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At the pawn shop, the line for loans ebbs and flows, but lately it's been long.
The hard times are displayed every day here, as the desperate hock belongings for fast cash.
"When it's depressed like this, people are bringing in anything just to get by, whether it's to make monthly mortgage payments, car payments, utility bills, just to have extra spending money," says Marc Weberman, the genial 56-year-old general manager at Al's Jewelry and Loans, on Gratiot just outside Eastern Market.
Al's is the bank for people at the bottom — or pretty near it — those without a paycheck or one that's too small, those without savings, and those whose credit ratings have vaporized and who couldn't get a loan in a conventional way if their lives depended on it. So they drag, wheel, or carry in anything they hope to borrow money against.
"You can't go to the bank with a hundred grams of gold and say 'I want to borrow — here.' They're going to ask you what's your credit score, or what's your income," Weberman says. "Me? Give me your collateral. That's fine." He's given loans as small as $10. "For them, it's like a million dollars when you don't have anything."
Pawning is a simple system. You bring in an item, the pawnbroker appraises it and gives you a loan that's a fraction of its determined value. Pay it back in 90 days with interest, and you get the item back. Otherwise, unless the loan is renewed, the item belongs to the pawn shop, which then sells it at a discount. Interest is 3 percent a month.
The good news is a default on the loan isn't reported to credit bureaus, so a borrower's abysmal credit rating doesn't take another hit. The bad news is this is a quick way to have a lot less stuff at home, especially if a customer's taste for drugs, gambling or some other monetary black hole outweighs rational thought.
Weberman has a front-row seat for the economic meltdown. He's seen gamblers hock last possessions of value before hitting the casino, seen thieves attempt to fence stolen goods, seen families come in with their crying children to pawn prized belongings.
"I just see the sad eyes on some of these kids," he says. "There are sometimes situations where it gets me because it's something that's precious to them and they get teary-eyed because they're pawning the item."
He had one customer come in to sell his pulled gold teeth. A coin collector once pawned old, collectible paper money to essentially get newer paper money. Another traded his fiancee's engagement ring for quick cash — she angrily demanded it back from the shop that same day.
To guard against receiving stolen goods, the staff requires customers to provide a picture I.D. and a thumbprint, and forwards the item's serial number to police to compare with reported lists of recently pilfered things. A match gets the item returned to its owner — who must buy it back if the pawn shop purchased it before discovering it stolen.
Al's also serves as a discount neighborhood department store that sees its fortunes rise and fall in inverse proportion to its loan side. When times are bad, loans increase and sales drop. It's a real-time barometer of the neighborhood economy.
Inside, the shop's stock is arranged categorically — power tools near the front, stereo equipment in the middle, a wall of musical instruments behind that, and used cameras inside glass cases.
A whole wing of the store is devoted to jewelry. Someone plowed a stolen car through its wall last year, got out, walked through the debris, took five wrist watches, and left. "He did $30,000 worth of damage and got about $200 worth of watches," Weberman says.
The staff is notably gentle-mannered here, despite the blunt and unsentimental work. Sometimes the empathy felt for a customer means a loan greater than normal, or they'll take an item so battered or useless that it'd never sell, but still give the seller a few bucks in exchange.
"There's a lot of old-time customers that come in here that we'll do favors for, that we would take in junk that we wouldn't normally take in," says Andy Stern, 32. "We had a guy come in here, brought in a typewriter. I mean, I haven't taken typewriters in 10 years, but I gave him 10 bucks on the typewriter because he's a regular customer."
Weberman says he'll bend other rules sometimes and forgive slightly late payments, or give generous estimates on an item's worth. "I usually go up a little bit than what we normally do, just 'cause I have a soft heart, and the person comes in with their little kids and they just need money," he says. "I bump up the loan, but I don't want to make it too unrealistic so they can't give it back."
Some store employees have a side gig on the Rock 'n' Roll Lawyer Show on WPON 1460 AM, a quirky blend of '50s music, jokes and legal advice from Sheldon Kay, the pawn shop's 60-year-old attorney. Kelly "DJ Spag" Joseph, who runs the shop's eBay department, produces the Friday night show. Weberman sometimes delivers understated restaurant reviews. Kay thinks he's a natural.
"He looks like Mr. Whipple. This guy's got a career in television if we can market him right," Kay says, only half kidding. "He's got the look."
After nearly 90 years, the pawn shop's an institution down here, Weberman says. "We've had people here for years. Years. We've had three or four generations of people coming in. We have people that are so accustomed to this, we're just their income or money source. They don't go to the bank, they just come to Al's."
Despite the straightforward math involved, some customers' behavior defies economic logic. "I will tell you, no lie, I've had somebody — I don't know why and I don't ask any questions — someone's had a piece in here for 10 years. Just every three months, they pay a little." The item is a cheap DVD player that the borrower has already paid several times the value for in interest alone.
Gamblers, who'll vend anything to chase the mirage of a debt-erasing jackpot, sometimes even pawn their cars and then ride the bus to the casino a few miles away.
"Depending how lucky they are, they come back the same day and pick up their car, or they might have to wait a few months," Weberman says.
Most customers, though, are regular folks without bank accounts or credit who turn to the store when they need some quick cash or as their last legal resort for money. A few are visibly distressed, like the skinny couple in dirty T-shirts wearing somber expressions, trying to sell some battered old air conditioner on a weekday afternoon. They are unsuccessful. Then the man walks over and asks Joseph if the store might then be interested in a rusty old drain snake that's sitting outside. Bring it in, we'll look at it, he's told.
"You get a taste of realism here," Weberman says. "Sometimes when you're out in the suburbs or away from this, all you're doing is reading the paper and it's not real. You come here and you see how real it is. You get an appreciation of how lucky you are, having a job or how lucky you are that you can go to the grocery store and pick up food, or go into the gas station and get gas for your car. People don't realize how lucky they are."
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.