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For St. Louis 'pawn stars,' business is more down to earth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2012 - On any given day at the St. Charles Pawn Shop, owner Kimberly Zander expects to see customers hocking jewelry, music equipment and tools.

Gold rings and necklaces ... guitars and amplifiers ... power drills and paint sprayers ... the occasional digital camera ...

The bread and butter of Zander's pawn business is routine items. So, if you're bargain hunting for, say, Civil War cannons or presidential golf balls or autographs of English royalty -- the stuff of reality TV pawn -- you won't find them in Zander's neatly organized store on South Fifth Street in St. Charles. The local pawn business, she says, isn't nearly as lively as the cable shows that have elevated their star pawnbrokers to celebrity status in recent years.

"I think the shows are entertaining to a lot of people,'' Zander said. "And they have shed a different light on the pawn industry -- which is a positive.''

Perhaps the most notable is the History Channel's "Pawn Stars," which follows the exploits of the Harrison boys -- a father, son and grandson -- who run the Gold and Silver Pawnshop in Las Vegas. The guys lack the fashion pizzazz of the Kardashians, but they are as colorful as the merchandise that walks through their door -- and about as authentic as a three-dollar bill, according to local pawnbrokers.

For one thing, no one ever pawns anything on "Pawn Stars,'' and the items that make it on air are often sought-after collectibles. It's a sort of cash-poor man's "Antiques Roadshow," where customers bring in the darnedest things. That said, even the Harrisons sometimes draw a line; they did pass on buying relics of a saint from a man wearing a bowling shirt adorned with the image of a dancing girl. Yikes.

TruTV's "Hardcore Pawn" is a grittier version of "Pawn Stars,'' recorded at the American Jewelry and Loan pawnshop in Detroit. The show also highlights some odd items -- a family's heirloom wine press and a vintage newspaper section featuring Adolf Hitler are recent examples. Plus, the owners are a volatile bunch, prone to drama.

For the record, Ray Weber, manager of A J & R Pawn on South Grand, said he has never been asked to purchase a Gatling gun -- for $335,000 -- the subject of an episode of "Pawn Stars."

"That's something we're not going to see here,'' he said. "And I probably wouldn't have a customer in the world who would ever walk through my door looking for a Gatling gun.''

Though it does make for good TV, he acknowledges.

"St. Louis is not Las Vegas. We do not have people walking through our doors selling the items that you see them bring in to 'Pawn Stars,' '' he said. "It's a television show so they have to maintain your interest so that you'll tune in next week. A lot of the things that happen there -- for many of us pawnbrokers who have been in business for 30 or 40 years -- that's never happened to us.''

How Goes Your Economy?

In the hierarchy of pawnshops, St. Charles Pawn is an "uptown" version -- or as Zander describes it -- a "clean" shop that doesn't fit the stereotype of the creepy pawnshops in movies. The shop is a well-lit place, located on a busy thoroughfare. There are no bars on the windows -- or signs plastered everywhere, screaming "HIGHEST PRICES PAID'' or "WE BUY EVERYTHING."

Zander, a petite blonde, knows that she is an unlikely pawnbroker. She earned a degree in psychology before buying the family business from her father. She is also a certified gemologist trained to appraise jewelry. She operates a full-service jewelry store -- Zander's Jewelry -- on the left side of the store, where she sells new merchandise, along with pieces that were once pawned. To the right is the pawn shop area, and behind the counter are rows of orderly shelves filled with her customers' collateral.

She said the "oddest'' items she's seen at her shop were a horse saddle and chaps.

Zander believes that more Americans are aware of pawnshops these days, a fact that she attributes to the down economy -- and the popularity of the reality shows which have prodded a certain number of people who had never before set foot in a pawnshop to check out her store.

Judging from what Zander sees, the economic turnaround hasn't yet trickled down to her customers. Though the nation's unemployment rate has dipped to 8.3 percent, construction workers aren't exactly making a beeline to her shop to get their drills and nail guns out of hock. It's more of a case of "get a job, get the tools you need," Zander said.

"Or, I need them for this job, and I'll be back tomorrow to re-pawn them," she said.

At this point, she thinks the lower unemployment rate has meant more to politicians than to her customers.

"For the everyday worker out there, I don't see any difference," she said. "In my opinion the only thing that's changed here is that we're giving more money for gold."

The high price of gold has also made it more difficult for her to stock new jewelry, and she's acquiring more jewelry that was pawned and abandoned.

Zander enjoys selling jewelry, though the items she sells might find their way back to be pawned.

"It's very rewarding when two people buy an engagement ring from you. And they're both happy and in love. It's really nice,'' she said and paused. "Then you might see the other end when they get divorced. It's a full circle.''

Another microeconomic gauge: In recent years, the pawnshop has "more money on the street'' -- in loans to customers -- and Zander said she has a larger inventory on the store's shelves.

Zander, who charges 10 percent interest on loans, a comparatively low pawn rate, said she tries to work with customers who want to keep their items but can't afford to redeem them when their 90-day loan is up. But she has also seen customers who used to pawn regularly at her shop, extend their loans several times -- and then not come back.

"We like the economy to be good," Zander said. "Having people lose stuff is not our goal.''

Forty Years of Pawning

Weber, who has worked at A J & R Pawn for 40 years, said that pawnbrokers want to see the economy pick up.

"People are under the misconception that pawnbrokers do best when the economy is bad,'' Weber said. "That's wrong. We don't do best when the economy is bad. I can loan money in the best of times. No matter how much money someone has in their pocket, I can probably loan them some more. The trick is that you have to be able to either get that person to come back and pick that item up -- and they have to have money to do that. Or, if they end up leaving it with you, you have to find somebody who has the money in their pocket to buy it. If everybody's broke, nobody's coming back, and nobody's buying anything. That's not good for us.''

After the economy crashed in 2008, Weber said his store attracted new customers who were feeling financial stress. He has seen signs that the economy might be improving somewhat, but he also knows that many of the unemployed have run out of benefits and are working temporary or part-time jobs.

"I don't see that there's been a great deal of change in the last year or so. A lot of people are still out of work. People are still walking though the door because the price of fuel is up, and they need to borrow money for gas,'' he said. "It's just kind of going along on the bumpy road.''

If reality TV were recording at his pawnshop, viewers would see lots of tools and guitars and jewelry. The store has always been known for specializing in tools, and people come to his shop to buy them at discounted prices, he said. Other items -- particularly electronics -- change with the times, while jewelry is a constant.

Weber said that newer customers might visit for the first time because of the TV shows, but for some of his regular customers, pawning is a way of life.

"They pawn with us. Their parents pawned with us. Their grandparents may have pawned with us. We are who they turn to when they need money,'' he said. "Then you do pick up new customers. There are people who probably would never have walked through a pawnshop's door. For years, pawn shops had a certain stigma as far as the type of people who ran the place, the type of people who used the place.''

Pawnshops also face more competition these days from internet sites like eBay and Craigslist that offer people other options to sell their items.

"There is lots more competition,'' he said. "The internet has made a big difference to most pawnbrokers. You had somewhat of a captive audience before; now, it's not unusual for a customer, to say, 'Oh, gosh I'll just put it online.' ''

Weber believes the TV shows have improved the public's perception of pawnshops -- and people have also learned that pawnshops are places to shop for merchandise at discounted rates.

"If you go in and make a loan at the bank and you default on that loan, somebody's gonna be knocking on your door or ringing your phone asking for payment,'' said Weber, who charges 15 percent interest on loans. "Pawnbrokers don't ask for payment. You put up collateral. If you don't want to come back and redeem the loan, that's fine. We've got the collateral. We don't care whether you come back or not, so we're not going to put any pressure on you.''

Need Some New Relatives?

Gian Vianello at Maplewood Pawn on Manchester Road said that it comes down to this: Pawnshops are recession-proof because people always need money.

"I don't care if it's good times or bad times, they always need money,'' he said. "They've always got to eat. If your money runs low at the end of the month, you've got to find some money some place.''

Vianello said that he's heard customers lament the price of gas or unemployment, but every customer's situation is different. A local businessman told Vianello that he wanted to pawn a diamond ring because he'd been unable to sell some property and had fallen behind on his mortgage. On the other hand, Vianello added, the man could have lost money gambling.

"People always need money. They've always needed money. They always will need money. That's what makes pawnshops so great,'' he said.

Maplewood Pawn is partly a "museum," and Vianello will draw an imaginary line for customers to distinguish between his personal collection of not-for-sale ukeles, figurines and lunchboxes -- and the merchandise he is selling. Reflecting Vianello's background as a musician, the shop has a stock of pre-owned amps and musical instruments. There are also computer games, Ipods and an autographed Lou Brock baseball going for $85. Behind the counter are two vintage portraits of someone's relatives -- and Vianello would appreciate it if the gentleman who pawned them would come back.

"Want to buy them?'' he asks. "Need some relatives?"

Vianello said his regular customers might pawn and redeem the same item over and over and over again, but if they decide not to come back at some point it won't harm their credit rating.

"I can't force people to come back and get their stuff,'' he said. "If they don't come back -- after a period of time if we don't hear from them -- we can just put it out for sale.''

Pawnbrokers also point out that they are regulated and licensed -- and they are required to get the identification of customers who pawn items. They also participate in online reporting of their sales, which police can use to investigate stolen property.

Vianello, who charges 15 percent for loans, says getting into the pawnshop business was one of the best ideas he ever had.

"People can buy stuff here. Then they can bring it back and get a loan -- pawn it," he said.

Vianello wears a ring that spells the word NO in sparkling gems -- a word he doesn't hesitate to use when someone brings in an item he doesn't want to deal with. He has a "buying" license so he can purchase items outright, in addition to making loans.

"I get people calling me all the time with stuff,'' he said. "Some guy called me up the other day; he wanted to sell his pots and pans. He got a new set and didn't need them anymore.''

Perhaps the oddest item anyone has brought in was a used cigarette butt that appeared to have some writing on it.

His answer?

Vianello makes a fist and shows off that ring.

Now, that would make a shot for the TV cameras.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.