Hawaii's Pawn Stars
Pawnshops are a nearly recession-proof businesses. We decided to find out more about the way pawnshops work, and what’s behind the counter in Honolulu’s best-known outlets.
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As I carried my mini electric guitar through the Taco Bell parking lot toward a little hole-in-the-wall pawnshop in Kailua, I wasn’t as depressed as I thought I might be. I always pictured people who used the services of pawnshops as sad, pathetic creatures deep-sixing the family silver in order to buy another fifth of “Old Overcoat” or to pay off a bookie.
But I had done a little research on the history of pawn broking after deciding to sell my mini electric guitar—no doubt a treasured gift from a loved one but one whose identity time and tide had washed away—and I felt I was engaging in a noble tradition whose roots reached to the medieval days of Europe. The House of Lombard in England set up the first pawnshops after realizing that, even in the Middle Ages, financially challenged townsfolk needed places where they could trade their electric guitars for ale money. Some think pawning goes further back, that it’s the world’s oldest financial institution, likely originating—purely coincidentally, you understand—just days after the establishment of the world’s oldest profession.
Banking systems, such as those set up by the Knights Templar and Bernie Madoff, come and go, but pawning endures, especially during financial hard times. There are about 50 licensed pawnshops in Hawaii, mainly buying and pawning gold, which is valued at more than $1,200 per ounce. That’s probably why, when I walked into
Kailua Pawn & Gold with my little mini-electric guitar, the pawnbroker behind the dusty counter, Fran Peoples, wasn’t exactly ecstatic to see me. The truth is that, while pawning is considered a recession-proof industry, everybody’s trying to sell to pawnshops these days and not buy. Electric guitars may be a staple of pawnshops, but they don’t fly off the racks and they aren’t worth $1,200 an ounce even if you melt them down.
I explained to Peoples that I really just wanted to go through a pawnshop transaction so I could experience what it was like. Kailua Pawn & Gold is typical of the smaller pawnshops on Oahu, small, cramped and decorated with old computers, TVs, bad paintings, DVDs and a beat-up surfboard. I was disappointed to see there were no samurai swords on display. Based on my knowledge of the famous pawnshop scene in the movie Pulp Fiction, I thought it was mandatory that all pawnshops have at least one samurai sword. But Peoples and other pawnshop owners and managers told me there have been few samurai swords on the market in recent years. Kailua Pawn & Gold did have one electric guitar hanging on the wall and it looked like it had been there since Eric Clapton was just a little chap.
Peoples began our transaction by going to her computer and punching up eBay, Craig’s List and other “buy-and-sell” websites.
The computer has become an indispensible part of a pawnshop, taking the place of the stacks of Blue Books, which list the value of items ranging from cars to power tools. The books are still there but they are as dusty as the TV with the built-in VCR player. Craig’s List and eBay are sites where you can find out the real-time retail value of an item.
Peoples quickly found an exact match to my mini electric guitar, selling new for only $100. Ouch. Then she found some used ones in better condition than mine for $50. Since the usual formula is that pawnshops pay half or less to pawn or buy an item in order to make money on it themselves, I’d be lucky if my guitar was worth a mediocre bottle of chardonnay.
“Twenty dollars,” she said. “That’s all I can give you. Do you want to pawn it or sell it?”
Unless you are talking about a gold Hawaiian bracelet or other gold jewelry, pawnshop owners really don’t want you to pawn your item. Pawning is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the state; there are more regulations related to pawning an item to a pawnshop than to selling it outright to a store.
If you pawn a relatively worthless item, like, say, a beat-up mini electric guitar, the store clerk has to do a ton of paperwork, including setting aside a yellow sheet of paper documenting the transaction that the Honolulu Police Department will pick up to make sure the item pawned is not stolen. Then the pawnshop has to hang on to the item for 60 days before selling it. After 60 days the item is put on display and, in a bad economy, it sits there. And continues to sit there.
If the pawnshop buys an item outright, it still has to file all the paperwork but only has to hang on to the item for 30 days, the direction in which Peoples was gently nudging me. It’s almost like a straightforward sale at Longs Drugs, except Peoples has to type up all the forms, I have to show a government ID (driver’s license, military card, etc.), promise I own the item and then put my thumbprint on one of the official documents. If the item turns out to be stolen, HPD will have the thumbprint of the cunning criminal who got $20 for a beat up mini electric guitar. You have run through quite a bureaucratic gauntlet to deep-six something at a pawnshop.
But Peoples is good-natured about the transaction and explains that a lot of the myths about pawnshops taking advantage of people who are down on their luck are wrong.
“We try to give them as much as we can,” she said. “We don’t want to rip them off, we want them to come back.”
Pawnshops depend on return customers. She said some people pawn the same gold bracelets and jewelry again and again.