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Households cash-strapped, what it's like at a pawnshop
Mar 12


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.

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2023

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