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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pawnshops an alternative to banks in tough economy


By Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Lashanna Howard, 31, of Centerline, Mich., talks with Javin Mesi, 22, after pawning her PlayStation 3 for cash at Motor City Pawn Brokers in Roseville, Mich.

WILLIAM ARCHIE | Detroit Free Press

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HOW PAWNSHOPS WORK

When you go into a pawnshop, you can choose to:

Sell your item outright.You'll walk away with cash, but the item you sell will be resold. The downside: Typically, pawnshops pay only a fraction of what an item is worth, often 50 percent or less.

Pawn your item for a loan.Your item becomes the collateral for a three-month renewable loan. The interest rate, set by the state, is 3 percent per month in Michigan, plus a $1 storage fee. You leave the item and walk away with cash. If you don't repay the loan or renew it after three months, the pawnshop keeps the item and tries to sell it in the store or online.

No matter which option you choose, you'll have to be fingerprinted and provide identification. Pawnbrokers work with police departments to ensure that they don't sell or pawn stolen items. Pawnshops also keep detailed records, which are turned over to police. However, some items, such as gold and jewelry, are often difficult to track.

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DETROIT David Mazza walks into Motor City Pawn Brokers in Roseville, Mich., with an electric guitar in a soft black case. He says he has owned this B.C. Rich six-string for about 10 years but needs to pawn it for gas money.

"I need the money more than I need this guitar," says Mazza, 44, of Warren, Mich. "It's worth $500 new, but I just want $75."

Three pawnbrokers stand behind a bulletproof glass window. A loaded 12-gauge shotgun hangs on the back wall and a loaded pistol sits on the counter, in plain view to deter anyone who might consider robbing the store, which handles thousands of dollars every day.

"I need a loan to help me get through payday," Mazza says. He shows his ID, and a broker types the information into a computer. Mazza says he works on outboard motors, but business has been slow.

"He's been here before," one of the brokers says. And that's typical. More than 90 percent of the customers at this pawn shop come back for a second loan, and the vast majority pay back their loans and get their merchandise returned to them.

Two brokers whisper behind the glass.

"I'd go $50," says the owner's son, Mark Aubrey, 24. "He's been here before."

"Will $50 help you?" the broker asks.

Mazza is wearing an Air Force shirt, open at the collar. Several silver chains dangle from his neck.

"Can I get $65 on a loan?" Mazza asks, looking through the window. "I'll get it back."

"We looked it up on eBay," a broker says, glancing up from a computer. "This guitar is going for $75- $80 used. Can you do $50?"

Aubrey steps in. "To be honest, we were going to go $40, but if $50 helps, you are a good customer. We can do $50."

"Fifty helps," Mazza says. It isn't a hard-core negotiation as much as a polite verbal dance.

He puts his thumb on a scanner, which makes an electronic copy of his finger print. A detailed record of the transaction will be sent to the police to make sure the guitar is not stolen.

They give him his money.

"Thanks," Mazza says. "It's really going to help out a lot."

A broker takes the guitar and puts it in a warehouse that is bursting at the seams. It is stuffed with 600 guns, most still in their cases; 150 flat-screen televisions and a wall covered with guitars. Out back, there are more than 100 cars, including a Jaguar, a Mercedes and several vintage cars. The car loans range from $1,000 to $50,000. More than 90 percent are paid off, and the owner eventually gets the car back.

"We are really a new banking industry," says store owner Tony Aubrey, 53, who says that he has had 200,000 customers in the past 20 years and has seen a 200 percent surge in business during the past two years.

CONSUMER DEMAND

Across the U.S., many of the 13,500 pawn shops like Aubrey's are seeing a rise in traffic, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association. More people are coming for short-term loans, using their pawned items as collateral.

Most shops are small, privately owned businesses that do not report their earnings publicly. In metro Detroit, about 40 of them range from large, well-established stores that grant loans on just about everything imaginable to small jewelry stores that get pawn licenses and deal with only gold and jewelry. A pawn shop can even be found in upscale Birmingham, Mich.

Ilene Blaz, who owns Legacy Jewelry there, said she obtained a pawn license because so many people came into her store wanting to sell gold.

"I started seeing family heirlooms, things you would never melt for scrap," Blaz said. "So I said, maybe now is a time to get a pawn license and give them another way of raising money without scrapping their family treasures."

For someone who really needs cash but has bad credit, pawn shops can be a more affordable option than say, credit cards, which have charged as much as 38 percent for someone with a poor credit score, according to Dorothy Guzek, with GreenPath Debt Solutions in Troy, Mich.

WEALTHY NEED CASH

Blaz said she pawns the jewelry of "doctors, lawyers, celebrities and country-club types." Her store has a ritzy feel. It specializes in high-end loans that average about $5,000.

It's not uncommon for a small-business owner to pawn personal jewelry to take out a loan of $5,000 to $10,000 to meet payroll for the week.

Sometimes famous people come in and need cash quickly, presumably to pay a casino note.

"Sometimes, it's not that they don't have the money," Blaz says. "Maybe they don't want to take the money out of their bank or their investments. They don't want somebody else to know."

Others come in with heart breaking stories. A lady entered her store and said, "I have to sell my wedding ring. We really need money, and I have nothing else to sell."

The woman's friends did not know she was in trouble financially, and she was afraid they would notice that she wasn't wearing her ring.

"Why don't you keep your ring," Blaz told her. "We'll give you a loan on the diamond only."

A jeweler popped out the diamond, keeping it for pawn, and put in a fake.

"Nobody is ever going to know the difference," Blaz said.

The woman stopped crying. "She started hugging me. She went out and was so happy."

The diamond was worth $3,000.

"Most people can't get the money out of the bank because they are maxed out," Blaz says.

BIG-TICKET ITEMS

Motor City Pawn Brokers is spread over a sprawling, 2 1/4-acre complex in Rose-ville. The showroom features the same type of items found at most large pawn shops around metro Detroit: guitars, televisions, DVDs, jewelry and guns. The store has as many as 600 guns, ranging from shotguns to semi-automatic assault rifles.

"This is gun country," owner Tony Aubrey says. "Guys love their guns, but some have 20 or 30. They are the most honest people in the world. They are very honorable."

Behind the store in a fenced lot, there are several white trailers filled with equipment pawned by construction workers. It is common for construction workers to pawn their equipment during slow times or in the off-season.

"I have a dozen landscapers who pawn their whole trailer in the winter so they can buy salt and get their plows going for the snow," Aubrey says. "As soon as winter is over, they made their profit off the snow plowing. They take their money, they get their equipment out of pawn, and they start landscaping for the spring, summer and fall. And they do it every year."

His is one of the few pawn shops in metro Detroit that accepts cars. In the heated garage, there are cars everywhere he turns.

A 1971 SS Chevelle. "It's worth $40,000 or $45,000," Aubrey says.

A '57 Chevy Bel Air. "The guy told me it's safer here than in his garage. That's why he leaves it here. I've had it four years."

About 35 motorcycles. "I had three times that many three months ago."

A 2009 convertible Jaguar. "It's worth about $50,000 used, and I've had it going on three months."

There is a certain ebb and flow with the big-ticket items.

"During (tax) refund time, that's when people pick up most of their merchandise," Aubrey says. "They have money."