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Holidays at the Pawn Shop

December 6th, 2011. Filed Under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , ,

Holidays at the Pawn Shop

From WSJ Dot Com

Holidays at the Pawn Shop
By Anne Kadet

New Yorkers have amazing options for holiday shopping. We’ve got charmingly overpriced neighborhood boutiques, designer shops on Madison, endless tchotchke bazaars crowding the parks and big, dumb chain stores lining Fifth Avenue. But those are the obvious options. What about the pawn shops?

They’re everywhere. This city now boasts 390 pawnbrokers—double the pre-recession count. And if you want amazing deals on gifts for the whole family, nothing says “I care” more than wrapping up some stranger’s broken dream and sticking it under the tree.

Aside from the bulletproof pawn windows, Gem Pawnbrokers on Eighth Avenue looks like any mainstream jewelry store—one that also happens to sell used saxophones and $3 DVDs. On a recent afternoon, the bustling shop was decorated with oversize nutcrackers, Santa figurines and plastic wreaths. Kenneth Conn, an executive with the 30-branch Gem chain who had stopped in for a visit, pricked up his ears: “There’s supposed to be holiday music. Ligia!”

Ligia Kourany, the good-humored jewelry manager, cranked up the Bruce Springsteen. “Somebody kicked the plug,” she explained.

Inside Gem Pawnbrokers, sales associate Anthony Lopez, below right, helps Spencer L. Farrow as he browses after trading in an item. The atmosphere was merry. Shoppers crowded the cases gawking at cocktail rings (arranged by price), gold watches and used cameras. Tony Williams, a warehouse manager who had stopped in to do some holiday shopping, showed off the diamond-crusted ring he bought at the shop more than a decade ago. Like many regular customers, he was also a loan client: “You know how many times I’ve paid my rent with this ring?”

Roughly 90% of valuables pawned are redeemed by the owner. The rest hit the display case. Like a bank with a mess of foreclosure properties, the pawnbroker wants to sell the goods ASAP so he can loan the money out again. And that’s not the only reason for low prices at the pawnshop. Pawnbrokers don’t “pay” much for the merchandise to begin with: They’ll typically lend less than $400 on an item worth $1,000.

At Gem, the prices seem high, but the tag price is just the starting point—you’re supposed to haggle. Mr. Conn pulled a $6,149 gold chain from the counter display and asked Ms. Kourany for the rock-bottom figure. She whipped out a calculator and did a little math based on the day’s spot price for gold. “About $3,000, I give it to you!” she said.

And $3,000 was, indeed, a good deal—$43 a gram, compared to $47 a gram for similar chains selling at fly-by-night Internet shops, $66 on Amazon and $80 at Sears. Steve Krupnik, a pawn shop consultant (yes, this is an actual profession), says pawnbroker prices are typically 40 to 60% below retail. Diamond District pawnshops tend to have the most “accurate” prices on jewelry; shops in other boroughs are more likely to offer crazy bargains alongside outrageously overpriced merchandise.

In December, pawn shops are especially eager to deal. They’ve been stockpiling jewelry all year for the holiday rush; come January, they’ll melt the leftovers for scrap. At S&G Gross, the 110-year-old shop just down the street from Gem, owner Gary Gross lifted a $400 gold chain and shook his head. “This bracelet is horrendous. I don’t even know why it’s here. It’s going to get melted for $300.” He’s less willing negotiate on a $150 silver pendant bracelet from Tiffany—the brand name adds value. But his final offer, $140, is still a steep discount from the $350 price on

Of course, when buying gifts from a pawn shop, one runs into the problem of presentation. At least one pawnbroker in the city has customers taking home merchandise in black trash bags; this will not impress your wife. But there are work-arounds. At Gem, for instance, folks buying a used Rolex can spend an extra $100 and get a green presentation box that looks a lot like a real Rolex watch box.

Pawn shop aficionados also praise the wide selection. It’s not as good as you’d find in, say, Texas, where pawn brokers sell used washing machines and guns. High rents limit local pawn shops to dealing in small, high-value items like jewelry and electronics. But you’ll find one-of-a-kind items, and a selection that ranges from Walmart charms (for good old Aunt Ruth) to Cartier diamonds (for your own fine self—Mr. Conn says some of his best customers are ladies who come in to buy themselves big, fancy rings).

And pawnbrokers who own their own property can offer a broader selection. At the Bronx branch of NY Pawnbrokers, owner Blaine Messinger deals in wares ranging from bicycles to a $3,500 fur coat of indeterminate species. (“It’s a great coat,” he advised. “It’s got the hood and everything.”)

At first glance, his shop looks empty. Then one realizes that the linoleum-tiled public area is ringed on three sides with floor-to-ceiling security glass shielding a riot of used merchandise: radios, earrings, videos, circular saws, keyboards, televisions, trumpets, DJ equipment, cellphones, iPads and the world’s largest selection of crucifix pendants. Mr. Messinger, a fast-talking gentleman who greeted a reporter with “Hey! Wall Street!” summed up the display with a simple phrase: “It’s eBay, in person.”

Unlike eBay, the pawn shop lets you test the wares, but few were buying. Aside from the man experimenting with the power drill selection, most customers were lined up at the windows to pawn their valuables; one mom was hoping to get a few bucks for her son’s video games. But there were plenty of deals for bargain hunters. Posted prices on used iPhones, cameras and power tools were comparable to those on eBay, and deals, of course, are negotiable. A vintage Schwinn that would run at least $400 in hipster Brooklyn, meanwhile, was selling for $179.

The clincher: If you have trouble paying your bills come January, most pawn brokers shops will happily accept your item back at the pawn window—and lend you precisely half of what you paid. Just try that at Saks.

—Ms. Kadet, who writes the “Tough Customer” column for SmartMoney magazine, can be reached at

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