"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.
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. ..."
On New York City's Amsterdam Avenue, amid a residential neighborhood with markets and delis, a huge CVS, a Dunkin' Donuts, and a local gelateria, stands a 5-foot-high black-and-white sign that proclaims, "Lincoln Square Pawn, LOAN, WE BUY GOLD & DIAMONDS." The shop's front room twinkles with gold and diamonds. The white walls gleam with rows of polished guitars hanging like trophies, and the sales team dresses in black business suits.
Daniel, the manager of this third-generation pawnshop that has been under the same ownership since 1946, has wrinkles on his face and cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He smiles when a customer approaches, but dust and scratches on the screen make it hard to see his face, so customers often lean in until their noses almost touch the glass that separates buyer and seller.
He explains to newcomers the process of pawnbroking-then sometimes explains it again, slowing his words when the customer doesn't understand. The store sends three reminder letters and holds things eight months longer than the legal minimum to encourage clients to reclaim their items. In a city like New York where competition is fierce, pawnshops like Lincoln Square Pawn have to work to retain customers-and those who get their items back are more likely to pawn again.
When one customer wants to sell her gold necklace, Daniel eyes the gold chain hanging around her neck and says, "That doesn't seem to be worth much. It looks really light." He agrees to test the value of the customer's jewelry, then weighs and tests the purity of the gold, then meticulously examines the stones with a backlight. "Yeah, sorry, the most I can give you would be $20," he says, slipping the necklace back.
Pawnbrokers in America have been saying "the most I can give" since colonial days, as historian Wendy Woloson (In Hock, U. of Chicago Press, 2009) notes. Nineteenth-century records show one item in pawn for every man, woman, and child living in New York City. On one typical day, Aug. 21, 1838, pawnbroker John Simpson took in 130 pieces of collateral at his pawnshop at 25 Chatham Street, close to where Madame Restell, who became New York's most famous abortionist, plied her trade.
Simpson gave $2 for an accordion, 50 cents for a pistol, 25 cents for eyeglasses, $1 for a music box, $3 for a quilt, $4 for a violin, and $18 for a gold watch chain and key. (Multiply those amounts by 100 to get a rough sense in 2012 of the dollars and cents.) Pawnbrokers throughout the country made similar offers: Ulysses S. Grant pawned his gold watch and chain in 1857 for $22.
Although some early 19th-century reformers wanted to outlaw pawnshops, most acknowledged that pawning-"banking for the poor"-had a necessary role in an urban economy. In 1838, an association of 17 Philadelphians asked the Pennsylvania state legislature for permission to establish a pawnshop that would make small loans on materials goods. They argued that pawnshops gave the "necessitious poor relief of the most valuable kind, enabling them in Seasons of difficulty to provide funds for their immediate Support and in many instances preserving themselves and families from utter ruin."
As Woloson relates, those Philadelphians did not succeed, nor did a proposal in 1848 to establish a Benevolent Loan Institution for the City of Brooklyn. But in 1849 Hunt's Merchants Magazine, a leading business journal, observed that pawnshops were necessary but some pawnbrokers took advantage of "the neediest of the needy." The magazine supported the establishment of reduced-cost pawnshops that would "increase the power of the poor to help themselves."
The Chattel Loan Company in Philadelphia (1855) and the Pawners' Bank of Boston (1860) were the next two compassionate conservative attempts-and the Boston venture worked. It allowed customers to redeem their goods by paying 1.5 percent monthly interest rates. The Pawners' Bank was still in business in 1893, when a business crash put new pressure on charitable groups and the most famous benevolent pawnshop, the Provident Loan Society of New York City (see page 76), began to operate.
Erica, 25, her dark wavy hair pulled back in a ponytail, sits behind thick glass at N. Simpson Pawnbrokers at 149 Canal Street in lower Manhattan. (Simpson is such a famous name in pawnbroking that the Saturday Evening Post in 1937 asked its readers, "Is Your Watch at Simpson's?") Across the street from the pawnshop, jewelry shops glitter with gold and silver necklaces encrusted with diamonds, but at N. Simpson the only decoration is a 19th-century gold scale that gathers dust on top of a filing cabinet.
Customers are rarely the chatty types of Pawn Stars. More frequent: A short, slender man shuffles in under the red awning that spells out LOANS. He slides an envelope under the partition in the glass. Erica dumps the contents on the counter: several smooth gold nuggets. She studies them, then looks up and asks: "How much do you need? Nine hundred?" He responds, "Can I have one thousand?" Then he slides another gold item under the partition and asks for $1,100.
Erica nods. Ten years in the pawnshop business has taught her to spot false gold. She tests jewelry with acid or by scratching it. She knows her regulars-many of Asian ancestry-by name, and says most of the loans at Simpson are for gambling debts. Many of her Asian customers don't trust banks: They hold their savings in gold and sell some the way others withdraw money from a bank. Others have no savings and a generation ago might have fallen prey to loan sharks who break the legs of non-payers. (That was Rocky Balboa's job at the beginning of the famed film series.) Now, Erica asks concerning her customers, "Where else are they gonna go?"
Simpson charges 4 percent monthly interest and a 4 percent handling fee. For his $1,100 loan, the customer pays $88 interest/handling the first month, and $44 every additional month. About 80 percent of customers reclaim their items. Many will sell them the next time they need gambling cash.
One regular customer, Denise, is talkative. Dressed in red sweatpants and a grey hoodie, she says she regularly pawns jewelry and games, and once pawned her valuable Nikon camera-and never reclaimed it. Her hand shakes as she attempts to light a cigarette: "I've been pawning since the shop opened." She cannot quite remember when that was, but guesses about five years ago: "I need the money."
About 30 million people each year need the money or come to pawnshops looking for bargains. The National Pawnbrokers Association keeps records of customer numbers and average loan amounts: $100 in 2009, maybe up to $150 now. Banks generally don't make loans that small, or to people with poor credit-and since the 2008 banking collapse they've been more reluctant to take chances.
Pawnbrokers do take chances with their loans, because they hold the collateral and can make money whether the customer reclaims his item or gives it up. The question is how much money. Pawnshops generally charge more than banks and even credit card companies do, but 17 million American adults do not have bank accounts and access to loans, some by choice and some because banks have stopped throwing money at people with bad credit. Some say past bank overdraft fees and credit card late fees have cost them more than pawnshop interest.
Others like speed: When they offer an ID and hand over a piece of their property, they can get a loan without requiring a credit check, bank account, or a co-signer. Because the loan is based on collateral, borrowers do not have to keep paying and paying: The most they can lose is the item they've handed over to the pawnbroker. One danger is that pawnshop loans can hook users into a cycle of debt, but the risk is not as high as with other types of loans, since pawn loans tend to be smaller.
The Obama years have seen the rise of pawnshop chains. Two of the biggest, EZCorp and Cash America International, both Texas-based, do about 10 percent of the business done by the 13,000 mostly mom-and-pop pawnshops in the United States. The two companies target middle-class consumers who earn $30,000 to $80,000 a year.
Pawnshops used to be known as places trading in stolen items, but now pawnshops typically need to submit reports to local police that include serial numbers of items and identifying information concerning sellers. Since police can confiscate stolen merchandise and the pawnbroker has to take the loss, pawnbrokers have a financial interest in avoiding stolen property-but some shoplifters at stores reluctant to prosecute, and drug abusers who steal from families reluctant to prosecute, still get away with it.
New York City's Department of Consumers Affairs (DCA) has other concerns about pawnshops. DCA investigators last fall went undercover into businesses that dealt in gold, including pawnshops, and found widespread deception in weighing and pricing. The DCA also examined whether pawnshops stayed in business largely because banks did not have branches in poor areas, with residents lacking bank accounts turning to pawnbrokers instead. The study, though, showed no correlation between the number of bank branches per capita and the number of people with bank accounts.
Gavriel Shaulod for 10 years has managed Arthur's Gold Market in East Harlem, buying and selling to customers from the surrounding poor neighborhood. He calls himself the neighborhood guy because he helps his customers in financial difficulties: "People are absolutely grateful that I'm giving them money because it means that they aren't getting evicted from their homes."
One customer asks the value of her wedding and engagement rings. Shaulod peers through a jeweler's loupe, sighs, and meets her eyes apologetically. The rings cost $1,500, and Shaulod offers $300, explaining that he bases his offer on the amount he knows he can get for the ring. A diamond's price, like a car's, falls the moment it leaves the jewelry store.
Shaulod hides a smile each time one particular man makes his monthly trip to the shop and pawns his wedding band. Every month the man's wife drags him back to the shop, yelling and screaming at him to buy it back. Shaulod says, "She doesn't understand that he is the man of the house and has to pay the bills. She just thinks he doesn't care about the ring."
Shaulod charges 3 percent interest for four months (1 percent less than New York state law allows) plus a $5 ticket and taxes fee. He gives his customers a two-week grace period, sometimes more: "People call me and say, 'Gavriel, don't sell my things,' and it's been more than four months. I tell them to come pick up their stuff. I ask them how much time they need."
Arthur's Gold Market is 10 blocks away from the intersection of Park Avenue and 116th St., where a half-century ago filmmakers shot most of The Pawnbroker.
-With reporting by Christina Darnell, Kara Hackett, Abigail Maurer, Kira Clark, Sophia Lee, Samantha Gilman, J.C. Derrick, Kara Bettis, and Catherine Rogers.
For more about pawnshop benevolence and today's opportunities, see my column, "Mission field: Pawnbroking."