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Hard times are their stock in trade

THE NATION

Pawnbrokers' business booms. 'If it weren't for me, by the 15th of the month the whole town would go dark.'

July 14, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Teri Zunick rapped on the window of a downtown pawnshop. She was wilting in 113-degree heat, and clutching the gold bracelet she needed to hock so her electricity would stay on.

Zunick, 45, is also struggling to pay her mortgage and fill up her $60-a-tank SUV. She has stopped getting her pool professionally cleaned. She plans to cancel her cable subscription.

But desperate to pay her electric bill -- now -- Zunick had few options besides Gold & Silver Pawn, a 24-hour shop on a gritty sliver of Las Vegas Boulevard.

Business there is terrific.

When the economy is troubled and the rent takes precedence over heirlooms, the pawnbroker is king. Skyrocketing gas and grocery bills and a rash of foreclosures have been windfalls for the industry's nearly 13,000 shops. So has the surging price of gold, at more than $900 an ounce; people are cashing in their pins, watches, earrings, necklaces and wedding bands.

Earnings of the three publicly traded pawn companies -- Cash America International Inc., EZCORP Inc. and First Cash Financial Services Inc. -- grew by double-digit percentages this year.

Last week, at the National Pawnbrokers Assn. convention here, shop owners said they were lending more money to more customers for longer periods. Even the well-to-do are bringing in motorcycles, laptops and power tools for cash, pawnbrokers said.

"If it weren't for me, by the 15th of the month the whole town would go dark -- they couldn't pay their utility bills," said Larry Hipps, who owns Larry's Jewelry & Pawn in Florence, Ala.

Pawnshops specialize in small loans -- the average is $75 -- and hold everything from televisions to saddles as collateral. More than two-thirds of customers redeem their goods by paying back their loans plus interest, said the pawnbrokers association. The shops sell the remaining items.

Pawnbrokers' experiences are a window on how the economic downturn has wounded the working class.

"The sector we deal with is living paycheck to paycheck," said Frank Ellis, a vice president for Capitol City Pawn & Jewelry, which has nine stores in Nebraska and Kansas.

Many customers are extending their loans by 30 to 45 days -- presumably because it's tougher to scrape together money. "They don't want to lose what they have," Ellis said.

Typically, spring and summer are sluggish for Joe Maciaszek's American Cash Pawn in Monroe, La. The store usually extends eight to 10 pawn loans a day, but the rate has tripled in recent months. His employees are forced to quiz customers more thoroughly.

"We have to be aware of the economy," said Kathy Summers, Maciaszek's daughter. "If they're coming in to get gas money, what can they actually afford to repay?"

Televisions and stereos that customers don't pick up gather dust on shelves, Maciaszek said. Shoppers aren't buying much besides DVDs and videos.

Scott Pasternack, who runs two pawnshops in the Denver suburbs, has $750,000 out in loans -- nearly $150,000 more than usual. His storage space is atypically packed with 3- and 4-carat diamonds, Rolexes and a Tiffany & Co. diamond, ruby and sapphire pin worth at least $5,000.

One woman pawned 20 pieces of jewelry, including diamond rings and gold tennis bracelets, to keep her daughter's home from foreclosure.

Pasternack recently lent a man $500 for the title to two cemetery plots; he never came back.

"Everybody has sad stories, and you can't believe all of them," Pasternack said. "But I feel bad for the people who need gas, or the mom with her baby bringing in junk I can't take."

A few miles north of the pawnbrokers convention at Bally's, Richard Corey Harrison was ending his manager shift at Gold & Silver Pawn, which resembles an airy garage and displays red feathered showgirl headdresses and an Elvis canteen. The clientele is evenly split between tourists and locals.

Gamblers, Harrison said, are griping more often that they've "lost all their money and need to pawn something so they have gas to get back home." Locals are coping with one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates and a flailing tourism industry.

Those in the once-booming construction business have watched jobs dwindle. That's why the tools section is packed with cordless drills, grinders, power washers and drywall stilts.

Harrison pointed to some Hitachi nail guns. Two years ago, he couldn't keep one on the shelf for an hour; now, dozens line the wall.

"I assume every one of those represents a guy out of work," he said.

As Harrison readied to leave, Zunick knocked on the shop's night window.

She used to work at the Mansion at MGM Grand, which caters to big spenders, but she left in January.

Zunick took a job at a law firm, but she has a 25-mile commute and makes half her old salary. With bills looming, she fished out a gold bracelet, although she kept the charms; they had belonged to her grandmother.

"If I can just get even and be really, really careful, I can get back on my feet," she said, waiting for electric-bill and mortgage money.

The store gave her $700.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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