Avoid This List! A Good Reason for Balancing the Checkbook

By JESSIE ROYCE HILL

The daughter of a well known Island family had already bounced two checks to Shirley's Hardware when its owner, Jesse Steere, spotted her shopping among the nuts and bolts with her father one day.

Mr. Steere decided to confront her about the $96.89 she owed.

"She told me she'd been living in New York and hadn't gotten a chance to pay it," Mr. Steere recalled. "But even people who live in New York have to pay their bills."

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But this Islander turned New Yorker never did, and having her father present, laughing and shaking his head, did not help Mr. Steere recoup his loss as the owner had hoped it would.

Having failed with the reminder phone calls and the in-store chat, Mr. Steere tried a new tack. He put the woman's name on a list under the heading "Bounced Checks," and laminated it to the counter top, facing the customers. You can't miss it when you bring your merchandise to the register: Fifteen names and the delinquent amounts owed by each are visible for all to see. Which is precisely the point.

Shirley's Hardware began posting this list a couple of years ago when the store's books were brimming with bounced checks from Islanders. As a result of the public outing, Mr. Steere said the list - with check amounts ranging from $20 to $100 - is now a third the size.

Shirley's Hardware is not alone in this practice. Cronig's has a publicly posted bounced checks list of its own. The grocery store's comptroller, Ken Robinson, attributed his list's effectiveness to what he calls "the embarrassment factor."

The aim is not to punish one-time offenders, Mr. Steere and Mr. Robinson insisted, but to solve a recurrent business problem by appealing to the small community they serve.

"Sometimes a customer has a problem and can't pay us right away and we work something out," Mr. Steere said. "I try to be understanding. But if they're out having steak dinners, then why don't they pay their bills?"

Mr. Steere, who helped build the store he has worked in for 30 years, has spent a great deal of time trying to track down the people who owe him. He's got the ledgers to prove it, with notes like "left another message, phone disconnected, no response" scrawled next to the bad checks of the names in his file. At one point he employed a collection agency to help, as well as the Tisbury police department. But the posted list seems to work better.

"We don't put you on the list until we've tried to reach you, left messages, sent letters," said Mr. Steere. "The sad, weird part is that some of these people are friends of mine. They tell me they didn't realize it because there are plenty of checks left in their book. I guess people don't balance their books. What do you do?"

One of the things Island stores do is share their lists, apprising one another of chronically neglectful customers. "It's a service to other merchants, as well as ourselves," said Mr. Robinson of Cronig's, whose list includes the name, check number and amount of each bad check, along with a running tally, currently over $13,000, owed the store.

"It especially becomes a problem now, after the holidays," noted Mr. Robinson, "when Islanders have spent their summer earnings and haven't put anything away for the winter."

Cronig's, too, is willing to work with those who have come into hard times, but customers who have bounced a check will be added to the list within a month, and there the names remain until the balance is paid in full.

Unlike the smaller Shirley's Hardware, Cronig's is able to use its sophisticated computer system to automatically lock out account numbers from which bad checks have been written. Its list is therefore intended purely as an alert to the Island community, a way of encouraging customers to pay up and not make the mistake again.

In some instances the public shaming leads to acts of charity. Mr. Steere recalled a man who saw his neighbor's name on the list and paid her bill. "He told me, ‘She's a nice lady, she's just having a hard time.'"

The Tisbury police department views the public list as a good preventive measure. Since Cronig's and Shirley's Hardware began employing the tactic, "other stores have contacted us about their bad checks more than those," said police chief Theodore Saulnier.

Still, some stores frown upon the embarrassment factor. Reliable Market's bookkeeper Jennifer Freeman said she wouldn't post a bounced check list for customers to see. "That's very personal," she said. "It's an invasion of privacy."

Merchants acknowledge that checks are gradually becoming less common as debit cards replace them. But small communities perhaps hang on longer to customs, and many Islanders are accustomed to writing checks without being asked for identification or even a phone number.

Mr. Steere tries to impress upon customers that it is a privilege to write a check, rather than a right. He hopes his list makes the point. "Stealing is the worst thing you can do to me," he said. "And bouncing checks is stealing."