Hock This Way

Despite the relentless patter, Cecilio is serious and introspective about his business, and he prides himself on running his operation above reproach. "I'm the only place that if someone calls and says, `Mr. Ritch, I'm a little bit behind on my payment, I think I'm going to be late,' I'll give them five to seven more days with no extra interest, no matter what." Cecilio also mails postcards to his customers at the end of the 60-day periods to notify them that they are about to lose their merchandise.

Still, he acknowledges, his position as a pawnbroker is often very awkward. "I can be as good to people as I want, and it's still a terrible business in one respect. A guy brings in a ring. It might be worth $450. So you give him a dime on the dollar. That's how the business is done. But that's not what he wants to hear. I sleep good at night. I don't mistreat my customers. But, still, I feel for these people. I really do."

Despite the fact that pawnshops have a long and illustrious history, dating back 3000 years to Chinese lending establishments, pawnbroking is a profession in profound need of an image make over. In their American incarnation, pawnshops reek of economic prurience. Like bookie joints, tattoo parlors, bail bondsmen, and whorehouses, they are demeaned as dishonest, kept at arm's length, considered unfortunate by-products of illegitimate economies. In the mind of middle-class America, the pawnshop is on that seedy urban block where your mother told you not to go.

But the development of ruling-class America, in fact the very discovery of the New World, might have been delayed by years were it not for pawnbroking. Spain's Queen Isabella hocked her crown jewels to fund the voyages of Christopher Columbus. And Isabella wasn't a renegade by any means. Franciscan monks ran loan establishments called mon-de-pietes throughout Medieval Europe, and acceptance of pawnbroking as a legitimate means of loaning reached its height in the Nineteenth Century, when state-operated pawnshops appeared throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

The Twentieth Century, though, has been bad for business. As national banking economies began to expand and intensify, pawnshops lapsed into obsolescence. Regular citizens found they could obtain personal loans from banks, and the need for a private money broker diminished.

Pawnbroking's image reached its nadir in 1965, when Rod Steiger lumbered before the cameras of director Sidney Lumet for an adaption of Edward Lewis Wallant's novel The Pawnbroker. The story of Sol Nazerman - a New York hock-shop manager whose horrifying memories of Nazi-concentration-camp imprisonment bleed through his mundane life even twenty years later - the film cemented pawnbroking's reputation as a sleazy, back-alley business and earned Steiger a place as the most hated man among real-life practitioners.

"They think we're the little guy with the visor and the cigar, the dim lights and the dirt," says Richard Cecilio in an uncharacteristic, bitter tone. "That we're thieves and lowlife. Pawnbrokers are one step down, or maybe one step up, from pornographers. When I meet new people, I tell them I'm retired. People have so many bad ideas, so many wrong ideas, about the business, that it's not worth explaining what it's really like."

At times the fear of bad public relations makes pawnbrokers quite defensive. At South Dade Gun and Pawn, co-owner Robert Taylor reveals his name archly, as if he is referring to someone else, someone he doesn't like very much. "What are you going to write about us?" he demands. "We get so much bad publicity, the whole industry. It's because people don't know."

"You walk in here, we don't know who you are, what you're going to say," adds Carl LaSala, who works at South Dade. "We're not angels, but we do good business because we have to. We respect the customers. But people don't respect us. Why do I think they look upon us badly? Why do you think Christ threw the moneylenders out of the temple?"

Part Three

As a result of a Dade County ordinance adopted in October 1989, pawnshops here can open no earlier than 7:30 a.m. and must shut down before 5:00 p.m. In addition, the licensing fee for a buy/sell dealership is almost three times that for an ordinary retail business. But the single greatest complaint of pawnbrokers seems to be the assumption that their shops are outlets for stolen goods, quick stops where criminals on the run can liquidate their loot, no problem, no questions asked. Pawnbrokers point out that they must keep a strict record of all transactions, including serial numbers wherever possible and the address and phone number of each customer. Fingerprinting is mandatory. In Miami, the monitoring of pawnshops is divided up among police detectives on stolen-property details. Two or three times per week, officers visit shops, pick up the paperwork, check hocked inventory for thieved items. Under the intense scrutiny, pawnbrokers say, they would be foolhardy to accept stolen goods.

"Watches and guns have serial numbers," says the Cash Dome's Gallander, "and often times when they are stolen, they'll be reported. I'll just call the police if I have a guy in here who is bringing in something that's been stolen. For other things, it's harder to tell. But the other day a lady came in here with a fax machine. She couldn't spell fax. I told her forget it."

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