It's a Hot Time to Be a Pawn Star

Article excerpt

Byline: Gary Rivlin

Hocking your diamond ring used to be shameful business. Now everyone's doing it.

To gauge the state of our economy, you could talk to the economists and other so-called experts. Or you could attend the annual pawnbrokers' convention, as I did, held last week at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. There, I met Lee Amberg, his face sunburned from competing in the annual golf tournament that these days opens every Pawn Expo.

A 23-year industry veteran with a pair of pawnshops in suburban Chicago, Amberg says he could tell as far back as 2006 that hard times were coming. "Suddenly we saw our demographic expanding," he says. "We had more customers coming to us from middle-class communities and even upper-middle-class communities. We saw the erosion of the economy before you were even reading about it."

Except, who listens to a pawnbroker? "We have our thumb on the true pulse of the economy," Amberg says with a sigh, "but we're laughed at or ridiculed because we're in the pawn business."

These are fat times for the pawn industry--in no small part because these are hard times for much of America. Pawnbrokers are lending money to a new breed of customer--the kind who drives up in a sports car, lugging a large flat-screen TV to hock--and it's not like their traditional clientele are any better off than they were a few years ago. Pawn is even hot in the popular culture, as reality TV has spawned no less than three shows starring pawnbrokers.

At first glance, the Pawn Expo could have been any trade show of its kind: booths for exhibitors selling their wares (diamond and gold buyers, mainly), breakout sessions for the more studious conventiongoer ("10 Successful Steps to Becoming a Watch Guru"), boozy parties at night. And the brokers--1,300 attendees in all--made for a friendly, casual bunch, dressed in resortwear for the 100-degree Vegas heat. Still, most people think of the corner pawnshop as a forbidding place, dingy and depressing and smelling something like their grandmother's attic. "I would describe image as our biggest challenge," says Kevin Prochaska, who took over as president of the National Pawnbroker Association at this year's meeting. …