HARLEM — When he opened up Freeland Liquor & Wine at Lenox Avenue and 119th Street last year, Berihu Mesfin installed riot gates outside and encased the bottles of alcohol behind bullet-proof glass to keep the store and its clerks safe.
If they were still there, he said, a spate of recent break-ins would not have happened.
After residents of the Mount Morris Park Historic District complained they gave the store a "ghetto" look that did not fit into a neighborhood with $2 million brownstones and celebrity residents like Maya Angelou, he removed the glass and installed see-through gates to comply with city building codes.
Business was good until the early morning hours of March 17. That's when burglars snipped the gates, drilled a hole in the lock and made off with $4,000 in cash and 180 bottles of Ciroc, Hennessy, Patron and Remy Martin.
Five nights later, the same men broke in again, according to police.
"If I had the other gate [in], this wouldn't have happened," said Mesfin, referring to the riot gates that angered local residents.
Despite the raids, Mesfin said he has no plans to re-install the bullet-proof glass because he doesn't want to offend his customers.
But he doesn't feel safe.
"I have to ready myself," he said. "They may come back.
"The customers are happy to see the store open so they can touch the liquor but, on the other hand, it's not safe."
Video footage from the break-ins shows the hooded men jumping the counter and stuffing their pockets with cash. They then stack bottle after bottle of expensive liquor on the counter before pushing it out the door. Outside, at least one man stands watch.
As news of the burglaries spread, some members of the community called them an anomaly in a gentrifying neighborhood that many consider one of Harlem's finest. Others felt that the changes to the store have put Mesfin, his staff and his property at risk.
"They should have let him use the old gate," said Leroy Dingle, 72, a retired hotel worker who has lived in the neighborhood since 1963.
"That new gate was like a toy. He needs that partition too. To be open like that is not good. I worry about my friend."
Laurent Delly, co-founder of real estate advertising firm Property Roster and vice president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, which objected to the original design of the store, said his group is upset about what happened to Mesfin.
"This is embarrassing," he said.
"It puts a bad taste in our mouths. We know some people are going to say: 'I told you so.' "
He has no doubt that the group did the right thing for the neighborhood. Two new stores that are opening are installing canopy signs to comply with the look of the neighborhood.
"We take this very seriously and we are going to help him," said Delly. "We are going to continue to give him business and support him more than ever.
"We are not going to let a few people bash the neighborhood and bring the neighborhood down."
Syderia Chresfield, president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, said the store was also in violation of Department of Building and Landmark and Preservation Commission rules when it installed a neon sign and riot gates without approval.
Both agencies cited the store with violations because the building is landmarked.
"We are not changing that we didn't like the look of the store but they weren't following the rules of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the building department," she said of the removal of the riot gates and sign.
Once she heard about the burglaries, Leah Abraham, the co-owner of neighboring eatery Ristorante Settepani, went across the street to give Mesfin a "hug of support." Abraham said the burglaries were not a trend.
"This can happen anywhere when you have a cash business," she said.
Indeed, burglaries in the 28th Precinct were down 12 percent from this time last year, according to police statistics from March 12 - 18, the most recent data available.
Burglaries are down 32 percent from two years ago. In 1993, the precinct recorded 877 burglaries. Last year, there were 126 burglaries, according to police statistics.
If her experience is an example, Abraham said the neighborhood will support the store even more now.
That's what happened when the restaurant, a pioneer on Lenox Avenue, was robbed at gunpoint twice in five days in 2001. Shaken after the second gunpoint robbery, Abraham said she considered walking away.
"What kept me was the support from the community," she said.
"They came to the restaurant the next night and said, 'You are not moving.' "
Sandy Toder, a singer who has lived in the area for seven years, said she planned to patronize Freeland Liquor & Wine as often as possible because of the thefts.
"We can't let those guys win," she said of the burglars. "We should win."
As more businesses move to the area, burglaries will become even more rare, Abraham said.
"There's power in numbers. The more businesses that are concentrated together, the more support they get. It also brings a sense of security," she said.
But Mesfin said he isn't feeling so secure right now. He is well-liked in the neighborhood and sees many of his customers who smile and shake his hand when he steps outside. The burglars, he said, don't represent most of the neighborhood.
"They are useless," he said of the burglars. "They are doing something where they will end up in jail or being killed."