Inside a pawnshop, glimpses of a grim economy

A-1 Pawn, says the bright yellow sign facing traffic on Hillsborough Avenue. Gold-Guns-Autos-Anything-of-Value, it says, the value of what we have being much on our minds lately.

The blue building, once upon a time a doughnut shop, has a life-sized Elvis out front by the heavy metal security door. Inside the flea market of a store, two men behind the counter converse politely with customers who come bearing old jewelry, a diamond-crusted ring, an expensive gun scope. They talk money and fill out forms and make friendly conversation about fast cars, though it's hard not to notice each of the men behind the counter is sporting a gun on his hip, a .45 and 9mm, respectively.

This pawnshop is about cash, guns and gold, mostly cash, a business so basic they call it the original line of credit. Or as one of the men behind the counter puts it, the second oldest profession.

If this grim economy is done doing its worst, the news hasn't hit here yet. Business in what they call "collateral loans" is brisk, with 30 million Americans hitting pawnshops for an average loan of $80, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association. Still, the association says, 80 percent of customers repay their loans and retrieve their property.

This should be their slow time, but lately it's busy at the end of the month when paychecks run out, busy at the beginning when folks get paid and come back for what they left behind.

The men who work at A-1 get glimpses into lives. "The lights are off, and we need money today," manager Andre Chiasson has heard, or just enough gas money to make it through the workweek.

People bring in stereo speakers, a boxed Wii, family silverware, Blues Brothers statues. They sell things outright or pawn them. To the uninitiated, this means they agree on a loan amount, leave the item and pay a monthly charge — say 25 percent on $100. That means paying $125 in 30 days to get your stuff back.

There are rows and rows of diamond rings, huge, modest and horseshoe shaped — usually divorces, says manager Chiasson, an affable ex-Marine. He is poking through a customer's leavings: broken necklaces, a gold earring and a sparkly cocktail ring shaped in a "J," all likely to be melted down.

You never know what's next through the door: flat-screen TV, pink guitar, violin, maracas, a shotgun from the 1920s, a never-used gas generator from the last round of scary storms, now up for sale. (Bargain hunters hit pawnshops, too.) There's a Playboy collection dating back to 1970, price slashed to $239.95. Not making this up: In the parking lot sits a pawned tour bus.

Also behind a counter are an infinite variety of guns. A young woman looks at them longingly, tells them she wants one to carry in her purse. Later, the phone rings about some stolen guns. They'll keep an eye out.

Customers leave behind DVDs (Will & Grace Season I), fishing reels, and tools — so many tools since construction withered around here. These days, they can only take top-of-the line nail guns, pressure washers and such.

Chat with the men behind the counter and they get to remembering the lady who cried when she brought in her grandfather's gun to pawn, cried again when she paid it off and took it home. Said she'd never be back, but then, she was.

Inside a pawnshop, glimpses of a grim economy 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 8:11pm]

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