My father died suddenly and unexpectedly. In going through his personal effects the next day, my brother and I found tucked in his wallet a sheaf of yellow NCR receipts, each listing an item of personal property (mostly power tools), a dollar amount, and a date… Pawn tickets.
Pawning and (usually) redeeming stuff was a part of the rhythm of my father’s life. He earned a comfortable salary, most of which he remanded to my mother for household administration. But he kept a fraction of it as a sort of personal allowance with which he fed his personal demon, compulsive gambling.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ike most compulsives, he gambled with more hope than skill, and if he had a hot tip or a flash of warped intuition and needed extra cash, he simply hocked something. Abe Smith’s Pawn Shop in Spartanburg underwrote his enterprise for years. So when death rudely interrupted this cycle in the middle of football-wagering season, my brother quietly redeemed the Old Man’s power tools, accepted Abe’s condolences (“A great guy, a gentleman, and a good customer,” Abe said), and replaced them in his workshop. No big deal.
Across millennia—they were known in China as early as 3,000BC—pawnbrokers have been serving as financers of the feckless, temporary rescuers of the desperate and windfall generators for those who want to unburden themselves of personal junk. Dealing with them is quick, simple, straightforward, and confidential. No credit checks (pawn transactions are not reported to credit bureaus), no waiting period, and, except in certain circumstances, no questions asked.
In fact, the pawnbrokerage business model has changed hardly at all over the centuries. For reasons we shall explore, it has always—or almost always—been highly regulated. Much of the law that presently governs the pawn business can be traced to rules that were laid down in ancient Greece and Rome. William the Conquerer brought pawnbrokering to England, along with a whole raft of spendthrift Norman knights who served as a ready-made customer base. The practice caught on so well that Edward III hocked the crown jewels to finance a war—against the French. (What goes around comes around.) And less than a century later Henry V did likewise, needing to pay off Falstaff and the rest of the band of brothers who helped him out at Agincourt. In Spain, Queen Isabella hocked the royal rocks to finance Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. According to noted historian Stan Freberg, she did this against the advice of King Ferdinand, who wanted her to use the cash infusion to set Columbus up with a nice, safe little Fiat agency over in West Barcelona.
But the framework for modern pawnbrokerage came out of the Italian province of Lombardy in the high middle ages. The practice there became so entrenched that it was referred to as “Lombard banking” and pawnbrokers themselves as “Lombardies.” It was the Medicis who became the foremost practitioners of this form of collateral loaning, and when heraldry became fashionable their family’s coat-of-arms contained three gold roundels (called “bezants” or “plates” in heraldic language). As “Lombardy banking” became the—ahem—gold standard of moneylending, pawnbrokers adopted the Medicis’ three bezants as their logo, hanging them in solid form outside their shops. Hence the pawnshop’s universally recognized three gold balls. These are usually arranged in an inverted triangle which, as the old joke runs, is code for “Two to one you’ll never get your stuff back.”
Such a successful business model began to attract lenders who were less than ethical and who operated under the radar of the regulations of the time. A whole subculture arose of back door or even mobile Lombards who charged exorbitant interest, often in hopes of building an inventory since failure to pay off a pawn results in forfeiture of the collateral. Lombards thus added another dimension to their operation: they became dealers in second-hand merchandise, purchasing items from people in need of quick cash, usually for a small fraction of an article’s worth. From there it was a short step to receiving stolen goods. The backstreet Lombard had become a fence—a buyer and seller of hot property. Law enforcement tried to keep up; in London, which became riddled with less-than-scrupulous pawnshops, the Lord Mayor of London in 1603 enacted “An Act Against Brokers,” which stayed on the books until 1872; London was pockmarked with poverty and the Lombards supplied an ongoing demand.
Eventually commercial banks and savings associations started making signature loans available to folks who met a rudimentary standard of credit worthiness, often no more than proof of adequate income. This, of course, gave rise to the great paradox of commercial lending: them that has, gets. There were still plenty of people around who needed fast cash but could not meet the banks’ requirements: the working poor, the nonworking poor, the suddenly or unexpectedly destitute, or simply those without an established banking record. (In short, things were very much then as they are now.) There were those just seeking some mad money with which to party or gamble and who weren’t much concerned about whether they would be able to redeem their collateral when came the day of reckoning, as witness the chorus of “Sailors’ Hornpipe”:
We’ll have another drink before the boat comes back,
We’ll have another drink before the boat comes back.
We’ll go down to Mother Racketts’
And we’ll pawn our monkey jackets
And we’ll have another drink before the boat comes back.
Equally, there were those like the fellow in another song who was nine hundred miles from home and, whether due to a family tragedy or acute homesickness, just needs to buy a train ticket:
I will pawn you my watch,
I will pawn you my chain,
I will pawn you my gold diamond ring…
Pawnshops had made it into folklore. And since they had by now become a fixture in every town of any size at all, they inevitably came to contribute to local history.
In Asheville, North Carolina, the afternoon of Monday, November 12, 1906, was prematurely and bitterly cold. Few people were out and about, and it’s doubtful that anybody took particular notice of a gaunt figure that stepped off the afternoon train from Spartanburg and headed up the hill to town, hunched against the wind.
Well, his name was Will Harris, and he was a baaaaad man. He had escaped from Raleigh’s Central Prison and the governor of North Carolina had personally issued a reward of $200—more than $5,000 in today’s money—for Harris, dead or alive. Harris had come to Asheville looking for aid and comfort from an old girlfriend who knew him by another name. By suppertime he had found out where she was staying.
[quote float=”right”]Two officers were dispatched to investigate. Harris killed one cop and wounded the other, then fled up Valley Street, pausing long enough to kill a man who had opened his door to see what the disturbance was. [/quote]
The next morning Harris bought fresh clothes, then went directly to Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop where he purchased a Savage .303 rifle and ammunition. Carrying his purchases, he then walked into a saloon and bought a quart of whiskey. He guzzled half of it and set off for his ex-girlfriend’s basement apartment on the corner of Eagle and Valley Streets. The woman wasn’t there but her sister was, and Harris promptly took her hostage. The sister’s boyfriend appeared, sized up the situation and pelted straight to the police station. Two officers were dispatched to investigate. Harris killed one cop and wounded the other, then fled up Valley Street, pausing long enough to kill a man who had opened his door to see what the disturbance was. Heading west, he killed two more men—one a pedestrian, one an onlooker—before he reached South Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue). Then he turned right, heading uphill towards Pack Square. It was nearly midnight.
On the square itself, policeman James Bailey fired at Harris from behind a telephone pole. Harris fired two shots in reply. One went completely through the pole, knocked Bailey down and ricocheted off the Vance Monument. The second struck Bailey in the head, killing him, then traveled into a store across the square where it went through a box of cigars, broke a jug, and lodged in the wall. From the lower end of the square, the fire bell, Asheville’s emergency signal, started ringing. Harris fled southwards towards the woods near the bottom of the hill as a hundred Ashevillians, in various stages of day and night dress, converged on the square. Police Chief Silas Bernard was trying to organize them into a posse when it was called to his attention that the volunteers were unarmed.
At that critical point, according to historian Mark Jones, a voice shouted, “I have guns!”
It was Harry Finkelstein, owner of the very pawnshop where Harris had bought his own weapon twelve hours earlier.
“You can have every gun in my shop,” Finkelstein said, and in the next few minutes he handed out more than fifty rifles, shotguns, and pistols. There was no paperwork, no keeping track of who got what. Finkelstein simply assumed that his merchandise would be returned.
Long story short: Harris evaded police and a huge posse for two days before he was spotted and killed in a final firefight in a snow-covered thicket near Skyland. His bullet-riddled body was displayed, old-West style, on a board at a local mortuary.
And Harry Finkelstein got every one of his loaned-out guns back.
Finkelstein’s, founded by Harry in 1903, reckons itself the second-oldest continuously operating business in Asheville. (The oldest, since the demise of T.S. Morrison Hardware, is J. M. Hearn, locksmiths-turned-bicycling equipment dealers.) Finkelstein’s has changed locations three times along the same two-block stretch from South Main Street (Biltmore Avenue), where it was at the time of the Harris shootout, to Pack Square proper, where it remained for 55 years, to its present site a few doors north on Broadway. Its 111-year tenure in Asheville has also made it the oldest pawnshop still operating in North Carolina and the second oldest in the United States.
And it is thriving. “We’ve always done a steady business, retail sales as well as pawn,” says longtime corporate manager, Joel Parker, “but the revitalization of downtown has really been good for us. We get a lot of bargain hunters and collectors from out of town. Not long ago a lady from Michigan found a set of silver spoons she had been looking all over for, even on the Internet. She was tickled to death.
“That’s an advantage we still have over the Internet,” Parker says. “There’s a big difference between seeing a picture of something and being able to hold it in your hand. As for pricing, we keep track of trends in the industry, we monitor eBay and the other Internet outlets, and we stay pretty competitive with them.”
What’s the most unusual thing Finkelstein’s has loaned money on?
“It would take some doing to name the ‘most’ unusual,” Parker says. “I do know there was a preacher that used to bring his Bible in and pawn it pretty regularly. And there was a fellow that used to pawn his dentures once in a while. The preacher came in a lot, though.”
Electronics, big and small, come in and go out the door often, bought and sold as well as taken in pawn. The same goes for musical instruments. “Asheville has a big music scene,” Parker says, “and a lot of struggling musicians need money quick. But they nearly always redeem their instruments; they have to have them. And [buyers] are always hoping to find something you couldn’t find new in a music store, so that’s always a steady market. Then there’s the seasonal merchandise—fishing and camping gear this time of year, guns and hunting equipment in the fall.”
If Finkelstein’s is the Tiffany’s of Asheville pawnbrokers, Alan’s Jewelry and Pawn is its Neiman-Marcus. Its home store, on one of the busiest corners of Patton Avenue in West Asheville, is surrounded by a spacious parking lot. Inside, everything is brilliant track lighting and enormous open space, sparkling glass showcases displaying artfully arranged merchandise. Only the three-register pawn counter, placed discreetly off to one side, belies the impression that this is an upscale department store. (Well, that and the uniformed security guard who also serves as greeter.) There’s even a separate entrance for the jewelry department, which occupies half of the store unto itself. In all, the store comprises 15,000 square feet, a far cry from the 900-square-foot cubbyhole Alan Sheppard and his wife, Tonia, opened further down Patton in 1988.
And that’s just the beginning. Alan’s now has a branch store across town on Tunnel Road and a third in Cherokee, conveniently located near the casino and open 24 hours a day. The stores also offer such amenities as check cashing and jewelry repair.
Alan’s markets itself aggressively. It maintains a sophisticated website which bills it as “Asheville’s Original Pawn Stars,” a reference to the History Channel reality show which follows a family of Las Vegas pawnbrokers, and includes a photo of Alan and Tonia with “Pawn Stars” star, Rick Harrison. The website also features a real-time update of the price of gold. The company maintains a hefty multimedia advertising program, from broadcast to billboards to print, and is a conspicuously generous donor to several local and national charities—it recently contributed $10,000 to the Make-a-Wish foundation, participates actively in Toys for Tots, and supports local charities from the Eblen Foundation to Manna Food Bank.
When the leaves are off the trees, you can almost see Alan’s main store from Riverside Cemetery, where rests Will Porter, better known as O. Henry, the author of the classic short story “The Gift of the Magi.” In that familiar tale a financially strapped young couple part with their most prized possessions in order to buy each other a Christmas present. She sells her long and beautiful hair; he sells his grandfather’s gold watch, almost certainly to a pawnbroker. They then discover that he has used his money to buy her a set of combs and she has bought him a chain for his watch.
Which seems only fitting somehow: the patron saint of pawnbrokers is St. Nicholas.