By Chuck Strouse
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The thirtyish black man who stands outside the door of the Cash Dome purses his lips distractedly, idly rubbing the videocassette recorder he holds under one arm. Beside him, his wife clasps and unclasps her hands. Inside the Cutler Ridge pawnshop - a lurid pink double-hemisphere that looks like a Buckminster Fuller project gone awry - co-owner Mickey Gallander depresses an entrance buzzer to admit the couple. The man, stout and broad-shouldered, lumbers in and deposits the VCR on the counter. His wife, taller and fatter, turns her back to her husband and surveys the shelves of merchandise, the vacuum cleaners, stereo speakers, electric guitars, leaf blowers, televisions, jigsaws, computers, radios, all covered with a patina of dust. She watches the transaction reflected in the glass door of a microwave oven.
"What do you want?" Gallander asks.
"Fifty for the machine. And here, friend," the man says. A gold chain snakes from his closed fist. "This, too."
For the VCR and the chain, Gallander offers $80. The couple can take it or leave it. They take it.
"Yeah," says Gallander, who is wry and middle-age, with a ponytail and a paunch that disputes his otherwise wiry appearance. "They bring in their VCR regularly. They drop it off, I give them some money. They have a month to come back and claim it. The VCR is always good for $50. Within two weeks, they're back picking it up. Sometimes they even come back later the same day."
Today the couple does not return, and the Cash Dome must content itself with other customers, other transactions. A young man with a tape measure clipped to his belt kneads the tail of his maroon T-shirt as he inquires nervously about a van he heard Gallander has for sale. A tall, elegantly dressed black woman drops by, wielding a gold fork. "I'm sorry," clucks Gallander, turning it over in his hands, touching the tines with his fingertips. "We can't take this. It's plated." With a resigned mutter, the woman returns the fork to its plastic sleeve, the sleeve to her purse, and leaves.
"People have this bad idea about pawnbrokers," says Gallander, who was a health-food restaurateur and jewelry dealer before he opened the Cash Dome with partner Mickey Gottlieb in 1988. "They expect to see Rod Steiger slithering out of the corner or something. But it's not like that. We're just a business like anyone else, except that our product is lending money. For some reason, that makes people nervous."
It's hard to believe that anything about the Cash Dome could make people nervous. The store's show room is bright and spacious, with an air of friendly clutter about it. And, as you'd expect from a pawnshop, this stuff is priced cheap. Jewelry, perhaps the single most important item in the business, averages 30 percent of its retail price, and the bargains just keep on coming: a Quasar microwave for $75; an Apple Macintosh 512K computer for $395; videocassette movies for $10; compact discs for $6. In the rear of the building, where the Cash Dome stores all its recently hocked merchandise, stereos, televisions, cameras, bicycles, and motorcycles fill a space almost three times the size of the show room. It looks like your neighbor's garage sale, if your neighbor is Perrine.
"A lot of places you'll go," says Gallander, "the guys will be in back of bars, with these big bulletproof Lexan sheets in front of them. Customers have to be buzzed in from outside, and then buzzed into the store, and they wait in a little mantrap. When we first set up, we debated that, but we decided we wanted it to be more like a store and less like a fortress." Like most of his employees, Gallander wears tennis shoes and shorts to work, the same attire as a muscle-man cartoon taped up in the office and labeled "Mr. Goodhealth - Mickey Gallander." "The guys did that," Gallander grumbles with mock chagrin. "They make fun of me because I eat right."
To reduce safety concerns, Gallander and Gottlieb decided not to deal in guns, which are popular items with many pawnshops. "We definitely didn't want that. It just makes me too nervous, that I could have people coming in here regularly with guns," he says. In addition, the Cash Dome has the luxury of being located just across the street from a Sun Bank. Rather than keeping large sums of money on hand, Cash Dome employees cross the street and make withdrawals.
If only banking were that simple for everyone.
Property is static, sturdy, and strictly functional. Cash is fluid, clever, and magical. Property does only what it's designed to do. Cash can do anything. The fact that your $300 microwave can cook a pot pie in six minutes isn't nearly as thrilling when you're staring into the clean white gullet of an empty freezer. And while your $500 watch may be accurate to the second, it doesn't seem such an advantage when you already have more time on your hands than you know what to do with.
Everybody needs cash. But cash is hard to come by. Try to persuade a bank to give you a $40 loan, just until next Monday, just until you get back on your feet. Simply can't be done, they'll say. No assets. But how about this microwave tucked under my arm, Mr. Bank Officer? How about this lovely watch?