Faith, hope, charity amid pawnshop despair

December 21, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE PAWN shops, the spirit of the season is quiet desperation. It's the shadow land of American commerce. At the Kinder and Gentler Pawn Shop, on Liberty Road in northwest Baltimore County, Christmas comes and goes, sometimes in the same instant, depending on the thin line separating those who have and those who wish they had.

There's the old man who wanders in with his desires expressed in urgent little squawks. He's speaking through a postsurgical voice box. In order to raise a little cash in a hurry, he wishes to pawn the sound of his own voice.

"How much will you give me," he asks, "for my voice box?"

"How much you need?" asks Frank Smallwood, the broker standing behind the counter.

"Ten dollars," the man says in a rasp.

"Here," says Smallwood, who finds his heart aching for the old man. He hands him some bills. "Just take it. Keep the voice box."

Though it's a kinder and gentler pawn shop - the title comes from President George Bush's famous line, and it's said with a slight twinkle in the expression - such kindness is necessarily rare across the profession.

It's a business, not a charity, and lots of people have a hard-luck story to tell, or a little personality to add to their bargain for a few extra bucks.

Particularly at this time of year, when the giving and receiving is so abundant, and no one wishes to feel left out.

"Oh, sure," says Walt Anderson, the shop manager, glancing through his front window where a "Merry Christmas" sign is visible for all the traffic on Liberty Road. "Our business picks up tremendously this time of year, just like any retailer. Some people come in and hock their stuff, and then use that cash to buy gifts for other people, without leaving the store.

"And the closer we get to Christmas, the crazier it gets. And the more characters who come in. Some days, I think somebody should spend two weeks here, and get the foundation for a pretty good sitcom."

This time of year, all buying and selling are heightened. The pawnshops are the places to do business when all else fails.

One guy comes in to the Kinder and Gentler doing music. He's a one-man Temptations, he's got all the words and all the old dance routines, too. He's American Bandstand, he's Soul Train, he's David Ruffin doing a little moonlighting along Liberty Road.

All he wants is a decent price on a few things he's looking to pawn. The price is too low? He starts to sing, to throw in a little charm to raise the offer.

"I guess you'll say/What can make me feel this way "

Still too low? He's got more, he's got a whole repertoire of singing, dancing, never mind applause, just come up with a few extra bucks.

"My girl/My girl/Talkin' 'bout my giiiiirl "

"He's a regular," Anderson says afterward. "Great guy, great character. And, after a while, you agree on a price just to get him out of here."

In this business, and in this season, you need a sense of humor. Need some gifts for the kids? On a wall behind Anderson is a handwritten sign resting against some musical instruments:

"Your child may be a musical genius. We have saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, flutes, violins, trombones, keyboards."

Beneath that, in smaller letters, the sign reads:

"P.S. If he stinks, you can pawn it back."

So there are musical instruments, and many more goods, most of them coming and going in short-term bursts: jewelry, vacuum cleaners, video games, cordless telephones, electric toothbrushes, pasta makers, stereo speakers, bicycles, home cleaning systems, all of them bouncing between owners.

"It shows you," says Smallwood, "the thin line between getting by and not getting by. People come in and say, 'I have to pawn this right away. My rent's due.' Or they just got robbed, or somebody's been incarcerated. Or it's the holidays.

"Sometimes it's tough to tell what's true and what's not, but we try to be consistent in giving value for value. But it's all kinds of people, men and women, 18 to maybe 60, black and white.

"And it's people you wouldn't think. Guys who have their own business. We have one guy who comes in to pawn stuff so he can pay his employees their weekly checks. He's wheeling and dealing."

"That's right," Anderson agrees, "we're dealing with plenty of very good people, but they're just doing a balancing act. A guy who rehabs houses, and business gets slow around Christmas. A guy who's got his own electronics company, and he's waiting 90 days for bills to get paid, but meanwhile he's got his own payroll to meet."

So they come here, and they come to pawn shops around the area. They're looking to hold back the tide of bills for a little while, turning over merchandise until they've got the cash to buy it back."

"A lot of people," says Anderson, "just wind up about $50 short every week."

Except this time of year, when the bills get higher and the anxiety mounts, and the pawn shops become a refuge just beyond the glow of holiday tinsel.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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