Pawn shops proliferating in Eau ClaireThey come with tools and trinkets in hand, with TV-fueled dreams of cashing in or the simple desire to get a few bucks for gas and groceries.
By: By Andrew Dowd, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis., Superior Telegram
They come with tools and trinkets in hand, with TV-fueled dreams of cashing in or the simple desire to get a few bucks for gas and groceries. Driven by the still-struggling economy and highly watched cable shows, people increasingly are stopping at the growing number of Eau Claire pawn shops.
At C & C Pawnbrokers, 412 Washington St., Char Gillette and her son, Chad Olson, have been presented collateral ranging from food fished out of a garbage container to a pair of priceless antique ivory tusks created before ivory bans were enacted to protect elephants.
"We've seen everything," Gillette said.
Some of their merchandise -- namely military memorabilia from the world wars -- is similar to what is seen on the History Channel's "Pawn Stars."
"We do get a lot of the same items," Olson said.
Olson even made a commercial in which he rides a motorcycle and his co-workers cross their arms in a quasi-serious pose outside their store -- an homage to the opening credits of "Pawn Stars."
The shop and the family's companion store, Me-No-Monie Street Pawn & Loan, 1243 Menomonie St., even had a brush with show business when they were scouted for a potential show. They weren't picked because the prospective show's executives were looking for more bickering among mother, son and customers, Olson said.
The family is glad the shows "Pawn Stars" and TruTV's "Hardcore Pawn" are broadening the acceptance of pawn shops.
The economy is playing a big role too, as the owners of Eau Claire's newest pawn shop, Crossroads Pawn and Gun, 2221 S. Hastings Way, noted.
"We're seeing people you wouldn't expect need to be in a pawn shop are coming into a pawn shop," co-owner Brian Zinn said.
He is seeing contractors pawn their tools for a quick loan so they can gas up their vehicles to drive to the next job.
"Places where they used to have a line of credit, it's all cashed," said David Zinn, Brian's brother and partner in the store.
The two also see businessmen stop at the store to browse the merchandise, not wanting to pay full retail prices.
David Zinn's own work background tells a bit about the economy. He worked for 28 years as a drywall contractor but got out when the construction industry went into decline in recent years.
After working mostly alone in houses under construction, he said he enjoys a job in which he talks with people and hears their stories.
The Zinns opened their shop with a brand-new interior, arranged like a retail store and focused on customer service, plus a lower loan interest rate, an indication the local pawn market is bringing more competition.
"We're trying to change their image by having a clean and friendly environment," Brian Zinn said.
The Zinns and Pawn America, 2615 Mall Drive, both took out pawnbroker licenses in late 2010. It was the first time in several years that new pawn shops opened in Eau Claire, bringing the city's total to six shops.
While TV pawn shows have helped popularize the industry, they do not always portray a true picture of how the businesses work, Brian Zinn said.
The bickering and yelling at the Detroit store in "Hardcore Pawn" might make it entertaining to some, but that's not how business is done, he said. That "soap opera" conflict on the shows does boost their ratings, he added.
Rarely does an attic or basement harbor a treasure. "The bottom line is that's not reality in most pawn stores," Brian Zinn said.
The brothers have gotten interesting items -- including a cache of 5,000 cigarette lighters they bought from a South Dakota collector.
Some of them are "trench art" -- large-caliber ammunition modified into lighters. Others are small bottles, little sculptures and even model cars with a lighter incorporated into them.
"I researched for three weeks, based on pictures," David Zinn said, noting Internet auction and sales sites are common resources for pawnbrokers.
After the Zinns discerned their profit margin, negotiated a price for the lot and calculated expenses for the two to drive to South Dakota, they went for the sale.
So far they've sold a dozen for $50 each. While some of the lighters will go for a few bucks, a few of the rare ones are worth $1,000, Brian Zinn said.
At C & C Pawnbrokers, Gillette recalled getting one of the most beautiful guitars she has seen.
When Gillette and Olson started their pawn shop in the late '90s, a local musician brought his vintage acoustic Gibson guitar from the 1940s into the store.
He just needed a $50 pawn loan, which Gillette offered based on the valuable collateral. She fully expected the musician would return quickly with cash in hand and reclaim it, but he didn't.
The pawn loan expired after a month, and the store held the guitar for a 30-day grace period before offering it for sale.
It fetched $3,500, and Gillette said it earned her the title of having Eau Claire's biggest profit on a single pawned item for several years.
While pawnbrokers can tell a few stories of really high-profit items, they share many more tales of people trying to get money from about anything.
"If we bought everything that came in the store, we'd be broke," Gillette said.
Food is never accepted, nor are items that are illegal or potentially stolen.
When people don't like the offer, or a flat-out refusal of their item, they can get irate, as is seen often on "Hardcore Pawn."
"We do get screamed and hollered at, but that's part of the business," Gillette said.
But unlike the TV show, it rarely is the case in the Eau Claire shop.
"The vast majority of our customers are everyday, normal people," Olson said.
While the shows have made pawn shops more of a mainstream business, Olson admitted some stigmas still are attached to it.
A big one is pawn loans are high-interest, which he admits to. His shop charges 20 percent for a monthlong loan, but he said it is prorated, allowing less interest if the person pays off the loan in less than a month.
The customer can extend the loan by paying the interest for the first month. But if nothing is paid in 30 days, there is a 30-day grace period before the pawn shop legally owns the item and can sell it.
Olson estimated about 35 to 40 percent of customers don't pick up their pawned items.
Crossroads follows a different set of pawn laws, which limits the size of its loans to $150, but the store charges only 3 percent interest.
The hope is the loan gets repaid and the customer comes back to pawn again or buy some of the store's merchandise.
"We don't want to own their stuff," Brian Zinn said.
About half the store's customers who bring in items want a loan, he said, but the rest are looking to sell their items.
Every item brought to pawn stores is cataloged, and a list is sent to the police nightly to ensure no stolen merchandise was accepted. If anything turns out to be stolen, it is reclaimed and the shop loses the merchandise and the money paid for it.
That level of scrutiny, plus licenses from local, state and federal authorities, make the pawn industry one of the most regulated, Olson said.
While a pawn shop brings different challenges than a retail store or restaurant, Olson said he became a pawnbroker because he believes he can help people unable to get a loan from a financial institution.
"You can't bring your golf clubs to RCU and get a loan for the weekend," Olson said.
Brian Zinn echoed that sentiment, saying he is seeing more people and businesses living "hand-to-mouth" than before the Great Recession.
"It's nice to be able to help people get out of a bind," he said.
Dowd can be reached at 715-833-9204, 800-236-7077 or email@example.com.
(c)2012 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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