The man seemed nervous, maybe on drugs. He was white, in his 20s, with dreadlocks and a mustache. His left ear was pierced with a cross earring.

He lingered for a few minutes inside the ColorWheel Gallery, a combination hair salon and gallery in south Minneapolis where local artists sell their wares and neighbors often gather for folk music. Eileen Espinosa, 65, was working behind the counter on her regular once-a-week shift, managing the shop owned by her daughter, Tammy Ortegon.

The man approached and flashed a small pistol.

Open the register, he told Espinosa.

“No,” she said.

Espinosa, a grandmother, was working on pure instinct. She felt calm, and she sensed the young man was new to this.

“I felt like he’s somebody who made a mistake in his life and that he just decided to do this,” Espinosa told me a few days later. “He was very edgy. It’s a busy corner, and I said there were a lot of people outside if he decided to use the gun. You could tell he didn’t think it through. If he had been a really mean-looking guy, I might have reacted [differently].”

Espinosa and her daughter are involved in peace and justice issues. The shop sells pottery, jewelry, crafts and gently used books with “many items focusing on progressive ideas, diverse voices & social change,” according to their website. Their business core value is “that art should be accessible, affordable & inspirational to everyone.”

Espinosa said that if the man had come in and said he was hungry, she likely would have bought him a meal. She has only had one other problem at the gallery, from a man who came in to argue politics and got belligerent. She asked him to leave.

ColorWheel Gallery is a small business, and there is only a small sum of money in the till, Espinosa told the robber. She wasn’t about to give her daughter’s hard-earned money to him.

“I was being kind of a mama bear,” Espinosa said.

Then she hit him with this: “I told him that I have cancer and have no idea of how long I have left anyway, so if he shoots me, it will be no big deal,” Espinosa wrote on her Facebook page. “I will be gone earlier than I thought and he would be in prison. I asked him if this would all be worth it for $20.”

The man seemed uneasy. He didn’t know what to do.

In fact, Espinosa has survived four bouts of cancer. A disheveled man with a pistol doesn’t scare her much anymore. Besides, she knows nothing about guns and didn’t even know if it was real.

“I tend to take more chances,” she said. “What do I have to lose?”

The man asked her again to open the register.

“No,” Espinosa said.

She was still calm, and to her surprise, not afraid. Espinosa had sometimes wondered how she would act in such a crisis, but never planned it out. She was going by her gut. She was thinking of a grandson who had gotten in some trouble when he was younger, but overcame it and is doing well.

Espinosa reiterated that there were a lot of people sitting outside of the nearby restaurant and that if the man used his gun he would surely be caught.

He looked scared, then asked a preposterous question: “Could you at least help me out a little bit?”

“I almost laughed when he asked me for money,” Espinosa said. “I said, ‘No!’ ”

The dejected robber wanted to know if there was a back door.

Espinosa led the man to the rear of the shop and let him out. He took off on a dead run.

“I closed the door, latched it and then my knees buckled,” Espinosa said.

With the recent police shooting of Justine Damond fresh in her mind, Espinosa decided against calling police.

“Nobody got hurt, nobody got robbed,” she said. “If I’d called police, he could be dead or going to prison. I could be dead. Maybe he’s thinking about what happened. Everybody can change.”

Espinosa did, however, warn neighbors and area business owners. One of them called police, who later took a report. The officers did not scold her for refusing to give up the money. “Everything was very positive,” she said.

I asked Espinosa whether, in retrospect, she should have just given up the $20.

“The only thing I regret,” she said, “is that I didn’t yell that I was proud of him while he was running away.”


Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin