You never know what you will find in a pawnshop.
Where else can you find a snow blower parked next to a mink jacket? Or an ornate 19th century mantle clock from France next to modern-day laptop computers?
At Top Dollar Pawn in Waldorf, Maryland, a man comes in wanting to sell the gold caps from his deceased grandfather's teeth. While some would be taken aback, the affable store manager Stuffie Carroll is not. "This happens all the time," he said, as he explains to the customer that the store would only buy the gold after it had been removed from the teeth.
Top Dollar owner Michael Cohen, who has two pawnshops in Maryland outside Washington, DC, buys and sells "anything of value," which includes high-end jewelry, musical instruments, and power tools. His biggest seller is the jewelry he says, as he shows off an assortment of diamond rings and gold necklaces.
While sales bring in money, pawn shops make most of their income through cash loans to customers in exchange for an item of value. There is also interest on the loan that is higher than a bank rate. If the money is repaid in 30 days, then the customer gets their item back; otherwise the store keeps it for resale. Eighty-five percent pay back the loan.
For people without credit or other financial resources, pawn shops can help them get the money they need. The average loan is $150.
"In a lot of cases people don't have any other outlet to get the money they need to get through the week to buy diapers for their babies, put gas in the car, or pay the electric bill," said Top Dollar Manager, Mike Thomen. He said customers often talk to him about their problems and he "encourages them when they're down on their luck."
Long gone are the days when pawn shops were considered seedy places, where only people down on their luck went to. Today's pawn shops, mostly independently owned, look more like a brightly lit, welcoming second-hand store.
"The pawn shop is the new cool place to come into, the new chic place," said Eric Rizer, the owner of three stores in northern Virginia called Royal Pawn. "We have tons of different stuff like artwork, antiques, rugs, and sports memorabilia."
"Customer service is a huge part of our business," Cohen said, "and hopefully that keeps people wanting to come back to us."
Like regular customer Anthony Ruggaero who is pawning some tools.
"I came to pawn a few times to pay for my wedding, which is in 3 months," he explained. "I bought my fiancé's wedding ring here last week. I have my own business, so as soon as checks come in to help me pay for expenses, I'll buy my stuff back."
It's estimated that 30 million people visit the 11,000 pawn shops in the United States every year, perhaps finding some hidden treasures.
"We had an original Picasso," said Rizer. "We actually had a bird head that I sold to a man for $500." Later Rizer discovered that the bird had been extinct for more than 100 years, and the head was valued at $20,000.
He says worn vintage guitars are finding a new market.
"These beat up guitars are called reliced," he said. "People go absolutely nuts over them just because they look like they're worn from being out on the road."
Including customer Austen Ballard, a music producer at MMP Studios in Burke, Virginia.
"It's so much fun to pick up an old instrument from the 1950s or 60s. You never know where a guitar's been. It might be on a record you've heard on the radio."
Cohen said his business has taken a hit from second-hand merchandise internet sales. Although he realizes more pawn shops may have to start selling items on the internet to survive, he thinks the brick or mortar stores are here to stay.
"There's people who go from pawn shop to pawn shop looking for a good deal. We definitely have our regulars that like to bargain with us every week."
Like customer Keith Winslow who haggles over the price of some power tools.
"I want to talk to the people I'm buying products from," he said. I don't want something from online that may not be exactly what I want."