Households Cash-Strapped, What It’s Like At A Pawnshop

LARGO, Fla. (AP) — Inflation, no inflation, recession, stimulus, pandemic, whatever may come: “In here it always stays the same,” said Tim’s Trading Post & Pawn team member Rita Casillas. “There are always people who need cash and have nowhere else to go.”

Stepping into Tim’s reveals an arsenal of semi-automatics and revolvers, heaps of power drills, miter saws, a wall of guitars and rows of TVs glowing with cable news. A glass case displays golden ropes, figaro chains and Cuban links like orderly pirate booty.

It’s shelves on shelves of used items, sold to owner and pawnbroker Tim Kaye for cash or used as collateral for loans later defaulted on. The unifying theme: It’s the type of stuff always worth a buck.

“If it ain’t been in the pawnshop, it can’t play the blues,” goes a saying sometimes dubiously attributed to guitarist B.B. King. But Kaye — 50 years old, kind smile, gun on his hip — shrugs off the suggestion these objects retain a whiff of distress.

But isn’t there something unromantic, I asked him, about proposing with a pawnshop ring?

“How old is a diamond?” he said. About a billion years. “Then what difference does a few weeks in here make?”

The cast of the History Channel’s breezily watchable, always-on “Pawn Stars” announced they’ll soon film “Pawn Stars Do America” in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Since 2009, their success demystified, sanitized and boosted the industry, pawnbrokers say, but it remains staged “reality” TV. Real life happens at Tim’s.

During this time of high inflation and growing debt, it might follow that business is booming. But on a recent February weekday, customers came and went, and employees said if their patterns were changed by the economy, they hadn’t detected it.

Though an estimated 30 million Americans seek the services of pawnshops annually, most people never do. Kaye knows some see his line of work as predatory.

“Those people have probably never needed a pawnshop before,” he said. “I’d tell them, you’re very fortunate you’ve never been in a situation where you needed a few dollars.”

At around 1 p.m., Kaye warmly greeted a sunburned man who held in his palm a gold clasp and another small piece of broken gold link. The man sought $20, for a new bicycle tire.

Casillas, who specializes in jewelry, applied chemicals to the shiny bits, revealing they contained no gold. Manager Chris Beigel suggested the man could pawn his bicycle, and the guy shouted that he must be stupid, since the whole point was to fix the bike. Kaye welcomed the man to come again.

“You learn how to talk to everyone, to relate to everyone,” Beigel said. “To keep your cool.”

Kaye said it was tough to gauge what was happening in the economy. People’s tax returns had started arriving, so the cash loans that make up most of his business had slowed. Things had been tough for people in the surrounding neighborhood, he said — his shop is on Missouri Avenue, just south of Belleair Road — inspiring him to stock the free food pantry by the entrance. Rent, gas and light bills were, as always, reasons given by loan-seekers. Often, he said, his customers had no credit cards or a chance at a bank loan.

Kaye opened Tim’s Trading Post three years back after 20 years in other people’s pawnshops. All types come through, he said, some unhoused and some wealthy, and if his customers are people having perhaps their worst day, Kaye said he aims to make their 15 minutes with him dignified and easy. It doesn’t matter if they need a $10 loan or $10,000.

Minutes later, a man in a neon hoodie brought a small silver chain to the counter but was informed it wasn’t silver.

Between customers, the pawnbrokers reminisced about strange items they’d accepted.

“Gold teeth,” said Casillas. She got into the business after getting ripped off on a gold necklace that was actually brass, wanting never to be fooled again.

Kaye remembered an older man who came in weekly and removed a worthless, old driving cap from his head, seeking a $20 loan. He’d get the loan because he was a regular, and Kaye knew he’d always come back for that hat.

The largest item Kaye has taken was the full-size van parked out back.

The strangest reject?

An entire electrical breaker box, Beigel said. “It was obviously stolen. I had to be like, ‘I can’t take this.’”

All agreed they’d experienced haunting moments. People dealing with addiction — that’s just reality.

“The parents who came in,” Kaye said, “looking to buy back the things their kid stole from them. And they’re trying to help their son.” That one was hard to shake. But he also thinks about families that hugged him and thanked him for helping them weather a rough patch.

Every item a pawnshop accepts is cataloged and filed with the police. They contacted him six times last year about stolen property, which Kaye returns to the rightful owner for a loss. The worst hit he took in 2022, he said, was $600 he loaned against four bicycles to a man who claimed to be an avid cyclist, but turned out to be a professional bicycle thief.

“He had a very good story,” Kaye said, “It’s rare someone like that comes through, but when I found out he’d been working his way from Tampa and had like 61 theft charges, I didn’t feel as bad.”

A pawnbroker must assess a few things: Is this item really what it’s purported to be? What might this item sell for, used? How attached is this person, and thus how likely to pay back their loan with 10% interest to retrieve it in 30 days?

Kaye pointed behind the register to his “wall of shame” enshrining his mistakes, including a pair of Travis Scott Jordan 1 sneakers (counterfeit) and a Tiffany lamp (knockoff). Then there was the framed gold record for Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ With Disaster” (authentic) but for which he loaned a guy thousands more than its true value.

“That was because he has a big heart, and wanted to help a guy save his business,” Beigel said.

A blonde woman in heels entered. She pulled two Prada handbags out of dust covers, along with cards meant to prove authenticity. She wanted $400, but after the bags were examined, Beigel declined.

The shop does sell luxury handbags and rare Nike sneakers, items a younger Kaye would have never believed he’d accept, but the resale market for both has blossomed.

A young man with round glasses carried in an assortment of curved knives wrapped in a towel and a large Conan the Barbarian broadsword with a broken tip. An old roommate had abandoned it all. Kaye apologized, but the sword was worthless without the tip. No deal. The young man accepted his fate and asked how much for the “Star Wars” Count Dooku lightsaber displayed behind the counter.

A gray-haired guy carried in a used Xbox purchased three days earlier, claiming that the X button was working like the A, and vice versa. He wanted a refund. Despite this being impossible, Kaye gave him the money. Why argue. Keep the customer.

The shop grew quiet as the afternoon wore on. Kaye led the way to the back storage room and pulled the sheet off what looked like a bicycle. It was a 1915 Harley Davidson, worth around $100,000. He’d loaned the owner, a contractor who needed money to fund their next job, around $25,000.

Kaye said many customers were similarly high earners, but who make money in chunks. Beigel described a high-end Realtor who occasionally brings in several Rolexes for a big loan between commissions.

A married couple entered and perused the jewelry case. “This is our date night,” said Sonny Bennett, a regular, who works as an electrician. His wife held up her hands to show off bracelets from the shop.

A young woman in flip-flops came in and purchased two boxes of .380 ammunition.

A man asked Kaye the price of a blue guitar, then scoffed. “He’s a reseller,” Kaye said. They come in hunting for items Kaye underpriced.

All three pawnbrokers said it was common for loan-seekers to spend a chunk of what they received on something else in the shop. “They put it right back,” said Beigel. “Makes no sense.”

Kaye said he hopes people only need his services for a season in their lives, like he did himself.

Two guys brought in five Nintendo Switch games, vowing to return for them, receiving $60 they said they’d spend on gas.

A man in a Chicago Bears cap carried in two large pieces of studio equipment covered in sliders and knobs. “Those are the upgraded knobs,” he said. He said he was a music producer and absolutely had to come back for his gear. He received several hundred dollars, spending a portion on a gold necklace.

It was after 5:30 p.m., nearing closing time, and Kaye began taking the guns off the wall to lock them up.

He makes a “decent living,” he said, paying himself $1,050 weekly. That’s less than some of his employees, but necessary to keep afloat as he pays off high-interest business debts. Ironically, he said, banks refused him a traditional business loan for his pawnshop.

“They won’t touch it,” he said. “So you find another way. Before you know it, you’re half a million in debt.”

He’d return to the shop the next morning, hoping to hand out more loans to help pay off his own.