Photo by Elbert Chu

Noxious or neighborly?

Money | Many of us know about pawnshops only from television, film, and suite-level depictions of all pawnbrokers as 'predators.' The street-level reality is more complex, as more than 30 million Americans learn, and the best place to find out is a pawnshop center, New York City

"Check 'em out. Check 'em out. Check 'em out. Cash for Gold!"

Two yellow pieces of cardboard sandwich Willy Neuius' five-foot frame. Nearby, people pour from a New York City bus. They jostle past Neuius, who stands outside Fast Cash of Apollo, a pawnshop across from the famous Apollo Theater on 125th St. in Manhattan. "Have a good day. God bless you," he calls after them. Other men pause to slap a hug around him.

Every day for the past three years, Neuius, 45, has walked this stretch of pavement, arriving at 10 a.m. and beckoning customers until dusk. On a street crowded with similar shops, Neuius works hard to promote Fast Cash by building relationships and fostering loyalty. His job is to bring customers into the narrow retail space where gold necklaces, colorful watches, and silver rings line the white walls and fill the glass display cases.

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In that space stands Morris Rafailov, 22, manager of this Fast Cash, one of five shops his brother owns. Rafailov wears a cream hoodie with a gold chain around his neck. He says his customers prefer pawning to banks because it's faster-most come in and leave with money in five minutes-and doesn't require a credit check. He says most people pawn items because a paycheck was late or they need money for rent. Some get rid of items they associate with bad memories.

Customers at one of New York City's 400 licensed pawnshops can buy back the item anytime within four months by paying back the money they received plus 4 percent interest per month. After four months the item belongs to the pawnshop, although Rafailov says he sometimes waits one more month before trying to sell it: He wants customer loyalty.

Rafailov speaks of the personal service he offers. He says that if a regular customer wants $500 for an item normally pawned for $400, he will give $500 "if the customer is in need. ... It's a case-by-case basis. I look at the customer." And Willy Neuius, his flagman on the sidewalk, has become a neighborhood staple. Neuius thrives on the excitement: "I love working with the public. I love meeting new people."

That talk of personal concern, and even "love," differs sharply from the depiction of pawnbrokers in the most famous film ever made about them, The Pawnbroker. Fifty years ago actor Rod Steiger began work on the film, shot largely on New York's 116th St., one mile away from Fast Cash of Apollo-and it became the highlight of his career. Steiger played Sol Nazerman, a German-Jewish concentration camp survivor with emotions so deadened that he buries himself in a dismal job, with a racketeer using his pawnshop as a front.

Asked why he is bitter, pawnbroker Nazerman replies, "I am not bitter. No, that passed me by a million years ago. ... Everything that I loved ... was taken away from me." Nazerman says he does not "believe in God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy." His God is "Money. ... That's all life is about. ... Money is the whole thing. ... Next to the speed of light, which Einstein tells us is the only absolute in the universe, second only to that, I rank money."

These days many Americans learn about pawnshops from popular cable television shows that make the business look like fun. Pawn Stars, in its second year, is the big hit of the History Channel: Up to 7 million people watch the saga of an upscale, family-run pawnshop in Las Vegas. Other new shows include Cajun Pawn, a Pawn Stars spin-off set in Louisiana, and The Learning Channel's Pawn Queens, which stars two women running a "female friendly" pawnshop in suburban Naperville, Ill.

The National Pawnbrokers Association, though, dislikes the new TruTV network's "sensational, edgy" show, Hardcore Pawn, which takes us inside Detroit's downscale American Jewelry and Pawn. Up to 2 million viewers watch members of the Gold family (Jewish) yelling at sad sack customers (mostly African-American) and each other. It resurrects long-buried ethnic and racial stereotypes.

Hardcore Pawn could be the Ku Klux Klan's dream show, and its negativity raises questions. Was Shopresale.net accurate when it recently asked, "Remember the days of the seedy looking pawnbroker in the dingy looking store that just looked like they were ready to rip you off?" The website then waxed exuberant: "Fast forward to the new millennium where the pawn shops look like high end jewelry stores. ... Mirrors, imported Italian marble, glowing lights, glass cases that shine so you can clearly see the Rolex watches on display. Wow. ... and the service that you receive! A smiling face. ..."


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