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Owning a Pawnshop Is Nothing Like It Is on TV

Andrew is a pawnshop owner in the Oklahoma City area and has been a small business owner several times over.

My experience owning a pawnshop has been interesting, to say the least.

My experience owning a pawnshop has been interesting, to say the least.

How I Came to Own a Pawnshop

In December of 2014, I decided to go to work in the pawn business. I had spent several years in the rent-to-own business and this seemed like a natural progression. I was offered a job with one of the major pawnshop chains to manage one of their stores and decided to jump on it. My experience with the industry up until that point was nothing more than occasionally binge-watching Pawn Stars.

From that job, I went on to own my own shop in the fall of 2017. It has been an interesting experience, to say the least. Here are just a few of the ways reality TV gets it wrong.

Most of what I see isn't worth much.

Most of what I see isn't worth much.

Almost All of What Pawnshops Get Is Junk

In order to make the show interesting, reality TV shows involving pawn shops have to have interesting products that people bring in. Musical equipment signed by celebrities, JFK's cigar box, books signed by Elvis, championship rings won by NFL teams. All of these are incredibly interesting items with a ton of value and back story.

Unfortunately, at most pawn shops it isn't like this. You will on occasion see some really interesting stuff come through the door. The vast majority, however, is absolute junk. The average pawnshop probably turns down about as many items as they take in. Every day I have someone try and pawn something that is of absolutely no value. Tube TVs, rusty tools, VHS players, and old-but-not-yet vintage video game systems are common. Pawnshops are a lender of last resort. Many people in this country reach that point on a daily basis, and not all of them have Mickey Mantle rookie cards in the attic.

Thief at my store

Thief at my store

You Will Have to Deal With a Lot of Stolen Stuff

Not everything in a pawnshop is stolen. Not even close. The vast majority of items come from reputable sources. If something is pawned and later determined to be stolen, the person who pawned it will most likely be banned from the store and end up with a felony charge. It is not in the best interest in the short or long term for a pawnshop to traffic in stolen items.

With that being said, it does happen. There are always going to be people that are desperate and stupid enough to try and pawn something they know isn't theirs. Whenever something comes up as stolen, it is almost always too late for the pawnshop owner to recover any money from the item. Most often, the police will come and seize it from our inventory while the issue of ownership makes its way through the court system.

Most shop owners can spot someone trying to push stolen goods from a mile away. At least once a day in my shop an item is turned down because the person trying to pawn it seems to lack the basic knowledge about the product that someone who went to a store a purchased it would have. It is a constant threat and bad for business.

Issues like homelessness and drug addiction are often at the forefront of people's need to pawn.

Issues like homelessness and drug addiction are often at the forefront of people's need to pawn.

Pawnshops Deal With Desperate People

On reality TV, for the most part, the people coming into the shops seem to just need a little extra cash. Be it for a trip, or a gift for the significant other, the reasons listed for the money always seem to be positive.

What you don't see on the show and will often see in real life is much more somber. Issues like homelessness and drug addiction are often at the forefront of people's need to pawn. Gambling problems are pervasive in the industry. More than one time I have opened my store at 9 a.m. only to be greeted by customers waiting in order to get enough gas money to get home from the casino from the night before. I have seen people pawn and lose jewelry that was given to them by now-deceased relatives more times than I can count. I have seen people pawn their children's Christmas presents in order to keep the lights on. Sometimes the children are standing right beside them. No matter how long I spend in this industry, the sight of a child now used to losing his or her things in order to contribute to the family's ability to pay bills will never be normal. Kids in that environment seem so adult. It is like you can see their youth fading away as they are forced to confront and solve issues that no child ever should.

I see many people who distrust big financial institutions.

I see many people who distrust big financial institutions.

Some People Do Not Like Banks

In the midst of all the drug addiction and sadness, you will often encounter totally normal people. People without any obvious reason for pawning their possessions. Many people use the more expensive pawn loan as opposed to a credit card or traditional loan, simply because of a distrust of financial institutions.

It doesn't make the most financial sense to use a pawnshop vs a traditional lender. Sometimes, however, you just need a few dollars to get to payday and you have no interest explaining this to a banker in a suit and tie. Often the products banks offer don't match up to the financial needs of my customers even if they did trust banks.
If you needed $60 to make it to payday how are you going to meet that financial shortfall? If you go into any bank asking for a loan for $60 for five days, most of them will laugh you out of the building. Even if they do offer a product like that, it will no doubt involve income verification and mountain of paperwork.
In contrast, if you come see a pawnbroker with a gold ring you've had for years, you can be in and out with the money you need in no time. Also, the terms to get your item back are always going to simple and easy to understand.

Also, pawnbrokers didn't almost bankrupt the world economy a few years ago. So there is that.

In the End, It Takes All Kinds of People

There are going to be drug addicts in any pawnshop you go to. There is going to be desperation in any pawnshop you go to. There are also going to be a lot of very normal people going about their day. It doesn't take a distrust of banks or a hefty heroin habit to lead you to one of us. There are people from all walks of life that utilize the services these shops have to offer. Unfortunately for my hopes of having a reality TV show one day, they aren't bringing in priceless jewels.

If you want an unfiltered view of what the economy looks like in your area, venture to a local pawnshop and look at everything around you. You will see poverty and desperation sure, but you may also see normal people going about their business. What you won't see is a camera crew.

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