Rod Steiger doesn't work there any more.
The star of the 1964 movie, “The Pawnbroker,” would likely not recognize a pawn shop 46 years later, where the price of gold has topped $1,200 per ounce, where a recession has depleted the number of buying customers and where, on the History Channel, a show called “Pawn Stars” has repainted the old gloom with a coat of glitz.
“I think that was the stock Hollywood version of it that came from the movie – it was the sort of a place where unscrupulous people would come,” said Emmett Murphy, spokesman for the National Pawnbrokers Association.
Today, he said, pawn shops are “well-lit places. What we’re seeing – people think pawn is cool,”
And pawn brokers, he said, “are micro-finance lenders.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the trade, it’s about getting a loan and leaving something of value as collateral.
In Washington, where pawn brokers are regulated by state law, a shop can offer a loan at a stipulated interest rate. If the customer pays back the loan and the interest after a stated period, then the item will be returned. If not, then the pawn broker is free to sell the item.
Pawn brokers also purchase items outright and immediately offer them for sale.
And those items vary widely. A recent tour of a three Pierce County pawn shops netted a large mixed salad of items on display: jewelry, watches, wide-screen TVs and golf clubs, a glass eye and a stuffed owl, rifles and revolvers, golf clubs, tools and fishing equipment, musical instruments, silverware, jukeboxes, binoculars, and more, much more.
Kurt Morrison can’t bring himself to melt a certain gold bracelet. He’s been in the business at Western Jewelry and Loan since 1975, back when it was located in downtown’s Pacific Avenue tenderloin. He moved with the shop in 1985 to South Tacoma, and he has never seen the price of gold so high.
So high is the price and so defunct is the economy that retail customers are scarce for finely crafted jewelry, for rings and bracelets, watch cases, brooches and such.
Morrison finds it economical to sell gold jewelry instead as scrap to a smelter.
But he can’t bring himself to sell the child’s bracelet inscribed: “From daddy in France, Xmas 1918, Earl Jean Larado Welcome.”
Morrison asks, “How can I melt that?”
Today “we are basically gold brokers,” he said earlier this week. “The idea of taking tools in – who are we going to sell them to? Electronics – I cannot keep up with them.”
Like all pawn brokers, he reports his new merchandise daily, letting police know what items he has taken in. For a piece of jewelry, for example, he reports the number of stones, the color, the size. Rod Steiger wouldn’t recognize the place or the law-abiding ethos.
“My experience with pawn brokers is that they go the extra mile to be cooperative with police officers and prosecutors,” said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist.
“If the bad guys knew how cooperative the pawn brokers are, they would be more reluctant. The movie cliché is of this unsavory, underworld character. But I’ve had cases that really depend on pawn brokers.”
Two years ago, the average loan at Ponders Pawnbrokers was $40. Today, according to owner Mike Morehart, the average loan is $90.
“Our loans are down (by volume), and our loan average is up,” he said this week.
“We’re also getting bigger items. We’re getting 61-inch plasma TVs, higher-end jewelry we didn’t used to see, nicer firearms.”
He said he is meeting new customers, “a lot of people who’ve lost their jobs, or they’re down to a three- or four-day week.”
The default rate, loans that are not paid back and collateral that is not redeemed, has migrated upward: 21 percent last week against 12 percent 30 years ago.
Like others in the business, he enjoys his work. “You never know what you’re going to see next,” he said.
Sweeping a hand across a store filled with electronic equipment, rifles and jewelry, plus one glass eye and a stuffed owl with talons gripping a stuffed pheasant, he said, “It’s been fun. I get to play with things all the time.”
If the economy has changed the business temporarily, technology looks to have changed it fundamentally.
Morehart recalls the Savage Model 99 rifle that sat two months on a shelf, priced at $495. When he placed the item for sale online, it sold in two days for $767.
“It opens up a big market,” he said.
“The Internet has really helped out this industry,” said National Pawnbrokers Association President David Crume. “When I started up, it was dial-up. We used to have these big, fat encyclopedias. Now you can find stuff on just about anything.”
Inside retail sales are likewise slow at Hilltop Loans. Kenton Dale has owned the Tacoma store for nine years, and said business “is down. People aren’t buying as much.” Loans remain his primary business.
And he’d like to see more people take advantage of what pawn stores sell.
Take musical instruments for students. “I don’t know why more parents don’t check pawn shops,” he said. “It can be cheaper to buy a saxophone than to rent it for a year.”
There are limits to what he’ll buy, he said. Take the man who came in to pawn his prosthetic leg. “w e didn’t take it,” Dale said. “I don’t know what I would have done with it. I really would feel guilty.”
He advises that if someone has an item to sell, it’s best to check the price offered by a few different stores, although “most pawn shops are pretty close on their prices.”
Some customers simply use pawn shops as secure storage for high value items, taking a loan, paying the fee and knowing that their jewelry or firearms – or their lawn mowers – are safe until needed.
As with other retail outlets, pawn stores act as a bellwether for the economy.
The economy can show its first sign of trouble “when we start to see a lot of contractors bringing tools in,” NPA President Crume said.
Similarly, “when we start to see the nail gun counter empty out, then we’ll know” things have improved.
Today, those counters remain full.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 firstname.lastname@example.org