I’ve never pawned anything in my life — not because I’m rich and don’t need the money, but because I’m so poor that I own nothing of value. A quick survey of the dusty firetrap I call home reveals a 20-inch TV I bought in 2001 for $89.95 (it’s a Yamakazi that I was told was an up-and-coming brand); a microwave oven circa 1969 — one that can cause pacemakers to malfunction; and a computer that was marketed to the public soon after the debut of UNIVAC in 1951. That’s it. No gold jewelry, no diamond earrings, no state-of-the-art electronics, no firearms, no silverware, no musical instruments, no coins or stamps or fine art. If a burglar ever busted down my door and cased the joint, he’d probably leave me a stolen Blu-ray player out of pure pity.
That’s why I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting the Family Pawn store at 2416 Paris Road. Oh, I have a family that I would gladly pawn, but I doubt anyone would pay cash money for the lot of them.
On the way there, I pictured a dilapidated building in a gritty industrial zone. Inside the poorly lit interior, I was sure to find some old guy sporting galluses and a green eyeshade pulled low over his shifty eyes.
Boy, was I wrong! The shop is housed in a handsome, red brick building with ample parking space. It’s just after 9 a.m., but the place looks busy already. People are coming and going in a steady stream.
Inside the double glass doors, I spot a man in a blue polo shirt and ask him where I can find Steve, the store manager. “Steve?” he says. “We had to fire him. He showed up drunk again.”
I stand there like the idiot I am, wondering what to do. “We had an appointment,” I say lamely, hoping this Steve character is in the nearest bar, so I could join him.
The guy behind the counter flashes a smile that could light up the night. “I’m Steve,” he says, laughing, and holding out his hand. We shake, but I’m thinking, damn, this means no bar.
The main sales floor is one large, brightly lit room, chock-a-block with items as bulky as gigantic amplifiers and as petite as diamond rings.
“How about the nickel tour?” Steve asks.
I’m aboard, my head swiveling 360 degrees like the victim of demonic possession, trying to take in the whole lot at once without much success.
Everything on display was either purchased to sell, or was not redeemed by the pawnee (not a slam on feckless American Indians). That’s how the shop makes money, kinda. It offers small, short-term loans based on collateral physically held in-house. The price paid is based on what the item might sell for in case the borrower suddenly moves to Pittsburgh and doesn’t at least pay the interest. Family Pawn will also purchase things outright from individuals, wholesalers and other sources.
“Let’s begin with the music section,” my guide says.
I am immediately confronted with a wall of sound, not literally, but shelf after shelf of audio equipment that looks wicked, sleek and sophisticated. I have no idea what all these machines do, but I know my life is not complete without one.
“You remember in the old days, when stereo equipment came in components, but today everything is in one small package. That’s what the customer wants,” Steve says. “I understand how much you might have paid for huge speakers back in the day; they’re not worth much now.”
The televisions displayed are mostly flat screen, “Star Wars” wannabes bragging they are LCD, LED and plasma technology, whatever that means. Somehow, I don’t think they’d be interested in my blurry Yamakazi.
That’s the thing about electronic equipment in the pawn shop; it has to be the latest and greatest or it pays the least — or nothing at all. Last year’s technology, apparently, is not worth the circuit board it was printed on.
Some guitars and amplifiers, though, are different, I learn. Les Paul and Fender guitars from a bygone era are much sought after. “There’s a whole group of people who travel around the country, hitting all the pawn shops, searching specifically for those brands,” Steve says. “So if we get a ’57 Les Paul, we know where to find them.”
It’s an almost instant sale.
I spot some overgrown amplifiers and exhibit my ignorance once again. “Those are old and bulky, and must not be worth a lot,” I say confidently.
“Far from it,” Steve says. “Tube amps like Ampex and Marshall are very popular with people who seek out the nostalgic sound they provide.”
The Ampex is on sale for $899, which shows what I know.
You Can Look It Up
Steve, by the way, is Stephen M. Weise, store manager and pawnbroker extraordinaire. He enjoyed a long career in the restaurant and hospitality business, advancing from waiter to associate general manager of what is now the Holiday Inn Select. After 16 years there, he moved on to the wholesale food business with Sysco Corp. Later, he became executive director of the Tiger Hotel.
Four years ago, Weise arrived at Family Pawn and was glad he made the move. “I think a background in the hospitality industry prepares you for pawnbroking,” the 47-year-old says. “You learn to deal with the public and not come unraveled at the slightest problem. No matter how you stretch it, it’s still the service industry.”
Married with two children, he has lived in Columbia since 1982, and is “very much involved with the Boy Scouts of America. For 20 years, I shot competitively, and I like to think I know pistols, but my scores don’t reflect that,” he says with a laugh.
“You have to be a professional at everything. It’s like being a lawyer. You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know where to look it up,” he says.
Trumpet Of Doom
Suppose your son decides he’s going to take up the trumpet. You can go to a music store and spend a grand or more on a horn. The next week, like all kids, he changes his mind and decides he’d rather play hoops instead.
“We deal in brass instruments,” Weise says. “This one here is $245. Newer music students are referred to us all the time.” For which Dad’s wallet thanks you.
There are numerous gaming systems available, but like audio equipment, they go out of style quickly. “Last year’s Xbox was the hottest thing ever. But the new Elite, with 250 gigs of memory, makes them look like dinosaurs. There’s still a market for the older ones, but it’s declining,” Weise says.
Declining to nil is the market for music CDs. This comes as a shock to me because I always considered the 8-track tape the pinnacle of technology. Guess not. Weise says everybody gets their tunes from the Internet and downloads them to devices like iPods, which are also in stock. The new models can hold up to 20,000 songs.
I’m looking at a row of acoustical guitars. At the end of the line are a couple of short, stout instruments. They look like a guitar’s fat kid brother. Weise notices my perplexed expression, and says, “Oh, those are mandolins.” Ah, perfect for the madrigal group I’m thinking of forming. Even with my 8-tracks, who says I’m not hep about music?
In the corner is a rotund shop vac that looks for all the world like an economy model R2D2 It is surrounded by machinery of all descriptions, their function a total mystery to me.
“Tools are a huge market,” Weise says. The pawn shop has chain saws, circular saws, welding equipment, toolboxes and compressors, to name just a few items.
“Depending on what you need, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy equipment here than to rent it. Not all the time,” he adds, “but it’s worth a look.”
Near the tools are microwave ovens that won’t cause pacemakers to explode, knives of all description, archery goods, and ammo. Unaccountably, there is a fencing suit and foil mounted on the wall. Touché.
The thing about tools, Weise says, is it’s a seasonable business. “The first day it gets cold, I guarantee we’ll have 5 to 10 customers looking for snow blowers. In the spring, they’ll bring them right back in.”
As large as it is, the main sales floor cannot display all the merchandise Family Pawn has in stock. Waiting in the bullpen are a variety of goods pending their chance to make the big leagues.
There is a row of bicycles that could supply Tour de France riders with all the spares they’d ever need, some honking big snow blowers that look suitable for riding on the interstate, and, curiously, a hot dog cart. A hot dog cart? “Why not?” Weise says with a shrug. Add a red-striped umbrella, and you’d be ready to open your own small business, I suppose.
“I always try to stay about six months ahead of what’s going on,” Weise says. “The bicycle season has peaked, but they are in demand during the spring.”
If he ever has too many of an item, he has the luxury of calling the other four stores in the chain to see if they are short on anything.
Once Upon A Pawn
The pawn end of the business is housed in a separate room behind the counter. These are the things that people have left as collateral for a loan. “Let’s say you want to pawn a rifle that I know is worth $240 to $260. I’ll lend you $100, and charge you $15 a month for 90 days. So you’ll owe me $145 at the end of the period. Redeem it after 30 days, and the bill is $115. If you choose not to get your rifle back, or don’t have the money, it becomes the property of the store, and we are entitled to sell it.
“If you are short after 90 days, I’ll extend the terms for a month, if you pay the interest,” he says. Conceivably, it is possible to have something on pawn until the end of time. “I have a rifle here that’s going on year 17. I’m sure it’s a family heirloom or something,” he says. “But three out of 10 people, you’ll never see again.”
Up front are gray metal compartments for the smaller items pawned. They look like gym lockers for little people in a big world. In the back are a couple of sinister-looking crotch rockets that seem to be going 100 miles per hour standing still. I am told that a mere seven grand will put me aboard one of those bad boys if they come off contract.
Fakes & Frauds
I ask Weise if he’d be interested in buying my Rollex watch. He looks dubiously at the spelling on the face. “Rolex is the No. 1 copied thing,” he says. “There are five indicators on a Rolex that are flags. A lot of times, the customer is shocked that the watch he paid thousands for is worth only $6 or $7.”
I’m not shocked because I paid $4.50 for mine. Two and a half bucks is not a bad profit, but then, how would I know what time it is — within an hour or two, anyway?
Weise says they have a similar problem with some jewelry that is offered to them for sale. “I’ve heard some heartbreaking stories. A person comes in and wants a certain amount for a diamond ring and it’s not even real,” he says, shaking his head.
Fortunately, the store employs a licensed master jeweler to sift the real sparklers from the cubic zirconia.
And don’t even think about spray painting a lump of metal and trying to pass it off as gold. Weise produces a small testing kit that not only determines if the gold is real, but what karat it is. “It’s MacGyver-simple,” he says. “Foolproof.”
To make sure everything they buy is legit, they send a computerized list of the day’s purchases to the police department, which makes it available to law enforcement agencies nationally. If anything turns up stolen, they’ll know it pretty quick
“We have seller’s IDs on file, as well as in-store surveillance videos, so it’s not a big problem,” Weise says. “It only happens a few times a year.”
Like the five employees in the store, all the merchandise here is expected to work. “When we buy something,” Weise says, “the first thing we do is clean it up and invest a little TLC. Then we make sure it works properly. Sometimes, something will run fine for 15 minutes, then goes down.” In that case, he calls his small engine guy to find out what’s wrong with the thing. “That’s happened once or twice,” he says. “Now I’ve got the purchase price to consider, but the repair costs as well.
“One of the things about this industry is that you’ve got to be on guard for people just trying to unload something that’s not working well.”
Family Pawn, in addition to its sundry other functions, acts as a fix-it shop. The staff will make simple gun repairs in house, but if it’s more complicated, there’s a gunsmith in the Springfield area available.
“He’s a rock star,” Weise says.
Musical instrument repairs can also be done on the premises, guitars restrung and cleaned for a small fee.
“We have all the equipment any standard jewelry store would have,” Weise adds. They can clean, restore, and even customize pieces to enhance their value.
Computers, which may be virus-riddled, are cleaned by a technical wizard on retainer, and are sold squeaky clean, without the squeak.
Racks of rifles provide a backdrop behind the counter. To the side are several glass cases displaying a variety of lethal-looking handguns. “We buy a lot of the handguns new because we don’t get many on pawn,” Weise says. “We don’t like to do that because there’s no money in it at all. But we want to keep up with the public and their demands.” Shotguns, he says, especially the higher end ones, are expensive, but the real market is for “everyday deer rifles.” Like snow blowers and lawn mowers, rifles are a seasonal sale. Right before deer season, the demand is high. Right after, the demand is for short-term loans on the same guns.
Each Family Pawn store is a federally licensed firearms dealer. “You have to maintain anatomically correct books, which is a good thing,” he says.
Gold In Them Thar Stores
Family Pawn has seen a huge increase in the amount of precious metals coming through the door. “We used to take the ‘melt,’ that’s gold jewelry that’s been broken, run over, or split in half, to the refiner maybe twice a year. Now, with the prices so high, I’m doing it twice a month,” Weise says.
You’ve seen those ads on TV touting the highest price for gold. All you do is put your the stuff in an envelope and mail it off to some company you never heard of. Probably not a good idea, Weise says. Who knows who you’re dealing with? And beware of the traveling dog-and-pony shows that descend on a city for a few days, then disappear into the wildwood. If you’ve got gold to sell, try a pawn shop first.
The extensive jewelry section occupies most of a series of glass-topped display cases that form an oval island in the center of the store. Diamonds and rubies and sapphires — oh, my! — are on sale. “We don’t buy new jewelry,” Weise says. “But we have complete facilities for customizing.” There are fashion rings, engagement rings, ring rings and tennis bracelets (funny, I can’t remember anyone ever playing tennis while sporting a batch of diamonds, but I only know poor people).
That suddenly gives me an idea. “What if some cheap-o guy like me bought a big stone, had the setting customized, then presented it to my girlfriend for Christmas? Who’d ever know?”
“It’s been done before,” Weise says, laughing. “But be sure to switch boxes.”
Family Pawn is a paradise for bargain hunters if — the operative word — they know what they’re doing. That means having a good idea of what things cost new and used, so they’ll be in a position to haggle.
“Hey, Steve, how much is that organ over there?” I ask, curious.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “Make me an offer.”
I have no idea if it’s worth $2 or $2 million, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage (either amount is out of my price range, anyway)
“Do you encourage customers to bargain with you?” I ask.
“It’s a must,” he says with a laugh. “I have some customers that come in weekly, check out the jewelry, and before I know it, these ladies have me by the arm, practically throwing me to the floor, bargaining fiercely.”
Here, you can name your own price. The pawnbroker may not accept it, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Try negotiating with the sales clerks at Walmart, and they’ll probably call security.
But for the resourceful, knowledgeable consumer, this is the place to go for great savings on a cornucopia of goods.
To The Rescue
Weise and I are discussing the vagaries of maximizing profits and limiting losses, when he spots a young woman across the room. She has an antsy 3-year-old in tow, and is scrutinizing diamond rings with rapt intensity. He drops me like a hot potato (or more precisely, like the tepid turnip I am), and goes to her rescue.
“Looking for a ring?” he asks.
“Yes, I want to replace one that’s gone,” she says.
“Was it stolen?” he asks, concerned.
“No,” she says. “I think I lost it in the backyard.”
“Then what you need is a metal detector,” he says cheerily.
“You’ve got those?” she asks.
“Of course,” he says. “Right over here.”
Why am I not surprised?
My head still reeling from the Oort cloud of miscellanea I have seen, I am lurking suspiciously in the parking lot, waiting for my ride. Black, dangerous-looking boomers are rapidly scudding my way. Lighting flashes in the distance, threatening to electrocute me on the spot. Suddenly, a distinguished, gray-haired man wheels up, and asks if I need a lift.
“No, thanks,” I tell him. “I’m waiting for a cab.”
“You sure?” he asks. I tell him I am, and he drives off in his red Lexus. Either he was an ax murderer, or just a nice guy, I couldn’t tell, but looking at the approaching storm, I’m thinking maybe I should go back inside and make a purchase. If he’s got a metal detector, Steve Weise is sure to have a lightning rod or two.
Don Mayse:The Eclectic Entrepreneur
Don Mayse owns five pawn shops in mid-Missouri — two in Columbia and one each in Jefferson City, Sedalia and Warrensburg. That seems impressive enough, but it’s like saying Donald Trump owns a hotel. In his career, Mayse has started 38 different concerns, ranging from a dive center to Show-Me Farms to a car wash operation. And that only scratches the surface.
Love At First Sight
“I just love business,” he says enthusiastically. “I’ve always found business the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. I mean I just love it. I don’t care if it’s a car wash or the insurance business or the real estate business.” He’s engaged in them all.
“Not all of them are winners. When you go into business, you have a plan you think will work. About halfway into it, you’ll find your business plan was wrong, and you’ll have to revise it. Then, about two-thirds of the way, you’ll find you have to scrap the business plan and start all over,” he says.
As an example of an operation that never lived up to expectations, he offers the Columbia Scuba Center. “It was a lot of fun, and my wife and I got to travel all over with the students.” But it never lived up to his hopes and was closed 15 years ago. “I’m no longer a diving instructor, but I still dive for fun,” he says. “Unfortunately, the insurance became too expensive per student. But, I look back on it fondly.”
Always interested in farming, Mayse also owns 500 acres south of Columbia, where he keeps cattle — 200 head of “mother cows,” another 100 head bred for meat, and 70 to 100 replacement heifers. Through Show-Me Gourmet Foods, he manufactures burritos and cooked or partially cooked product.
“At the Show-Me Farms shop, you can buy a single steak or 300 pounds of ground beef,” Mayse says with a laugh.
One of the earliest vendors at the Columbia Farmers Market, he has continued to maintain a strong presence there.
Under The Influence
Mayse, 63, was raised in a small agricultural community in California, where he farmed, hunted and fished. He came to Columbia in 1965 to attend the University of Missouri, and graduated with a degree in nutrition, followed by a master’s in public health. There, he also met his wife of 41 years, a Boone County native, the former Marylou Turner.
Mayse says the biggest and most important influence on his life and career was his father, Joe.
“The best way to describe him was a wheeler-dealer,” he says. “He would buy stuff, fix it up, and sell it. When I was kid, he figured out that he could sell fish bait, and I would go out to the park after dark, and crawl around looking for night crawlers.”
Although he spent years with the city health department as an inspector, Joe Mayse decided in his 60s he wanted a career change. “He was just a born entrepreneur. What he liked to do was business,” Mayse says. “He and my partner Larry Wayland were instrumental in starting Family Pawn on Paris Road in 1981.” Two years later, Wayland died, but Joe Mayse continued working at the store and at another Mayse enterprise, the Powder Horn Gun Shop.
“I learned absolutely incredible amounts from my father,” Mayse says. “He was a really neat guy and key to the design and setup of the Paris Road store. We had only one shop up and running when he passed away. He is still my hero, though he died 25 years ago.”
His wife, he says, has also been an integral part of all his businesses. “She’s worked hard behind the scenes, doing the bookkeeping, and originally the payroll.”
For years, Mayse has been heard regularly on radio, appearing on about five stations, including KSDL 92.3FM in Sedalia and KPOW 97.7 FM, a regional mid-Missouri operation based in Pettis County. “Most people know me from radio,” he says. “I generally do two to three minutes on what’s going on in the stores, guns and hunting (because that’s my passion), and how gold is doing. We buy a lot of gold. In fact, we are probably the largest buyers of gold and silver in this area.”
The pinnacle of his radio career probably came when he was in Colorado broadcasting live from the Rockies. He found himself observing a herd of elk fighting and bugling during mating season. “You could hear them in the background,” he says. “It was absolutely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
Beginning this year, Mayse has launched a series of TV commercials designed to get the consumer familiar with the comfortable atmosphere of his pawnshops, and the tremendous bargains to be found there.
Before It Was Cool
The advent of computers and databases has done much to counter the somewhat shady reputation of pawnshops. “A well-deserved bad rap,” Mayes says. “But now we can keep track of who we get stuff from, what it looked like, and what ID the seller produced. This has cleaned up a business that needed a little cleanup.”
Law enforcement agencies across the nation can now access the activity of all pawnshops to discover if anything reported stolen has shown up. You can no longer steal a television in Los Angeles and pawn it in Missouri with impunity.
The hit TV show “Pawn Stars,” about three generations of Las Vegas pawnbrokers, has also done much to demystify how the business actually works. “I’ve been trying to change the image for the last 30 years,” Mayse says. That’s why the shops are called Family Pawn, he adds.
“We’re recyclers,” he says. “We were recycling when recycling wasn’t cool. I want my stores to be kid-friendly places, where parents can buy something someone else once owned, but still has some life in it, and save some money at the same time. When the kids grow up, they will have no fear of coming in the store.
“That’s what we’re after,” he says. “A place you can take kids into.”
More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About The History Of Pawnbroking
Like most things more than 4 years old, the history of pawnbroking has been lost in the mists of time. The National Pawnbrokers Association insists that the business can trace its roots back to ancient China, some 3,000 years ago. That may be true because the Chinese have invented almost everything since then: paper, gunpowder and buying American debt, to name a few.
The NPA also states that pawnbroking was hot in Greece and Rome. “I came, I saw, I pawned it.” Julius Caesar, maybe?
In the 13th century, Franciscan monks began lending money for goods and, to avoid church usury laws, devoting the profits to the poor. Later, the Lombards, under the control of the Medici family, spread the idea, this time for profit, not charity. Throughout Europe, pawnshops were called Lombards, as in, “Let’s take your new jerkin to the Lombard and get us some money for gruel.”
In those days, ordinary people didn’t own much except the clothes on their backs, so that’s what they pawned. There must have been scads of naked folks milling about, perhaps creating the first demand for nude beaches that are so popular in Europe today.
A thorough scan of the Internet, which is about as reliable as a junkie’s promise, reveals that the pawnbroker’s traditional symbol — three gold balls — either had something to do with Charlemagne hiring a Medici to slay a giant with three bags of rocks, a heraldic device of the Lombards or the Medicis, or it is attributed to jolly old St. Nicholas’ gift of gold to an impoverished nobleman, so he could unload his three darling daughters with a decent dowry. Of course, it might also be an allusion to the amount of testosterone needed to start a pawnshop.
Oddly, almost every account of pawnbroking mentions the children’s nursery rhyme, Pop Goes The Weasel. Some experts say that in the 1700s, “pop” was a slang term for pawn. A weasel was either a tool used in looming or shoemaking. Too many trips “in and out the Eagle,” a famous English tavern, “that’s the way the money goes,” and the unlucky tippler had to pawn his tools to keep the buzz on high.
A less alcoholic explanation claims that the lyrics are written in Cockney rhyming patois. For example “apples and pears” actually meant “stairs.” “Weasel and stoat” meant “coat,” that had to be popped or pawned.
Tragically, few know that they’ve been reading their 2-year-olds a story about drunken revelry and degenerate behavior, leading to crushing debt. A fine lesson, indeed, for the very young.
Whatever the truth — and who really knows? — no one has ever fully explained just what the heck mulberry bushes and monkeys have to do with the ancient business of pawnbroking.