ON GOLDEN PAWN

DESPERATE PEOPLE WILL HOCK ALMOST ANYTHING FOR QUICK CASH. THAT'S WHY PAWNSHOPS ARE BUSTLING, AND THE COPS ARE BUSTING

I will assume the undertaking for my crown of Castille, and am ready to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses of it, if the funds in the treasure shall be found inadequate.

--Queen Isabella of Spain's response to Columbus' last appeal

So there you go. The very reason you are where you are right now is because of a pawn transaction. Otherwise, Columbus would never have been able to swing that extended cruise of his.

Pledging property for a quick loan is an old concept, and pawnbroking is sometimes called the second-oldest profession in the world. The Egyptians did it. The Romans did, too. So did the Greeks. In Italy, they called pawnshops monti di pieta, or mountains of mercy, and by the early 1700s, they were a staple of European business life. There and in Latin America, civic-minded organizations and governments have opened some nonprofit pawnshops as a public service.

In the United States, the industry has gone buff since the 1980s, even catapulting one thriving operation onto the New York Stock Exchange. Yuppie pawnshops like Trickle Down, Inc., outside Seattle, offer items such as espresso and fax machines, tanning beds and mountain bikes hocked to make payments on maxed-out gold cards and high-end mortgages. Someone tried a 24-hour pawnshop a couple of years ago in Scottsdale, but the store has since adopted more traditional hours of operation. In New Mexico, pawnshops play a role in the Navajo economy, especially for Indian elders, who aren't enamored of savings accounts and instead buy extra jewelry to pawn in times of need.

More impressive, though, is just how many of these places there are--a 1990 Swarthmore College study found that the U.S. pawnshop population had more than tripled, from 2,000 to nearly 7,000, since 1911; in about the same length of time, the number of British pawnshops dropped from around 3,000 to fewer than 200. A lot of the U.S. growth has gone from older, big cities to urban and rural areas in Southern and Central states. Texas has the most; Oklahoma and Idaho have the most per capita. One researcher estimates that pawnshops loaned out more than $1.7 billion nationwide in 1988.

There are 104 pawnshops in Arizona, about 80 of them members of the Arizona Pawnshop Association. Phoenix has 36 licensed pawn dealers, and 23 of those have obtained their current business licenses since 1992, which was just after the low point in Arizona's recession. Ten have sprouted this year alone.

Morrey Reznik's Jewel Box pawnshop is the granddaddy of them all, though he got his latest license in 1975, when he moved into his current location on Central Avenue downtown. Before that he had done business for 30 years out of a store near the seedy Deuce, an infamous downtown area offering the services of the world's oldest and second-oldest professions. That area is gone now, replaced by the more meaningful and less interesting Patriots Square.

Three golden balls are the symbol, the barber pole, of the pawn industry; it was the coat of arms designating the European House of Lombard, a wealthy family that operated pawnshops in the Middle Ages. But somewhere along the way pawnshops fell into disrepute, and now, Reznik jokes, the three golden balls might be more the equivalent of a red light than a barber pole. "Three balls," he says, "means 2-to-1 you'll get it back. That's an old line." In 1988, the Jewel Box was ordered to pay the Attorney General's Office $300,000 in fees and penalties for sticking customers with interest rates as high as 144 percent annually, or four times the amount allowed by state law at the time. But with a revived pawn detail unit and new state law that requires better monitoring of transactions, Phoenix police say 99 percent of pawnbroking operations are now in compliance. Reznik's shop is well-regarded, and from what he's heard of the Alex Gonzalez case, he thinks the police department is 100 percent wrong.

Arizona Pawnshop Association president Mark Gonshak, owner of the 27-year-old, four-store Trading Post pawn chain, says the APA can't get involved in individual cases like Gonzalez's, but what it can do is go out there and tell people about the role pawnshops play in society, "getting out the idea that pawnbrokers aren't bad people, that we're here to help and not rip people off. We're like Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. We serve a purpose in the community."

Shops donate items like musical instruments and appliances to elementary schools and churches victimized by burglary, he says. And pawnshops work with police to prevent crime and help catch lawbreakers.

"There's a need for pawnbrokers. A lot of people and a lot of politicians have an image of the old Rod Steiger movie," Gonshak says, alluding to The Pawnbroker, in which Steiger plays a venal character who bids two dollars on everything. "Over the years, that's played over and over again into people's minds. And what we try to tell people is, look, we're in the Nineties: We offer assistance to people that banks are not gonna talk to. Try going to a bank and telling them you're short on cash and you need a loan for $500, today. You can't do it. Or $1,000 for 30 days. Nobody can help you. We are filling a niche."

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