Hock This Way

How about the exit door?
"There's two economies," says Chuck Gamarski, who works for Gallander. "There's the official economy and the economy we participate in. So many people just can't walk into a bank and borrow on their signature. I compare myself to a bank many, many times, but people tell me that I'm wrong. They say, `With a bank I can't even sit down and talk.'"

A pawnbroker doesn't care why you need the money, doesn't care if you're angling for a business deal or itching for a fix. He'll take your watch, scrutinize it, stare thoughtfully away for a moment, and then offer you money, usually about one-tenth of its retail worth. If you choose to accept that loan, you'll have to pass through theft-check procedures - signing a sworn statement that the property belongs to you, providing photo identification, submitting to a fingerprinting. Then the watch becomes his, the money yours. You'll receive a ticket or a printed receipt noting the transaction.

For 30 days, the pawnshop will hold that watch in hock for you. No one will buy it. No one will disturb it. As soon as you're back on your feet financially, you can return and redeem your property. The price? Merely the watchless month. Oh, and the premium you'll be assessed, which will amount to approximately twenty percent of the loan's principal. Charging interest is technically illegal, so pawnbrokers exact their profit through processing fees and service charges. The bottom line, though, is the same.

As the end of the month draws near, you have two options: extending your payment period (accruing more service charges) or defaulting, in which case your property reverts to the pawnbroker, who can resell after holding it for another, legally mandated, month. More than 85 percent of the Cash Dome's customers return to redeem their pawns, a statistic Gallander says proves that his business functions as a successful neighborhood bank. "For the most part," he cautions, "these aren't desperate people looking to get rid of everything for whatever tiny sums they can find. These are working-class people who have a real hard time making ends meet."

In chess, pawns are the small change, the gumball-machine-shape suckers you'll sacrifice to protect the rest of your holdings. The same principle applies in pawnbroking, but the small change is sometimes quite large. At the Car Dome - located right next to the Cash Dome, owned by Gallander and Gottlieb, and managed by Chuck Gamarski - the pawn of choice is, unsurprisingly, cars, although the store will also loan against boats, trucks, and motorcycles. The very idea of pawning a car may seem strange at first, but a high-ticket item is more powerful as collateral, and a customer is less likely to wave goodbye to a $4000 car than a $100 watch. Still, sometimes customers who think they'll come up with the money to recover a car come up against leaner times instead, and enough have busted the payment to let the Car Dome operate as a licensed used-car dealer.

"I've got a number of cars on the lot, everything from a Chevy Beretta, probably bring around $4500, to a 1983 Volvo for $2500. I just let a Mercedes go for $6500. Broke my heart," says Gamarski. When a young man drives a Plymouth Horizon TC3 into the lot and jumps out of the car, waving the title, Chuck aborts the tour and springs into action immediately. "Hi. How are you? You want to pawn? How much do you want for it?" The car's paint has yellowed away from its original white color, which is visible from underneath a turned-up corner of an Indian River Community College sticker.

"Yes, pawn," says the man. He looks terrible, his T-shirt crimped and dirty and his face damp with sweat. The prospect of parting with his car for a nominal sum is gnawing at him already. "I need as much money as I can get. I've put a lot into this car, improved the engine." Gamarski offers $300. The young man expresses his displeasure, stares toward the ground stonily, shifts his weight from heel to heel. "Look," Gamarski says. "Come inside my office, and we'll talk about it." Under the final agreement, the Car Dome will loan $400, and the crestfallen man will have to raise $500 to buy back his 2.2-liter pride and joy.

"We're a last resort," says Gamarski after the man has left. "People are coming to me, and I feel I have to be a little sensitive to their needs. I would really be a miserable lowlife if I didn't work with them a little. On the other hand, we're a business, and business is good. We just spent all this money repainting the place" - he gestures toward the giant double dome, which has been a donut shop and a restaurant and a motorcycle dealership, but always an eyesore - "and now it's beauteeful."

Part Two

Gamarski's enthusiasm may have overpowered his aesthetic judgment, but the fact of the matter is, this is a good time to repaint. In an age when banks have become unfriendly to poorer clients, and national trust in the savings-and-loan system has diminished, many consumers are turning to the neighborhood hock shop when they need a little boost. John Caskey, a Swarthmore College economist who specializes in international and domestic credit economies, recently completed a large-scale study estimating that ten percent of all adult Americans use the pawnshop system each year. Aware of their increasing popularity, the nation's 10,000-plus pawnbrokers are banding together to help define what has been, until now, an aggressively amorphous industry. Many states, including Florida, have pawnbroker's associations. There is even a National Pawnbroker's Association, based in Fort Lauderdale, that informs members of changing legislation, schedules conventions, and publishes a quarterly magazine.

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