair for $40 in a department store. That's why, she says, she drops by Fortuna several times a month on her lunch hour.

Such bargains come as no surprise to Suzie Wilson, a "personal shopper" -- that is, someone who does the shopping for others too busy to shop for their own clothes and accessories. "If you are adventuresome," says Wilson, "Harwin offers a whole new shopping world."

Wilson makes regular trips to Harwin, but refuses to buy counterfeit. She finds plenty of other things to purchase for herself and her clients, ferreting out deals on jewelry, legitimate leather handbags perfume and shoes.

For four years, Wilson offered guided tours of the Harwin area through the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, piling tourists into a minivan and heading to Houston's last untamed wilderness of shopping. These days, she runs private tours, often taking out-of-town family and friends to the area.

"I go to Bayou Bend, drive them through River Oaks," she says, "and then Harwin."

Wilson is a regular at XTRA Shoes, one of the Harwin strip's few women's shoe stores. XTRA offers discount name-brand shoes, including Liz Claiborne, Nine West, Nina and Ferragamos. The Ferragamos, which can sell for $150 and up in most malls, go for $49 to $69 at XTRA.

Another regular Harwin shopper, whom we'll call "Jan," says there's a certain thrill to creating the illusion that she spends a lot of money putting together her look, even though she could well afford mall prices. Jan, who also shops for friends along Harwin, believes the area has flourished because of Houston's materialistic bent.

"Everyone in Houston enjoys looking good," she says. "The people who can't afford good merchandise want to look like they can. That's what makes us a good market."

Admittedly, though, sometimes what people want to make themselves look good on the cheap is a recognizable name, even if that name isn't legitimate. While some counterfeit goods are available year-round, certain fake items are highly visible only at certain times. During the Rockets' run to the NBA championship last year, for instance, Harwin was running hot with unofficial Rockets T-shirts. The knockoffs, usually of flimsy cotton and raunchily colored in fuchsia or jade, often sold for as low as $5. The authentic red-and-gold T-shirts sold in department stores for $16.  

Today on Harwin, Rockets T-shirts sell for $10 and up, and most appear legitimate. The legal merchandise is stamped with a silver foil hologram of the copyrighted NBA logo. While the holograms were developed to discourage copycats, the method isn't foolproof. According to Dan Young of the U.S. Customs in Houston, counterfeiters can now fake the holograms, although most won't go to that much trouble.

Other goods are much further underground than handbags and T-shirts. For example, though computer software programs and audio and videocassettes are frequently pirated, there's no trace of such items on Harwin for the everyday shopper. To penetrate to this layer of counterfeiting, say Customs officials, it takes a much longer time. Store owners must know a middleman before they will offer the goods.

Sometimes, however, it's not that difficult. When I ask about audio or videocassette tapes, a Harwin expert sends me to a strip called Harwin Wholesale between Hillcroft and Fondren. Unable to find the video store she suggested, I choose an electronics store that sells telephones, televisions and stereos. The clerk there has nothing to offer, but directs me to 8000 Harwin, a popular strip of 40 stores.

The first shop I enter at 8000 Harwin has a tray of cassette tapes on a glass display case near the cashier. I buy one -- Selena's Dreaming of You -- for $2.

A mile away at the Planet Music on the corner of Gessner and Westheimer, a clerk takes one look at the Selena tape and declares it a bootleg. A green stripe taped across the back is the giveaway. It's covering the copyright. We match the fake tape to the real thing, which sells at Planet Music for $10.78. The song titles on the fake are blurry. The cover has a pinkish cast. It appears as if the cover has been photocopied.

To see how easy it is to pass bootleg tapes back to legitimate businesses, my next stop is the music section of Barnes & Noble at the corner of Voss and Westheimer. The clerk turns the tape over in the palm of his hand and then sends me to the cassette section to make an exchange. No questions asked. Mission accomplished.

When I explain the tape is fake, he's surprised.
"It's a good bootleg," he says.
Maybe from the outside. But on this bootleg, Selena sounds like she's singing from inside a fish tank. Dreaming of You is a nightmare. Two dollars is too much to pay for it.

But someone will.

As one might imagine, the manufacturers of legitimate merchandise take what goes on along Harwin far more seriously than the shoppers who are out for bargains. They regularly deploy private investigators to make undercover buys. Mike McKenna, the Dallas private investigator who works with Dooney & Bourke, proudly calls himself part of the "purse police."

When Dooney & Bourke receives a tip that counterfeit bags are being sold at a particular location, it dispatches McKenna to check the shop out. He makes a buy and notifies Dooney & Bourke, which then decides if it wants to pursue a civil action against the seller.

Manufacturers argue that the counterfeit goods trade on their good names, ones that the companies have spent years building up. Their logo, which is their registered trademark, symbolizes quality, they say. When someone buys a counterfeit, manufacturers insist, both the customer and the company lose. The customer gets inferior goods, while the company is represented to the public as producing a shoddy product. The loss to legitimate businesses, companies claim, is in the billions of dollars.

For example, a department store clerk may not know a legitimate bag from a fake, and if a customer exchanges a fake for a real Dooney or an authentic Selena tape, the company loses $200 on a Dooney or $10 on a cassette.

Worldwide, according to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition Inc., between 5 percent and 8 percent of all products sold are counterfeit. Texas is said to be one of the places that pushes up such statistics. The state is one of the hottest markets in America for Dooney & Bourke bags, which are extremely popular with Houston teens. It's no surprise that Dooney & Bourke look-alikes are the best-selling bags on the Harwin strip. Even stores that sell electronics will often carry a few Dooneys.  

The fake Dooneys are usually made of vinyl; copying them in leather wouldn't be worth it, since the counterfeiter would then have to charge almost as much as a merchant selling legitimate goods. But fake Chanel bags do tend to be leather. Since a real Chanel bag can cost as much as $1,800, it makes economic sense to copy them in leather. Even made of the pricier material, a Chanel knockoff -- as I'd discovered for myself -- can be sold for as little as $59 in a Harwin shop.

Because Chanel's intertwined double C logo is embossed on the bags, and can't be put on at point of purchase as is the case with the Coach bags, shop owners frequently keep their ersatz Chanels hidden away. "Do you have any Chanels?" is often the code used to gain entry into the backrooms of Harwin.

Customs Service officials say many of the fake goods flowing into Harwin originate in China and Korea. They also say there's no way to estimate the volume of counterfeit goods that pass out of Harwin. Since Harwin is a major distribution center, it ships tons in large wholesale volumes to stores around the country. Houston is a major counterfeiting hub for the same reasons it's a center for drug smuggling: an international airport, the Mexican border and the port.

Since there's always a chance of a raid, many merchants store their fake goods off-site. In November, Customs found dozens of Rolex watches in a house on Beechnut in southwest Houston.

There is on the Harwin strip a healthy paranoia that's almost palpable. Shop owners are usually careful to size up their customers and are suspicious of new faces.

I found that out when I entered Jazz Trading for the first time. Seeing me, the manager suddenly picked up a phone and blew a paper party-favor whistle shrilly into the receiver. He spoke rapidly as he continued to blow the whistle into the phone.

I identified myself as a reporter and asked if he were signaling someone because he suspected I was an investigator.

No, he replied, he just likes to blow the whistle because it's fun.
When I probed further, the man refused to talk, touching his left ear, then his right ear, then his eyes and his mouth. Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing, he explained.

But Customs officials claim there is indeed an informal telephone tree up and down Harwin that goes into action during raids. That's why they coordinate their raids to hit six or seven stores simultaneously.

The whistle-blowing clerk looked agitated when I asked if there's an organization of businessmen in the area. It was a relatively harmless question, but he didn't take it that way. "No, no Mafia," he said, apparently thinking I was referring to organized crime.

Still, the man's paranoia was not without good cause. The day before, it turned out, a shop in the same center had been raided by people who claimed to be, but weren't, acting on federal authority.

According to Rick Glaser, the landlord at Harwin Discount Center, three burly private investigators bulled their way into one of his tenants' stores, a store that sells handbags and sunglasses. According to Glaser, one of the men, Monty Drake, claimed the DEA had ordered them to confiscate bogus Oakley sunglasses. They flashed a badge at the store owner, then informed him that they wouldn't call Customs if he cooperated. Despite not having a search warrant, the three faux cops started carting off boxes of sunglasses and pitching them into their car.

The shop owner called Glaser, who called the Houston Police Department. Two officers from the west-side substation broke up the scene, returning the boxes of sunglasses to the shop owner.

Glaser said he learned the men were actually private investigators from Dallas. Monty Drake called later to apologize. But Glaser called the Harris County District Attorney's office to report the seizure.

He also called the DEA to ask if it had ordered the hit on the sunglasses. A DEA official, says Glaser, laughed. "Sunglasses, we have nothing to do with that," Glaser says he was told. "We only do drugs."

Monty Drake denies saying he was connected with the DEA and claims the shop employees voluntarily surrendered their bogus Oakleys. Drake also says he had the final word in the counterfeit wars. Days after his failed attempt at the seizure, he returned with ten HPD officers. This time, he seized more than 100 pairs of sunglasses. Three shop owners and employees on Harwin were arrested.

Wandering among the shops of Harwin, running your hands through the piles of merchandise haphazardly arranged in many of the stores, it can be hard for the average shopper to get particularly exercised over the issue of fakes, even if the FBI has labeled theft of intellectual property the crime of the 21st century. (Intellectual property is a broad term that covers any original work with a registered trademark, including everything from screenplays and software to the Ralph Lauren polo player logo.)  

True, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition points out that the economic costs of counterfeiting exceeds $200 billion a year. The group -- a lobbying organization representing manufacturers, investigators and patent attorneys -- also warns darkly that 750,000 jobs, and billions in tax revenues, are lost due to foreign counterfeiting of U.S. products. Mark Green, New York City's Consumer Affairs Commissioner, has estimated that counterfeiting has cost his city more than $350 million in lost tax revenues.

There are no figures available for what Houston may have lost in tax revenue to sales of fakes, though obviously some money fails to make its way into the city's coffers. I can testify to that first hand: when I bought a Dooney & Bourke look-alike forest green and black vinyl key chain at Kas Trading in the 8000 block of Harwin, the clerk, who recognized me from a previous visit, attached, without asking, a gold Dooney duck to the generic $2 ring. A real Dooney key ring in leather sells for $20 in Macy's. I paid cash for my downscale item given upscale cachet. There was no sales slip, no tax. When I asked about the tax, the clerk smiled. "For you," she said, "no tax."

A bargain for me, but not necessarily a bargain for the city of Houston. But that's not all, according to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. The lobbying group suggests that my purchase not only robbed my hometown of its rightful cut, but that by buying my $2 key chain, I had furthered the aims of organized crime. Because counterfeit operations are relatively risk free, and offer enormous profits, the Coalition says they are fertile ground for serious bad guys. The Coalition suspects everyone from the Islamic extremists linked to the World Trade Center bombing in New York to the Irish Republican Army of being involved in producing and selling counterfeit goods to fund terrorist activities.

But Customs official Dan Young is a bit skeptical of such claims. He's never noticed a substantial link between counterfeit goods and organized crime on Harwin, he says. Instead, he offers, "Harwin is mostly about people trying to make a buck."

Or trying to save one. Court documents show that the attorneys for the seven shop owners arrested in the 1994 raid on Harwin argued not only that there was no fraud involved, since both seller and buyer were fully aware that the merchandise was fake, but that customers who shop on Harwin are not the same as those who purchase legitimate bags at Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus. Therefore, the defense attorneys argued, companies such as Dooney & Bourke don't suffer any lost sales or profits.

But judging from some of the expensive cars seen parked on Harwin, this probably isn't the case. Bargain shopping isn't necessarily a respecter of incomes. At least one Houston stockbroker admits to shopping both in Neiman's and on Harwin. She bought a fake Chanel bag in the backroom of a Harwin store recently, but in the past she's paid $1,800 for a real one.

These days she doesn't carry either bag. The proliferation of fake Chanel bags has, in her mind, killed the bag's status, whether it be fake or real. Steve Abbott, a Houston attorney who represents Dooney & Bourke, puts it another way, saying, "A symbol of status has now become a symbol of suspicion."

That argument doesn't sway Harwin booster Hedy Feder-Glaser, who blames the runaway popularity of the counterfeits on the designers who insist on selling purses the average person can't afford. (A Harwin clerk agrees. "Who is to say who is cheating whom?" she asks. "Is a Chanel bag really worth $1,800? Or is charging $1,800 the real crime?") Feder-Glaser adds that she considers the rise of the knockoffs the "rise of the proletariat."

Who would have thought it? The rhetoric of Marx and Engels being resurrected in defense of unfettered capitalism. But then again, maybe the final secret of Harwin is a simple one about the human desire that motivated the early followers of both communism and laissez faire economics. "People want the good life, and they will get it any way they can," says Feder-Glaser. "They aren't robbing for it. They're just buying a purse.

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