Across the U.S., many of the 13,500 pawn shops are seeing a rise in traffic, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association. More people are coming in seeking short-term loans, using their pawned items as collateral during the recession.
DETROIT — David Mazza walks into Motor City Pawn Brokers in Roseville, Mich., with an electric guitar in a soft black case. He says he has owned this B.C. Rich 6-string for about 10 years but needs to pawn it for gas money.
“I need the money more than I need this guitar,” says Mazza, 44, of Warren, Mich. “It’s worth $500 new, but I just want $75.”
Three pawnbrokers stand behind a bullet proof glass window. A loaded 12-gauge shotgun hangs on the back wall and a loaded pistol sits on the counter, in plain view to deter anyone who might consider robbing the store, which handles thousands of dollars every day.
“I need a loan to help me get through payday,” Mazza says. He shows his ID, and a broker types the information into a computer. Mazza says he works on outboard motors, but business has been slow.
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“He’s been here before,” one of the brokers says. And that’s typical. More than 90 percent of the customers at this pawn shop come back for a second loan, and the vast majority pay back their loans and get their merchandise returned to them.
Two brokers whisper behind the glass.
“I’d go $50,” says the owner’s son, Mark Aubrey, 24. “He’s been here before.”
“Will $50 help you?” the broker asks.
“Can I get $65 on a loan?” Mazza asks, looking through the window. “I’ll get it back.”
“We looked it up on eBay,” a broker says, glancing up from a computer. “This guitar is going for $75- $80 used. Can you do $50?”
Aubrey steps in. “To be honest, we were going to go $40, but if $50 helps, you are a good customer. We can do $50.”
“Fifty helps,” Mazza says. It isn’t a hard-core negotiation as much as a polite verbal dance.
He puts his thumb on a scanner, which makes an electronic copy of his finger print. A detailed record of the transaction will be sent to the police to make sure the guitar is not stolen.
They give him his money.
“Thanks,” Mazza says. “It’s really going to help out a lot.”
A broker takes the guitar and puts it in a warehouse that is bursting at the seams. It is stuffed with 600 guns, most still in their cases; 150 flat-screen televisions and a wall covered with guitars. Out back, there are more than 100 cars, including a Jaguar, a Mercedes and several vintage cars. The car loans range from $1,000- $50,000. More than 90 percent are paid off, and the owner eventually gets the car back.
“We are really a new banking industry,” says store owner Tony Aubrey, 53, who says that he has had 200,000 customers in the last 20 years and has seen a 200 percent surge in business during the last two years.
Shops see consumer demand
Across the U.S., many of the 13,500 pawn shops like Aubrey’s are seeing a rise in traffic, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association, or NPA. More people are coming in seeking short-term loans, using their pawned items as collateral during the recession.
Most shops are small, privately owned businesses that do not report their earnings publicly. In metro Detroit, about 40 of them range from large, well-established stores that grant loans on just about everything imaginable to small jewelry stores that get pawn licenses and deal with only gold and jewelry.
Ilene Blaz, who owns Legacy Jewelry in upscale Birmingham, Mich., said she obtained a pawn license because so many people came into her store wanting to sell gold.
“I started seeing family heirlooms, things you would never melt for scrap,” Blaz said. “So I said, maybe now is a time to get a pawn license and give them another way of raising money without scrapping their family treasures.”
She describes her business as a jewelry store that provides loans, but that’s just semantics. In essence, it is a pawn shop, offering the same three-month renewable loans at a rate of 3 percent per month. That rate, set by Michigan, is a bargain compared with those in other states. The national average for interest rates at pawn shops is about 12 percent per month, the NPA says.
For someone who really needs cash but has bad credit, pawn shops can be a more affordable option than say, credit cards, which have charged as much as 38 percent for someone with a poor credit score, according to Dorothy Guzek, with GreenPath Debt Solutions in Troy, Mich.
Even the wealthy need cash
Blaz said she pawns the jewelry of “doctors, lawyers, celebrities and country-club types.” Her store has a ritzy feel. It specializes in high-end loans that average about $5,000.
It’s not uncommon for a small-business owner to pawn personal jewelry to take out a loan of $5,000- $10,000 to meet payroll for the week.
Sometimes famous people come in and need cash quickly, presumably to pay a casino note.
“Sometimes, it’s not that they don’t have the money,” Blaz says. “Maybe they don’t want to take the money out of their bank or their investments. They don’t want somebody else to know.”
Others come in with heart-breaking stories. A lady entered her store and said, “I have to sell my wedding ring. We really need money, and I have nothing else to sell.”
The woman’s friends did not know she was in trouble financially, and she was afraid they would notice that she wasn’t wearing her ring.
Blaz made her a proposal: “Why don’t you keep your ring,” she told her. “We’ll give you a loan on the diamond only.”
A jeweler popped out the diamond, keeping it for pawn, and put in a fake.
“Nobody is ever going to know the difference,” Blaz said.
The woman stopped crying. “She started hugging me. She went out and was so happy.”
The diamond was worth $3,000.
“Most people can’t get the money out of the bank because they are maxed out,” Blaz says.
All sorts of things get pawned
Motor City Pawn Brokers is spread over a sprawling, 2 ½-acre complex in Roseville. The showroom features the same type of items found at most large pawn shops around metro Detroit: guitars, televisions, DVDs, jewelry and guns. The store has as many as 600 guns, ranging from shotguns to semi automatic assault rifles.
“This is gun country,” owner Tony Aubrey says. “Guys love their guns, but some have 20-30.”
Behind the store in a fenced lot, there are several white trailers filled with equipment pawned by construction workers. It is common for construction workers to pawn their equipment during slow times or in the offseason.
“I have a dozen landscapers who pawn their whole trailer in the winter so they can buy salt and get their plows going for the snow,” Aubrey says. “As soon as winter is over, they made their profit off the snow plowing. They take their money, they get their equipment out of pawn, and they start landscaping for the spring, summer and fall. And they do it every year.”
His is one of the few pawn shops in metro Detroit that accepts cars. In the heated garage, there are cars everywhere he turns.
A 1971 SS Chevelle. “It’s worth $40,000 or $45,000,” Aubrey says.
A ’57 Chevy Bel Air. “The guy told me it’s safer here than in his garage. That’s why he leaves it here. I’ve had it four years.”
About 35 motorcycles. “I had three times that many three months ago.”
A 2009 convertible Jaguar. “It’s worth about $50,000 used, and I’ve had it going on three months.”
There is a certain ebb and flow with the big-ticket items.
“During (tax) refund time, that’s when people pick up most of their merchandise,” Aubrey says. “They have money.”
A growing marketplace
In a backroom, Eva Sokol, 59, sits at a computer, monitoring the items this pawn shop has put up on eBay. Sokol is Aubrey’s older sister. “I actually enjoy working with my brother most of the time. It’s nice having a boss I can talk back to.”
Aubrey says eBay has been a boon for pawn brokers.
“The specialty items go online,” he says. “The less expensive items sell in the store.”
This month, he had a ski boat on eBay that attracted a $3,000 bid. “It will get to $6,000 or $7,000,” he says. “EBay has helped this industry step up. It gives you the whole world as your marketplace. You can adjust your loan policies. Now, you have an avenue for specialty items.”
Aubrey says he will take just about everything, but most pawn brokers are extremely careful with expensive watches that could be fake. “The fakes are so good,” Aubrey says. “Even the experts can’t tell, unless you take the watch apart.”
Strange stuff for sale, too
Tony Aubrey says he has seen customers try to pawn strange things at his Roseville store, Motor City Pawn Brokers.
“My son had a guy who wanted to pawn a cadaver, and he had certification from a laboratory from Wayne State,” Aubrey said. His son didn’t know whether it was legal. “That’s probably the main reason we didn’t take it.”
Here are some other unique items that people have pawned or sold outright at his store:
• Semi automatic assault rifles and a gun that looked like the grenade launcher from the movie “Scarface.” All are legal as long as they aren’t fully automatic weapons.
• The 16-karat gold crown from a tooth.
• A fake Stradivarius violin. “The guy faked the certification from a company out of Chicago that authenticates Stradivarius violins,” Aubrey said.
• A Spanish coin worth $100,000. “It was a shipwrecked coin, and I think there were only three or four in the entire world,” Aubrey said.
• Several diamonds that cost more than $75,000 apiece.
• A Picasso. “I get a lot of people from Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills that want to pawn their antiques and art. Really nice art. I’ve had a Picasso. But it’s very rare. We are talking the exception,” Aubrey said.