Some call it the world’s second-oldest profession, that of the pawnbroker.
Ever since people have had something to offer in trade, said Doug Karlson, co-owner of Axel’s Pawnshop on East Sprague, there has been a merchant to give them something for it.
“It’s how Columbus got his money” to discover the New World, “by pawning the queen’s jewels,” Karlson said.
Wherever working men and women can’t make ends meet, there is a pawnbroker to get them through the month for 3 percent interest. The trade takes on a special significance this time of year, as people struggle to come up with a little extra cash or seek a secondhand gift at Christmastime.
In O. Henry’s classic, “The Gift of the Magi,” Della sold her hair to buy Jim a fob chain for his watch only to find her husband had hocked his watch to buy her combs for her hair.
“But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest,” O. Henry wrote back then.
Yet today, society asks an impoverished husband who would pawn his wedding ring to buy his wife a special gift to be wiser with his money.
“We don’t really care why they need the money,” said Karlson, who has heard just about every hard-luck story there is. Pawnshops loan money based on the value of the property, he said, not how sad the tale.
While he spoke, store clerk Darold Miller Jr. interrupted to say a woman called the week before to ask how much she could get for her burial plot. Axel’s wasn’t interested.
At the Hock Shop on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene, owner Gene Lammon didn’t have to think twice about the weirdest loan he ever made. A Vietnam veteran pawned his prosthetic leg for $60.
“He said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to eat without you,’ ” Lammon recalled. “I knew he’d be back for his leg.”
But the owner of Coeur d’Alene’s “oldest pawn shop in the same location” said business has gone downhill since the payday loan places came to town. Don’t even get a pawnbroker started on those outfits.
In Washington, pawnshops can charge 3 percent interest on a 30-day loan. A payday loan company is allowed to charge 15 percent on every $100 up to $500. Idaho has no such cap on interest rates.
And unlike corporations, pawnshop owners come to recognize the faces of customers, some of whom return again and again to pawn, recover and repawn items. Pawn shop employees estimate 80 percent to 90 percent of clients return to claim their goods.
“Like any other business, you get regulars you’ve known a long time,” said Karlson. “They’re the same as everybody else in this credit-oriented society. They spend 10 percent more than they earn.”
Jeff Levitch, owner of Evergreen Jewelry and Loan on Division, said, “Hundreds of regular customers come in here for every reason. They need food, diapers or gas to get to work.”
Some, he said, don’t have banks, “so we’re kind of like their bank, too.”
These days, Levitch said, the business suffers “because of our disposable economy” in which electronic equipment is worth a fraction of what it used to go for. Like many other pawn shops, Levitch won’t accept car stereos, which he said are often either stolen or don’t work.
Spokane pawnshops are required to make daily transaction reports to police. Out of the 20,000 transactions Levitch estimated he made last year at Evergreen, police confiscated “maybe six items and five of those were pawned by adults who stole them from their parents.”
Karlson said it is in the pawnshops’ interest to have a reporting system. His brother, Larry, worked with Spokane police to develop computer software that tracks brand, model and serial numbers of goods and matches them to the customer.
“Thieves know,” Karlson said. “They’ve had friends or were caught themselves trying to pawn stolen property.”
In the old days, he and other pawnbrokers said, men would pawn their suit of clothes on Monday and get them out of hock in time for church on Sunday.
“The walls used to be lined with clothes,” said Gary Singer, owner of Main Street’s Dutch’s Pawn Shop, whose motto is, “If it doesn’t eat and it can fit through the door, we just might have it.”
As with any other business, Christmas is a good time of year for pawnshops, said Singer, who inherited Dutch’s from his father, who inherited it from his father-in-law. The store, now crammed with bicycles, tools, electronics and musical instruments, used to be a card room until the 1970s and a speak-easy during Prohibition. In those days, railroad men slept in single rooms upstairs before turning around for the trip back to Montana.
Pawnshops were a big part of the downtown economy then.
“When the racetrack was in business, the losers always ended up here,” Singer said. “Banks won’t loan you $100.”
This time of year, independent contractors and hunters turn to pawnshops to safeguard their tools and rifles throughout the winter. By maintaining interest payments, Singer said, they can store their items someplace where there are alarm systems and bars on the windows until they can use their income tax returns to get the items out of hock in the spring.
Ask a Spokane pawnbroker the strangest thing they ever heard of someone pawning, and the answer will be, “Somebody pawned a prosthetic leg at Millman’s.”
All this leg-pawning sounded more and more like an urban legend until the tale was confirmed by Annette Silver, who has owned Millman Jewelers-E-Z Loans on Main Street for 25 years. But that transaction, she said, was made many years before her time and anyway, she would rather talk about the brisk sales of jewelry during the holidays.
Silver said she does a lot of last-minute business just before Christmas.
“It’s a great place for men who are panicked,” she said.
“We see people of all walks of life – lawyers, doctors, Realtors between commissions, the guy who has to pawn his watch for $10, and everything in between.” Silver said. “But we only take things that can be brought in.”
She too, got a call from the lady who wanted to hock her burial plot. When it comes to material things, they say you can’t take it with you.