Hock This Way

Despite the rapid growth (at least four national chains have gone public), individually owned shops still dominate the industry, and the Miami market supports more than 150 pawnshops, each with its own distinguishing quirks. There are stores such as the dingy Don-Z Compra-Venta (3678 Coral Way), which has a shoddy electronic stock - unhinged cassette doors, turntables with divots chipped out of the plastic - alongside a well-maintained, extensive camera collection; and stores like Cash in a Flash (63 NE Second Street), a gun, appliance, and musical-instrument operation downtown so tiny the entire storefront is nearly obscured by a red Toyota parked out front, the one with the bumper sticker that reads "I'M SO BROKE I CAN'T EVEN PAY ATTENTION." Depending on their size, some pawnshops - almost all of which hold a buy/sell license - will purchase merchandise outright and assemble a large show-room stock.

Although pawnbroking seems to proliferate in working-class neighborhoods (Hialeah, for instance), there are pawnbrokers in South Miami, and Dadeland, and Kendall, all shops bearing the universally recognizable pawnbroker's logo, a three-sphere cluster. (The symbol is said to refer to the armorial coat of the Medici family, which rose to prominence in Renaissance Italy as moneylenders and cultural patrons.) The Cash Dome's Mickey Gallander says, "Pawnshops are everywhere. There's even one in Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, where movie stars drive up and pawn their Rolls-Royces and Rolexes."

Miami has its own royalty - Levison's (22 NW First Street), the oldest and most respected of Miami's pawnshops. In business since the late Forties, Levison's is far more elegant than its competitors, and while the jewelry it carries differs little from average stock, there are other items - chandeliers, Chinese lacquer boxes, Picasso lithographs - that distinguish the business. Other shop owners mention Levison's, and especially Milt Levison, with reverence. "Pawnbroker to the rich," they say, an untouchable, the granddad of all Miami pawnshops. "He's been in business a thousand years," says Gallander. Levison, perhaps because he has been in business a thousand years, refused to discuss pawnbroking or anything else for this article.

Not all pawnbrokers are as reticent. "Let me show you something," says Richard Cecilio, the sole proprietor of Wildcat Gun and Pawn Shop (15152 NE Sixth Avenue). With the air of a practiced showman, he lifts his wall-mount telephone from its cradle and stretches the cord to show the full extent of its reach. "I've done this before, but let me just show you. I can walk from here to the gun counter, to that corner by the televisions and to the back where I keep my paperwork. I don't have to let go of the phone. That's as far as I need to go. I don't need anybody else in here. It's just me," he says, "and I like it that way. I don't have anyone to steal from me, to make enemies for me. If I make enemies, I do it myself. Of course, when I make friends, they're my friends, too."

After nine years in his modest, dark-wood shop in the Biscayne Gardens area, Cecilio is mindful of entertaining his customers. New arrivals are instantly taken into confidence. Old jokes are delivered with new vigor. The Wildcat is a seductive cross between a traditional pawnbroking establishment and an old-time barbershop. "You see that," Cecilio says, gesturing to a no-profanity sign. "That's right. If you care to curse, it'll cost you five cents a word, or six for a quarter."

Resolutely idiosyncratic - his Yellow Pages ad boasts "We are the Smallest" and his business cards, complicit in the joke, measure less than an inch across - Cecilio keeps the door open all day long. Friends of his, neighborhood men, come and sit in the shop, gossip, trade memories. On Wednesdays and weekends, he closes. Why? Same reason he does everything else: Because he wants to.

As a large yellow sign posted near the entrance announces, Cecilio accepts only six types of items - firearms, cameras, jewelry, typewriters, portable televisions, and silver coins. "I'm not interested in anything else," he says. "Never have been. Although occasionally I'll buy a collectible, because there are many things that I collect. Baseball cards, coins, those kinds of things. I also deal used books." The shop relies heavily on guns; Cecilio, who worked as a gun dealer for fifteen years before he opened the Wildcat, has a federal firearms license, and he knows his Lee-Enfields from his Lee-Metfords.

"It's funny with the guns," he says. "It makes me nervous every day I open the shop. But people are very courteous about it. Many times, they'll come in ahead of time and ask me if I'll take this gun or that one, and I can tell them to make sure it's in plain view and unloaded when they bring it back.

"You know," he says, returning to the phone. From his tone it's clear he's recalled another routine. "I have customers who can't remember my phone number. That's not a problem. You know why. Because my name is my number. Just dial W-I-L-D-C-A-T. I waited so long for that number, had a friend with the phone company who pushed me up on the list. And then about four years ago, I finally got it. Of course, I also have customers who can't remember the name of the store. Wild... Wild something."

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