ON GOLDEN PAWN

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

Or as Jack Daugherty, who has become a rich man as founder of Cash America Investments, which owns more than 100 pawnshops in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, told the New York Times: "I could take my customers and put them on a bus and drive them down to a bank and the bank would laugh at them. That's why they're my customers."

A scene from the 1965 film The Pawnbroker: A lanky, wild-eyed dude with uncombed hair leans into the pawnbroker's window, puts a portable radio on the counter. He's fidgeting like he's had eight cups of coffee with no bathroom break, bobbing, weaving: C'mon, uncle, make me an offer!

Steiger's character, Nazerman, sidles over, looks skeptically at the radio, which refuses to comply with the man's frantic knob turning.

Come on, baby, show the man your power!
I'll give you two dollars, Nazerman says.
Two dollars! the man shrieks. You bloodsucking cheat!
Just sign right here.
Okay.

A scene from the floor of Central Pawn Brokers in Phoenix, 1994: A lanky, wild-eyed dude with uncombed hair and a Tasmanian Devil tee shirt leans into the pawnbroker's window, puts a ministereo unit on the counter. He's fidgeting like he's had eight cups of coffee with no bathroom break, bobbing, weaving: Hey, can I pawn this thing?

Ed Sierakowski, whose business card already has the title of vice president on it now that Gonzalez says he has resigned his post, comes over, takes a look. "How much do you need?" he asks.

"Fifty dollars."
"What do you need it for?"
"My friend promised to take his daughter to the State Fair, and I had to pay the APS bill this week or they were gonna turn off our power, and we got caught short."

Sierakowski looks it over some more, says, "I can give you $40."
"Okay."
Sierakowski is store manager on Saturdays. He started as an electronics repairman at Central about two years ago. Earnestly helpful, he carries a Spiderman key chain and is a stickler for procedure, the kind of guy who'll always read the directions, just to make sure.

This is why it's easy to believe Sierakowski made the phone call he claims he made to police the day the troublesome Ping golf clubs came in. The cops don't remember the phone call, and say Gonzalez went ahead and kept the clubs when he had reason to believe they were stolen.

"The sheer volume of pieces in here and the very few that are on [police] hold attests to our attempts to keep everything valid," Sierakowski says. "One time, a lady brought in a TV/VCR combo in the box, and I says, 'Where did you get this?' She says, 'I got three of 'em. I just got married, and they were gifts.' I says, 'When did you get married?' She says, 'Recently.'" He pauses, to let you think about it, too. "And to my mind, 'recently' is not good enough." He refused to buy it.

The store, on Central Avenue across from Central High, is one of four pawnshops owned by Bill Jachimek. The four shops handle more than 100 transactions a day. When Jachimek, a bearlike guy most comfortable in a gray, Reebok LIFE IS SHORT PLAY HARD tee shirt, first happened into the pawnshop business, the stories people spun made things interesting. "Now I just run around and pay all the bills," he says. "The fun is gone."

In the main store, there are three windows at which to pawn items, then a single cashier's window to one side; beyond that, toward the back, are the storage rooms holding hundreds of items--TVs, computer equipment, guns, lawnmowers--awaiting redemption.

A pawn transaction works like this: You offer an item--say, that annoying karaoke machine you got for your birthday, or your 32-inch television--as collateral against a 90-day loan.

State law allows pawnshops to charge 6 percent per month for any loan up to 60 days, then 3 percent for the final month, pro-rated daily. So a $100 loan would require a minimum $112 payback for redemption of your item through the first 60 days, then up to $115 after that depending on how far into the 90 days you go.

Extensions can be worked out, if necessary, and pawnshop operators say it's in their interests to do so, because repeat customers represent about half a successful pawnshop's business. Besides, a strong neighborhood reputation is worth more in the long run than profit made off a single item.

The guy in the Tasmanian tee and the clerk, a cheery woman named Julie, share utility-bill woes while the guy stretches over the counter to see if the serial numbers are still on the stereo unit. But Julie has already noted that factoid. "Oh, yeah, we wouldn't take it unless it has the serial numbers," she tells him. She swings the printer around so he can sign the police slip attesting that the property is his.

Odds are the guy will be back for the stereo--the industry redemption rate is between 80 and 90 percent, and most people come back for their stuff within 45 days.

"I used to think, you can't trust pawnshops," says 26-year-old clerk Yvonne Adams, who has been with Central for about two years. "You know, you take your stuff in and they keep it. But that was before I started working in them. And it's really good. It helps you when you need it, you know, you need $20 just to get by for the week, to put gas in the car, you know what I'm saying?" A single mother, Adams pawns her own jewelry, and, in fact, has it pawned now: "That's why I don't have any on," she says. A moment later, she is helping a customer redeem a necklace, examining it as she removes it from the envelope: "Ooh, this is pretty," she says wistfully.

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