The Pawn Brokers

Presumably murky characters who fence goods at high interest rates for people in need, pawnshop owners are riding the region's recent wave of misfortune with a measure of respect.


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Ilene Blaz of the Legacy Jewelry store in downtown Birmingham — with its fine carpets, crystal chandeliers, and glass cases brimming with gemstones — says her business “used to be more fun when everybody left here with a gift.” Then, two years ago, as General Motors and Chrysler received emergency bailouts and the economy spiraled downward, Blaz, who runs the store with her son, Neal, did something that was never part of her original business plan. She hired someone to teach her to be a pawnbroker, renovated her store to include a private meeting room for transactions, and added “& Loan” to the name of her company.

So far, the changes are working and adding to the bottom line, says Blaz, who became a licensed pawnbroker after a number of customers requested loans on jewelry they’d bought at her store. These days, she says pawning accounts for 60 percent of her business.

The modification has expanded her client base and her profits. “I consider us a full-service jewelry store because we do everything,” she says. “We buy gold. We buy diamonds. We’ll do whatever we can to get you through this period, which is difficult for everybody.”

Blaz isn’t alone. Pawnshops, once considered less-than-reputable businesses that catered mostly to those down on their luck and in need of quick cash, charged high interest rates, and were often located in less-desirable locations, are now regarded as acceptable places for middle-class and upper-class folks to seek one-time small loans — and business is booming.

“It’s crazy how the image of the pawnshop has changed completely,” Mike Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy, says. “At one time, it would be appropriate to say, pawnshops were the doormats of the business world.

“I’m not sure they are the kings now,” Bernacchi continues, “but the transformation has been substantial. There is no doubt in my mind that if the economy had not jumped off the face of the earth, pawnshops would not have this new status.”

Part of the reason for the new acceptability is that diverse clientele are discovering pawnshops. Once mainstays of urban cores, these businesses are branching out to the suburbs, and setting up shops in strip malls and shopping centers.

“Pawnshop owners have done a lot to clean up their image,” says Emmett Murphy, spokesperson for the National Pawnbrokers Association (NPA). “And with the success of reality TV shows Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn, more people have become interested. Pawnshops are a financial service and are becoming more of a mainstream financial service.”

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