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THE GOODS : Forget the seedy image. Pawn shops are a good bet if times are tough and you need to get . . . Cash on Delivery

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When asked what’s the one thing people pawn most often, Alex Elperin, owner of Stage Jewelry and Loan, is quick to answer: “Their soul.” Although he’s kidding--quickly disposable goods like jewelry and electronics are the most readily pawned--the response probably jibes with the popular opinion of pawn shops as somewhat shady establishments fit only for those with faded prospects.

At Elperin’s Vine Street store, one encounters a gallery of guitars, leather jackets and a half-dozen gold records by someone named Daryl Stewart. All these items, little pieces of bigger dreams, were pawned and, eventually, lost.

“This is Hollywood--every second guy owns a guitar. But to them it’s not just a piece of wood, it’s something they cherish,” he says. “You have to be sensitive to be in this business.”

Although a pawned item will fetch only between 5% and 40% of its retail value, depending on how much it can be sold for, there’s a human element to pawn shops that you won’t find at the retail level, where a $49 watch is $49, period. And the range of such places in these parts is fairly astonishing.

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Under California law, all pawned items are reported to the police, along with the identity and right thumb print of the person who’s pawned it. State law dictates pawned items may be held for up to four months. At that time, customers are notified that they have 10 days to retrieve their goods, or they become the property of the shop. Customers reclaim their valuables for what they pawned them for, plus interest of between 10%-20% for the four-month period, an amount set by the state and among the nation’s lowest. (In Florida, it’s about 20% per month; in Minnesota, a whopping 30%.)

Elperin says 90% of his clients retrieve their goods, and that he is never short of customers. “As long as people are walking, they’ll be coming into pawn shops. We have all types of customers--people from South-Central to Beverly Hills. Money problems have no borders. And it’s the easiest way to get cash: You’re as good as your collateral.”

What kind of “collateral” depends on where the pawn shop is located. In Hollywood, Elperin accepts a lot of instruments and camera equipment. In the Valley, there are more consumer electronics and heavy equipment. One item Elperin and other pawn shop owners are not buying much of is outdated computer equipment (“At the rate computer intelligence is growing, there’s just no way to resell a 286,” noted one employee). Is there anything else he won’t buy? “Someone tried to pawn an artificial eye, but I didn’t take it.”

Glass eye not withstanding, Elperin insists there’s something for everyone at the pawn shop, but advises a certain amount of product acuity before purchasing. “Our customers usually know what they are buying. If they don’t mind that a guitar has a couple of scratches and has been used before, they are going to save hundreds of dollars.”

Record producer and longtime pawn shop enthusiast, Larry Ferguson, agrees the prices are great. “I collect watches. You can find nice ones--like Piaget--for, at most, one third of what you’d pay retail. I bought antique African bronze, very rare, worth at least 20 times what I paid.”

Asked whether he thinks he’s ever bought stolen goods, Ferguson says it’s possible, but that there’s really no way to know.

“Sometimes the owner doesn’t even know. I’ll tell you a story. I was producing a record in a studio on Beverly Boulevard, and the violin player had his instrument stolen. This was a Stradivarius, worth over $200,000. Three weeks later, the insurance company tracked it to a local pawn shop. The proprietor had bought it for $75.”

The Collateral Lender on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills is tonier than most pawn shops. Parked on the plush, air-conditioned showroom floor is a maroon Bentley, a 1995 BMW and a tricked-out Harley. A gleaming jewelry case reveals a Judith Leiber handbag (priced at $4,000), a diamond Art Deco pin ($60,000) and beautiful pair of Harry Winston earrings ($25,000), all, according to employees, selling at about 25% of their retail price.

“We get million dollar suites of jewelry,” explains gemologist Erica Anderson. “We recently had two grand pianos. We had a customer this week who tried to pawn his two Oscars and his Emmy.”

Did she take them? “Well, we gave him a loan, because we know him, but we can’t resell them. It’s illegal to sell Oscars.”

Anderson thinks Los Angeles is particularly suited for pawn shops because of the fiscal inconsistencies of the entertainment industry. “Everyone’s always waiting on a check.” We had a producer who pawned his 1995 Porsche to make a payroll. He came back for the car the next week, when he received his money.”

Pawn shops also offer a leniency you will not find at your local bank.

“It’s not like a bank. Many of our customers don’t have good credit, that’s why they’re here. We want to know what you’re pawning is yours, and then we give you cash, 5%-10% or more, depending on if we can be sure of an item’s value. Let’s say you have a painting that’s been appraised by Sotheby’s for $10,000. We’ll probably give you $4,000, because we know we can get at least that for it.”

One pawnshop given is that when times get tough, business gets better. When the bottom fell out of the go-go ‘80s, a lot of people landed in the cracks, and the number of pawn shops in Los Angeles area rose from about 50 to 180. After the Northridge earthquake, the Collateral Lender saw a 30% increase in business. And although they come in the crunch, it doesn’t mean they’ll return.

“We have a lot of regular customers, but not many people walking in off the street. They’re embarrassed. Getting over the stigma is the biggest hurdle,” says Anderson. “People should realize it’s no different than going to a thrift shop.”

Elliott Salter Pawnshop in West Hollywood certainly looks like a thrift store, with bikes and mopeds and electric wheelchairs cluttering the entrance. Inside, jewelry cases sit chock-a-block with shelves bulging with luggage, stereo equipment and clothing. Salter, a Jim Croce look-alike, opened his shop in 1964. Asked whether changes in the economy have boosted business, Salter says no.

“The economy’s been so bad for so long, business is not really up. There are, however, more people coming in, not just to pick up this and that, but to shop.”

And to hang out. As Salter jokes with a woman who’s been pawning the same ring for 15 years, a couple debates whether to pawn both their guitars, or just his. Salter lets them take their time.

“Just because you need money, it shouldn’t be demeaning. When a kid’s birthday comes up and your transmission goes out and the rent is due, you can come here for a short-term loan. We’re a working man’s bank, in a more user-friendly atmosphere.”

Indeed, the shop is a hotbed of humor and activity. Case in point is customer Deacon Jones, a blues musician just back from a gig in Europe. While Salter floats Jones a loan, Jones regales the shop with an explanation of why he’s so broke.

“We were in Paris, and we go to McDonald’s, and a Value Meal was nine bucks. I’m lookin’ down at this little bitty hamburger, and I was in shock, and the counter girl’s looking at me like, ‘What? Aren’t you a rich American?’ ”


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