"What kind of rifle is it?" asks the woman behind the counter.
"An M-16," is the nonchalant reply. "It's never been fired, and I've pawned it here before for $500."
The woman frowns and picks up the phone.
"Far as I know," she says, "Granddaddy don't want assault rifles."
I'm standing inside Kash's Gems pawn shop, on the 2300 block of East Platte Avenue. It's my first time inside a pawn shop, and if you'd asked me why I'd never been before, I might have cited dialogue like this as a good reason.
But in spite of myself — and the gun rack and knife counter — I still feel comfortable. Kash's is filled with quality products, mostly tools, packed and stacked on the shelves. There are two counters, one glittering with bright coral jewelry, and the knives share space with binoculars, watches and digital cameras. Behind the jewelry is an easy chair where Kazimierz "Kash" Warszawski usually sits.
He's at lunch right now, but Kash's clan is well-represented. In the back this afternoon, Kash's son Kaz is uploading merchandise onto Craigslist and eBay. The other Kaz, Kash's oldest grandson, cruises the sites with a sharp eye for good deals. And it's Kash's wife, Georgia, who's negotiating with the customer at the counter.
"We used to have some other people working for us," Kash tells me later, through his thick Polish accent. "But when this recession hit, we had to let them go. Now it's just my family helping out when they can."
Kash's is one of the few family-owned and operated pawnshops in Colorado Springs. It's modest, but then, Kash is as well. All the 64-year-old wants is to pay the bills and make enough to go fishing and hunting every once in a while. And if the store's a bit messy, it's also homey — by the time I leave this afternoon, Kash's other grandson, a tyke, is running down the aisles, unlimited toys at his fingertips.
East Platte is essentially Pawn Shop Central in Colorado Springs. Just across the street is Acme Pawnshops. It's also locally owned, but is a much larger business — there are four Acme locations, and the one here feels more like a department store. Farther down the street is Mister Money, a national chain pawnshop. Its selection is even larger, and it offers about as much personality as Macy's.
But if you're shopping this season, you're probably not looking first and foremost for atmosphere. You're looking for deals. And chances are, if you stop into any pawn shop on your way to the mall, you'll find a good one.
None of the seven shops I visited in Colorado Springs were menacing, dirty or selling undesirable products. No large hairy men with missing teeth leered at me from behind the bars of a rotting counter. I saw nothing making good on the Hollywood depiction of pawn shops as dangerous, crime-ridden establishments.
That said, those stereotypes are not entirely contrived: Pawn shops are often found in rougher parts of town, and they can tempt the desperate with valuables and cash under one roof. Plus, the system caters to people who need cash quickly but can't stand up to a bank's credit check.
You can bring anything of substantial value into a pawn shop, along with valid state ID, and barter a deal with the pawnbroker. You can simply sell an item; the pawnbroker will look up the used price, settle it with you, and mark the item up to resell it. Or you can pawn it: After you sign paperwork attesting that you actually own the item, the shop will then give you cash and hold the item as collateral until you pay back your loan.
For example, take the woman with the M-16. After calling Kash and relating the make and model of the gun to him, Georgia finds she was mistaken.
"I guess we do take 'em," she tells the young woman. "But he said that he'll only give you $400 for it."
The young woman insists that she needs $450, but Georgia remains firm.
"I have a handgun in the car I can get," says the woman. "Can I get $450 for both of them?"
"Bring it in and we'll see."
A moment later, she returns with another gun. Georgia inspects it and says she can do $450 for both, with 10 percent interest.
The rest of the process is just like any financial transaction. The woman signs a few forms, while Georgia enters the serial numbers into a computer and moves the guns to a secure back room. When she returns, she runs the transaction through the cash register and counts out $450 into the woman's palm.
Loans can range from five bucks to thousands, and the shop can charge a monthly interest rate of up to 20 percent. If you don't repay the loan at the end of the month, it's renewed and the interest from the previous month is added to the total amount due. Interest rates vary, depending on the worth of the item and the amount of the loan; typically, the smaller the loan, the higher the interest. If the borrower doesn't pay back the loan or interest, the shop will generally continue to renew the loan for about six to eight months before assuming ownership of the item and putting it up for sale.
"You take a chance on everyone who comes in here," says Kash. "Sometimes they skip town and you never see your money again. Then you have to eat it and take a loss."
Operating a pawnshop is truly a day-to-day endeavor, so even if the pawnbroker can sell the abandoned item later, he or she still suffers with each short-term loss. Furthermore, if the item doesn't sell or turns out to be stolen (in which case the pawn shop is required to turn it over to the police), the broker ends up in the hole. So from the broker's side of things, each transaction is a serious gamble that demands astute assessments of both merchandise and character.
Finding the bargain
It's taken some time to acquire, but Kash clearly has the requisite knowledge. Originally from Poland, he immigrated to the United States in 1962, was drafted into the Army, and served at Fort Carson. When he finished his duty, he found himself without a job or any marketable skills, so he started "scrapping."
"I'd go to all the junkyards and pull out anything I thought was worth anything," he says. "Then I'd sell it as scrap metal."
From pots and pans to bed frames, barber chairs and seismographs, Kash has been dealing in secondhand merchandise for nearly four decades. After paying off two trucks and a house, he started collecting usable goods and selling them at flea markets.
"After a while, it just got to be too much, going out to the markets every weekend, all weekend," he says. "So I decided to open up a small traded goods store ... that was about 30 years ago."
After moving locations twice, Kash finally bought the property where his current store is and firmly established the family business.
He specializes in tools because he knows tools. He's less comfortable with electronics, and doesn't take anything from China or Pakistan because he doesn't trust the quality. You're more likely to find those at the bigger shops.
In Acme, for instance, I find a TV for $30, nice-sounding guitars for $100 and an iPod for $50, all of which appear to be in excellent condition. Says David, an Acme manager who asks not to have his last name printed: "Our biggest sellers are guns and jewelry, but just about everything in here is a good deal."
The larger stores, like Acme, Mister Money and EZ Pawn, are often able to offer better prices and lower interest rates. And even Kash says he appreciates stores like these; when business slows, he often visits, looking for his own bargains. But, because he's an independent businessman, he can offer some things the big guys can't — such as flexibility.
As the woman with the M-16 finishes up her pawn, a man comes in with a DVD player and asks Georgia for just five dollars to put gas in his tank. At first, Georgia refuses, saying she already has enough DVD players and that the market is flooded with them. But the man is persistent and earnest, and soon Georgia's testing the equipment and giving him $10.
"The policy of every pawnshop is to double the profit — otherwise you can't pay the rent, the utilities or the employees," says Kash. "But it doesn't always work out that way."
And generally, a pawn-shop consumer will make out regardless. Most pawn shops offer guarantees on their products, and if you're not satisfied, well, you can always sell it back or pawn it off. But with a little time and a discerning eye, smart consumers can usually separate the wheat from the chaff and get some serious deals.
"You just have to know which is which," says Kash. "You have to get familiar with the business and you'll find the good stuff."