By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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?
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."
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.
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."
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?"
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."
Despite the best intentions of shopowners, stolen goods can still leak into pawnshops. If police do find stolen goods in a shop's inventory, the pawnshops suffer doubly. Not only must they surrender the merchandise, but they lose the money they have loaned.
According to Michelle Kay, administrative director of the Florida Pawnbroker's Association, pawnbroking groups have become increasingly interested in cooperating with law enforcement agencies. "Basically, we have started working with police and government all over the state, and this proves to them we are not trying to hide people who might try to sell stolen goods. We are actually helping them to catch these people."
Metro-Dade Police Detective Marlene Campbell, who works with the northside-station stolen-property unit and is personally responsible for monitoring six pawnshops, says that most brokers comply with the regulations. "When we find stolen goods, we don't assume it's the fault of the owner. They can't turn everything away, of course. They're running a business. But there are some that are problems, that you have to watch more closely, and every once in a while you see a shop shut down."
The long-standing image of disreputability may be starting to shift. Middle-class shoppers have begun to look upon pawnshops as local thrift stores; in Miami, pawnbrokers sell frequently to international customers. "I have people coming from Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and they are pawnshop fanatics," says Cash Dome's Chuck Gamarski. "They prefer buying used merchandise because it reduces the tax they have to pay when they bring the item home. And we do a lot of business that way. VCRs are very hot. Popular, I mean, not stolen."
Honest pawnbrokers, it seems, must be content to straddle the contradictions - neighborhood bank versus thrift shop, respectable business versus seedy back-door dealing - and weather the indignities of a bad reputation. "We get two kinds of reactions," says Gamarski. "One guy comes in recently to redeem his car. We had given him about $600. He's very thankful, actually curses the bank out, tells us, `If it wasn't for you guys, there was no way I could have gotten the money.' On the other hand, some people think we're the biggest scumbags in the world.