Gambling on redemption


Pawnbroker's critical skill is reading those who come to him in need

July 23, 2008|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,McClatchy-Tribune

WEST ALLIS, Wis. - They come with their gold rings and tarnished dreams.

Some haul in televisions the size of small refrigerators. Others toss down belt sanders and electric saws and quickly slink away in battered pickup trucks.

And they make their way to Scott Moline, the guy you go to when even your mother won't lend you a $20 bill.

Moline is the owner-operator of Moline Jewelry and Lincoln Loan. He's a pawnbroker.

One side of his business is running a jewelry store. The other side is overseeing what he calls "a collateral-based loan company." People bring their collateral and he gives them the loan.

"Everything I do is scrutinized by both state and local government," he says. "They give you the rules, you play by the rules and you're fine. It's not like the movies, the seedy underworld pawnshop. Everything is computerized."

Business is good, he says.

It's not the state of the economy, though goodness knows Americans are stretched by $4-a-gallon-gas. People get in a jam, go out on a binge, he says. After they make a financial mistake, they need a quick financial fix to make it to the next payday or next big score.

"Someone who brings in a 40-inch LCD TV is not a poor person," Moline says. "They made a poor decision."

Moline, 40, has survived what he calls "the school of hard knocks." A pickup truck accident as a teen left him paraplegic. He studied horology, the science of measuring time, became a watch repairman, opened a jewelry store and in 1994 added the loan business.

"It's not something you can teach," he says of his trade.

Moline's greatest skill appears to be his ability to read people, their motivations and their actions, whether he's taking a pass on goods that might have been stolen - most teens don't own a Rolex - or quickly foiling an armed robbery attempt; it's happened twice.

Apparently, the would-be crooks were surprised when Moline fired off rounds from a pistol.

"The Glock, that's my insurance policy," he says, adding that his premises are covered by more than a dozen security cameras that operate 24/7.

Moline says his business doesn't depend on normal economic cycles. There are some people who always need cash, especially people who gamble, whether it's plunking down money on a lottery ticket or throwing coins into a slot machine.

"It's called instant gratification," he says. "If you know someone who says they don't suffer from it, they're a liar. ... I have one of my customers, he'll put $1,000 down on a blackjack table. I call him Double Down."

In a sense, Moline takes a gamble every time he makes a loan. A gamble that the loan will be paid off, or, if it isn't, that the item can be sold. His shop is filled with hundreds of rings, emblems of broken bank accounts and, perhaps, broken hearts. On nearby shelves are TVs, electric guitars, keyboards, stereos, DVDs and power equipment.

The odds, though, are very much on Moline's side. People don't go to a pawnbroker as a first resort - it's often a last chance, and a costly one at that. Bring in a belt sander to Moline, and you might get a $10 loan. But to pay off that loan, even in one day, there is a minimum charge of $5.

James L. Brown, director of the Center for Consumer Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says money is a commodity and people should "seek out less costly forms of credit."

John Rao, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, says "there aren't a lot of good" loan products for those seeking a small dose of cash to temporarily make ends meet.

"There is a critical need for that," he says. "There are some credit unions and banks that are experimenting with providing those types of loans at relatively lower interest rates; at less than 36 percent."

Yet Moline has no shortage of customers. Since 2004, he says he has made more than 47,000 loans, serving more than 15,000 people.

He knows the regulars by their names and customer numbers.

There's a woman with a tattoo on her chest that reads "Big Will."

"Where did you put my rings?" she says, looking at a display case. Then, tapping the glass gently, she playfully says, "I've got another ring; you're not going to get it."

On another day, another woman walks in and says, "I've come to get my necklace." The woman, customer 412, pays off a loan on a gold chain with a gold scorpion, a long-ago gift from her father.

"I live paycheck to paycheck," she says. "I need a little money for gas and food." The next time she's squeezed for money, she'll take out another loan on the necklace. It's part of the ebb and flow of life at the economic margins.

"I wish every person picked up every loan," Moline says. "Then, I could close the retail side of my business."

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