Pawn shop clientele changes with the economy

Published on: September 7, 2011


RUSKIN — When you own a pawn shop, you never know what you’ll see come through the door.

When I visited Douglas and Robin Jewett Aug. 25 at Pawn Pros on the corner of Dickman Drive and U.S. 41 in Ruskin I was amazed at the variety of antiques and treasures that had been pawned and left behind by people who obviously had no idea of their value.

Among the ones I found the most fascinating were a 1,000-year-old Aztec Indian vase made from animal bone that had been authenticated from someone sent by the Ringling Museum; a Cherokee peace pipe that had been through three ceremonies (you can tell by the number of feather-pairs attached) and a gross-looking figure in a glass case with a small plaque saying it had once been part of a display in California that was simply called “the alien.”

But the Jewetts say they’ve loaned money on a race car and all kinds of jewelry as well as tools, spare tires, televisions, computers, cameras and different varieties of “junk.”

“We are the credit card of last resort,” Douglas Jewett said. “The last 24 months we’ve seen a whole different kind of customer. We’ve even had them pull up in Mercedes and Lexus’s. Every story is different, but in a way, they’re all the same. They all just need some money to pay a bill or get through until the end of the month.”

“They need us,” he said. “We look at it as a 60-day loan. We have repeaters we can count on like clockwork. Every month, they’ll drop something off – with some of them it’s the same item every month- and then they’ll come back when they’re paid or they get their government check.”

Lately they’ve seen mothers come in and pawn something just to get their children backpacks to start school.

“They’ll look at their laptop as their $100 credit card,” said an employee Jeff Fruth. “People tell us all kinds of things. You get to know the regulars.”

What is sad, Douglas explained, is the customers who come in a couple of times a day, when you know it must be to feed a habit but you can’t tell them what to use the money for.

“You can actually watch the transformation of these people as they go down,” Jeff added. “It’s not anything like Antiques Road Show.”

Douglas says he has a large safe deposit box where the treasures are kept: like the Indian head dress (valued by the same dealer sent by Ringling) worth more than $500,000 somebody found while cleaning out a relative’s attic after a death in the family.

“We don’t know the value when they come in. And when they leave something and don’t come back, we can keep it or sell it,” Douglas explained.

It looked like a good place to purchase televisions, cameras and electronics. There were dozens of each in every size and shape.

Sometimes, if a customer is late getting back and the item hasn’t sold, Douglas says he lets them get it back as though they were on time.

“You get a feeling about these things,” he said. “We are often their very last resort.”

Until I visited Pawn Pros I didn’t know that pawn shops were required by Florida law to send a daily report to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office listing every item taken in on their Florida pawnbroker transaction form- which means every item that comes through the door.

“We’re the reason criminals get caught,” Douglas Jewett said. “It’s people who steal and we don’t know an item is stolen that give pawn shops a bad rap.”

When a person comes in, they sign a form and get their thumb print taken, and they have to do it again when they leave so that only the person who pawns the item can retrieve it.

Because of the pawnbroker’s form and the reporting system, someone can often locate a missing or stolen item.

Once and awhile it gets dangerous. Twice he has had attempted robberies and once there was a shoot-out in his shop.

In 2009 he shot at the robber and hit him, but the man left on foot and was never found.

“One time a 14-year old was involved,” Douglas said. “But he had a mask on so how would I have known he was a kid?”

Pawn Pros has another shop on 15th Street in Bradenton. Neither shop will deal in guns.

Noticing that I have to hold my flash up to use it because the automatic spring no longer works, I was offered a pretty good deal on a new camera. Unfortunately, it was not my day to buy.

But when I do, I think I’ll look in pawn shops first. They sure seem to offer some pretty good deals.