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Customers Tell Their Tales, and Pawnbrokers Lend an Ear

July 10, 1986|SHEILA BARNES | Barnes is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

In the 32 years since he and his father founded the first pawnshop in the San Fernando Valley, Paul Trietsch says they have made almost a million loans on everything from Super Bowl rings to Nazi swords. And with a million loans come a million tear-jerking sagas.

"The customers always feel obligated to tell you why they need the money," he said.

Trietsch, 53, has witnessed a diverse parade of characters in his shop, Traders Inc., in Reseda: wife-beaters, parole violators, rich bag ladies and one ashtray-wielding lunatic who thought he could better his loan by clobbering Trietsch. Desperate customers often are driven to pawn necessities.

"I once had someone bring in an iron that was still hot," he said. "They had to finish pressing their clothes before they brought it in."

Another man tried to pawn two live bison that had been on exhibit in a Wild West show. "That's when we decided we'll never take anything that eats," he said. "It would have cost us much more to feed them than we could have made from the interest, and I do have my limits."

But, he acknowledges, sometimes the stories are really sad, "particularly if there are children involved. I'm compassionate, but I divorce myself from it." If the customer seems destitute and the story rings true, he will try to find help through service organizations and, in moments of weakness, he has even been known to pay for motel accommodations.

Viewed as Heavies

"TV, movies and books always portray us as the bad guys, the crooks, the gunrunners, fences and drug dealers," Trietsch laments. "It's a tremendous stigma to overcome when the public is used to viewing us as the heavies."

In an episode from the old "Twilight Zone" television series, an unsuspecting customer pawns his soul to a satanic broker who quickly issues him a small ticket to use for redemption. Not only do such scenarios unfairly condemn the pawnbroker, said Trietsch, but they are also just plain inaccurate.

Those little pawn tickets still so popular with scriptwriters have, in reality, been replaced by contracts, and, because of strict state government regulations, the actual pawning process is anything but simple.

Today, Trietsch said, a potential pawner must affirm that he is the legal owner of the item being pawned, show a driver's license, passport or state identification, sign a police report and a loan contract and offer up his right thumbprint.

For all his troubles, he walks away with a loan of only a small percentage of his property's value (the percentage varies from item to item and depends on marketability)--and ink on his thumb. Then the paper work is passed on to the local police department to determine whether the property is stolen. And it often is, says Trietsch, who is holding a video cassette recorder, a camera, jewelry and a set of golf clubs until they can be returned to the rightful owners.

Sometimes, Trietsch says, the theft victim's insurance reimburses him for the money he lent on the stolen item, but other times, he is left holding the empty golf bag.

Proliferating Paper Work

Trietsch and other pawnbrokers say the ever-increasing paper work they are required to complete threatens to squeeze them out of business. "There are some states that no longer have pawn shops because legislation has made it impossible for them to run their businesses," said Trietsch, who runs Traders Inc. with partner Pat Murtagh. "No one could survive following all their rules."

But Dennis Hooker, president of the Collateral Loan Assn. of California, a trade group, said, "In states like Florida, where the laws made it very difficult for the pawnshops to operate, pawnshops became 'buy and sell' shops, where they buy an item from a fellow on Monday and sell it back to him on Friday.

"So the pawnshops always stay around in one form or another. In fact," he said, "now they have more brokers in Florida than they had before." But the "buy and sell" trend is not yet popular in California, he said.

Sam Rosenfeld, manager of Collateral Loans in Reseda, believes California pawnbrokers are better off incorporating. Unlike the family-owned Traders Inc., Collateral Loans is owned and operated by a corporation. "It's easier for corporations to come up with the large amounts of capital and expertise needed to open a shop," said Rosenfeld.

He predicts that individual ownership will pass and that corporations will take over, "but ultimately, they will also be forced out of business if over-regulation continues," he said.

Hooker says that, although he has noticed no pronounced trend of corporate ownership in California, there are certain tax advantages to incorporating.

Abraham and Lucette Moraly are a French couple who opened the red-white-and-blue American Loans pawnshop in Reseda just three months ago. "We don't have customers and we don't have merchandise," said Lucette Moraly.

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