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Forget what you see on ‘reality’ TV and meet some local pawnbrokers

By Jaime O’Neill

When I was in high school, I saw a movie called The Pawnbroker. It left a powerful impression, telling the tale of an aging Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who ran a gritty pawnshop in New York City. The pawnbroker was played by Rod Steiger as a deeply embittered man whose heart had hardened because of the horrors he’d experienced, leaving him utterly indifferent to the poor, the desperate and the lonely people who showed up in his store, looking for money or for a moment of compassion from a fellow human being.

It was an unrelentingly bleak movie, filmed in black and white, and for those of us who had our impressions of pawnshops and pawnbrokers shaped as we watched it, it came as a bit of a shock a half-century later when pawnshops became the settings for several very popular “reality” shows.

Pawn Stars, the most popular of those shows, has even inspired a slot machine you can play right here in Butte County, at Gold Country Casino, where for wagers up to $2.50 a spin you can hope to line up winning combinations of Chumlee, Big Hoss, the Old Man or Rick, those four “pawn stars” whose images adorn the reels and lure slot players to take a chance on getting the bells to ring and the winnings to rack up.

I tried it. It ate a hundred dollar bill in about 15 minutes, money that would have been far better spent at a pawnshop not far away.

Some stories just refuse to go the direction you want them to take.

I pitched this piece thinking it would provide the opportunity to write a hard-edged slice of Oroville noir focused on pawnshops where down-and-outers went from the Indian casinos to the pawnshops to hock their dead mothers’ wedding rings for a few pennies on the dollar, hoping to get enough money to return to the casinos and feed the slots once more, chasing the chimera of winning their money back so they could make the rent.

Though it may be true that such scenarios get played out somewhere in the nexus between hard times and pawnshops, that wasn’t the story I found when I sat down to interview Danielle Batha, Chris Daniels and Gary Besser before business hours on a recent Thursday morning.

Batha is so pretty you might consider hocking your watch just for an excuse to talk with her. In fact, everyone who works at Chico Cash Exchange is better looking than any of the “stars” found on reality-TV shows that often take liberties with reality.

If you’re in the market for a $5,000 Stetson hat, I know where you can find one, size 7 1/4, and at a very sizeable markdown. It’s got gold and diamonds in the hatband and a fancy leather hatbox to keep it in when you’re not showing it off on your head.

Or, if a really pricey hat doesn’t interest you much, but you’re jonesin’ to own a wooly-mammoth tusk, I know where you can find one of those, too.

You can check out the hat on the corner of Park and East 20th in Chico, where Batha manages Chico Cash Exchange, a pawnshop that might not be what you expect a pawnshop to be. And the wooly-mammoth tusk is on display, and for sale, at Oro Jewelry and Loan, which is Chico Cash Exchange’s sister store over in Oroville on the corner of Oro Dam Boulevard and Lincoln Street.

Daniels is the operations manager at that Oroville store, and she’s way more tender of heart than you might expect, especially if your idea of a woman in the pawn trade is drawn from Ashley Broad, that rather bitchy woman who works at her father’s pawnshop in Detroit, an enterprise featured on Hardcore Pawn, another of those now ubiquitous pawnshop “reality” shows.

I put “reality” in quotation marks as a way of suggesting that reality isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be on these shows.

For instance, you’re not likely to hear the exchange of expletives so commonly found on Hardcore Pawn, where family and mercantile dramas are acted out in every episode, along with tidbits of physical violence, leaving the impression that making loans on merchandise is an enterprise requiring the constant attention of beefy bouncers.

Were there other general misconceptions about the pawn business, or were there things seen on those “reality” shows that didn’t reflect the way the pawn business is conducted here in Butte County?

Batha responded with alacrity, almost as if she was eager to clear up a few myths that bothered her. “People come in and they say: ‘This is a pawnshop?’ They’re surprised because it’s not what they expect. It’s not dingy. The merchandise is good quality. It’s clean. We smile. And we’re kind to people.

“Some people seem to have the idea that pawnshops are seedy places. They expect to find a sleazy environment where you can’t trust the people behind the counter.”

Her description of the shop was consistent with what I saw—lots of cases filled with jewelry, guitars of various descriptions hung from pegs on the wall, power tools on shelves, and various other items, all attractively laid out for sale.

Besser works alongside Batha at the Chico store. He has two kids and a degree in psychology, and it probably never occurred to him when he was taking classes that he would find himself working in a pawnshop. But that’s what he’s doing these days, managing the online and eBay side of the business, in addition to negotiating with customers on things that come through the door.

Though it may not have been the career he anticipated when he was in college, he genuinely seems to like his work.

“Customers are pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We have a beautiful showroom with lots of beautiful stuff.”

They also have an immediately noticeable security buffer between employees and customers, some very thick plexiglass the employees sit behind when negotiating transactions with customers. What was all that about?

“We’re putting out the message that we’re not victims, and not about to be victimized,” Daniels answered. “We want customers to know that this is a very safe and secure place, and that stuff they pawn with us will be here when they come back to get it.”

That put me in mind of a joke about the traditional symbol of the pawn business—the three balls that hang outside of most traditional pawnshops, especially in Europe.

That symbol is thought to have been derived from the heraldic image of the Lombard region of Italy, where the origins of European pawning were associated with the Medici family in Florence. But according to that very old joke, the three balls mean there’s “a two to one chance you won’t get your stuff back.”

It’s that kind of folk humor that makes it difficult for people in the pawn business to overcome centuries of accrued bad publicity, some of which has roots in the fact that pawnshops were traditionally associated with usury, the practice of charging exorbitant interest on short-term loans.

Think of Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and you will have one of the clouds darkening the image of pawnbrokers. Anti-Semitism has always been fueled by the image of Jews as money lenders. There was a time when Jews engaged in that activity almost exclusively because, in pre-Reformation Christianity, lending money at interest was considered a sin, leaving that business opportunity to Jews. They too took a dim view of charging interest, but made an exception when lending money to Gentiles.

That practice gave birth to an enduring stereotype, one that is still alive even after Gentiles moved back into banking and money-lending big time, at usurious levels that would have shamed those ancient Jewish moneylenders. But ethnic stereotypes formed centuries ago persist.

The fact that the owner-operators featured on Hardcore Pawn are Jews has sometimes rekindled the old stereotyping. They’re the Gold family, three people who run American Jewelry and Loan, a Detroit store that seems more like a combat zone than a commercial enterprise. This definitely is not an operation run on the notion that the customer is always right.

And the customers are, all too often, entirely whack, borderline violent, and always expecting a great deal more for the stuff they want to pawn than the Gold family wants to pay them.

Ethnic prejudice and the connotation of shady dealing aren’t the only image problems modern-day pawnbrokers seek to overcome.

“There’s also a popular misconception that we deal in stolen goods,” Daniels said. “But less than 1 percent of inventory in pawnshops gets past our screening for stolen goods. We take thumb prints and we get ID, so if something you’ve pawned turns out to have been stolen, the police know where to look for you.”

“Let’s go do some paperwork” is a phrase heard on every episode of every one of those pawnshop reality shows. That line is uttered whenever a deal is consummated. The “paperwork” they’re talking about is all about keeping track of the goods, complying with regulations that have made it difficult for pawnbrokers to be used as fences for stolen property. So, if you’ve got a hot guitar or a stolen amplifier, you’re going to face a problem trying to offload it at Chico Cash Exchange, or any pawnshop like it.

“There are so many laws that we have to abide by,” Daniels continued, “and compliance can make the process a little complicated. If somebody comes in and we do all the paperwork—fingerprints, signatures, etc.—we give it to the Police Department and they have 30 days to check our records. Sometimes people come in and tell us they had something stolen, and we refer them to the police to see if there’s a match.”

“We’ve even had a couple of stings conducted through our store,” Batha added. “Pawnbrokers throughout the country joined together to encourage the passage of reporting laws on flea markets and thrift stores, too, all to make it more difficult for legitimate businesses to be used to fence stolen goods.”

The pawnshop Batha manages opened two years ago, just as cable television was building an audience of people suddenly curious about what goes on in these stores. Business, she says, has been good, some of it brought in by people whose curiosity about this branch of retail trade has been awakened by what they’ve seen on TV.

Even with the exaggerations and the departures from “reality,” the shows have been good for the pawn business. “Pawn Stars, in particular, has definitely helped the industry,” Batha says. “The show has made us more approachable.”

It’s possible, too, that the pawn business is thriving because the country’s been in a deep recession for a while now, with high unemployment and few wage increases for those lucky enough to have jobs. That’s created greater need for quickie loans using a prized possession as collateral.

Did the fact that the two stores opened in the middle of a big economic downturn prove to be a propitious time to go into the pawn business here? After all, in times of economic distress, more people are strapped for cash, perhaps, and willing to let go of family heirlooms or watches acquired in more prosperous times.

“I don’t think the pawn business is a litmus for the economy,” Daniels said. “We do make a point of stocking quality power tools, though, and guys are always improving their tools when they have the money. And we’re beginning to see more of that.”

Batha wanted to make it known that the emphasis is on high-quality merchandise. “People think we’ll take in anything,” she said, “or that we can offer them loans on things that have no value. But we have to concentrate on good-quality material.”

Some of the customers seen on Hardcore Pawn are pretty strange. Is that the “reality” they know in their stores?

“Sometimes somebody will wander in who’s clearly off their meds,” Batha said, “but that probably happens in any business.”

“Do you have a hostile encounter with customers on a daily basis?” I asked. “Because that seems to be the case on every episode I’ve seen of Hardcore Pawn.”

Daniels laughed at the question. “No, we don’t. And we’ve never had anyone get naked in the store, either,” she said, referring to just one of the bizarre encounters seen on cable TV’s version of pawnshop “reality.”

Batha agreed. “Sometimes the TV pawn shows make an unfair portrayal of both sides—the brokers and their customers.”

“One of the things I’ve liked about working here,” Daniels added, “is how often people are grateful for the help we’re able to offer them.”

Batha nodded. “Our women customers tend to be really sweet people,” she added. “Lots of the people we do business with are single moms trying to get to the end of the week. They’ll bring in jewelry or laptops. Sometimes it’s for just enough money to fill the gas tank.”

“You don’t know what some of these people have gone through,” Daniels added. “Or are going through.”

That reminds her of a young couple who’d come to her store seeking to sell their wedding rings. “The wife was pregnant,” Daniels said, and as she told the story her eyes welled with tears. “It wasn’t a ton of money we were talking about, but I hated that they were in a position to have to sell their rings, and I really wanted to see that they got those rings back. I persuaded them to pawn the rings rather than sell them outright.

“When people pawn things, they’ve got four months and 10 days to get them, but when we buy items, we hold them for 40 days until cleared by law enforcement to ensure the stuff hasn’t been stolen. Then we can dispose of it. For people like that young family, the pawn option is just a whole lot better. And I always want people to know the full range of options. I’ve been through my own share of challenges, and I try to remember my own humanity when I’m dealing with customers.”

Working in Oroville, did Daniels see people pawning stuff because of losses at the casinos there?

“I just don’t see that as a driving force,” she said. “More often, we see customers coming in who’ve had a win and they’re looking to go shopping. It’s not all tears and sad stories,” Daniels adds. “It’s like a curio shop.”

“Women pawn their rings,” Batha said, “and then when they come back to get ’em out, they’ll want to upgrade.”

Besser hadn’t said much throughout the interview, so I asked him if he had anything to add from the male perspective.

“I think I’ve lost my male perspective,” he joked. “I work in a little room with Danielle all day. And I like to think of myself as a compassionate and reasonable person. We’re out to help people, and we want everyone to come out a winner.”

My cynicism asserted itself, and I brought up the fact that they also engage in the business of making payday-advance loans at astronomical rates of interest.

“We don’t like the payday advance, either,” Batha said, “and I always tell customers how expensive those loans are, and I try to steer them to cheaper money, especially if they have something they can pawn.”

Daniels nodded her assent. “But, don’t forget,” she added, “if you’re just trying to squeak by until payday, and you need a tank of gas just to make it to work, that loan can be worth the interest paid, especially if you pay it off on payday. The problem comes for people when they start rollin’ ’em, taking out a new loan to pay down the last one. That can get people in deep trouble.”

“We offer a set of options,” Batha explained. “Some people just don’t have anyone at all they can turn to for help. And we always try to steer them to pawning things rather than taking out payday advances. But for some people, when they use it carefully, a payday loan can be a workable solution to a temporary problem.”

How about that fancy and expensive cowboy hat? Did they get many items of that kind?

“We don’t deal so much in super high-end merchandise,” Besser answered, “but we do get some surprises. We’ve had musical instruments that have been pretty valuable, but we haven’t had that 1953 Les Paul guitar come through the door yet. We did get a very rare clarinet not long ago.”

And how much of the stuff that people pawn is never reclaimed?

“The number of people who don’t come back to get their stuff is very small,” Daniels said, “something like 5 percent. Most things are redeemed from 10 days to four months after they’re pawned.”

And she wanted it known that, though most people don’t think of pawnshop operators as particularly community-minded, the two stores are contributors to community radio and active sponsors of local sports, including the Oroville soccer team.

A historian named Wendy Woloson recently published a surprisingly interesting book called In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression. Commenting on that book, a reviewer observed: “Surrounded on all sides by predatory lenders, rapid refund tax shops, and multinational credit card companies charging interest on interest, we might stop to notice the lowly pawnbroker. Unlike those other firms, pawnbrokers provide clear information about loan terms; they are explicit on the interest rate and any additional fees being charged, when the loan will come due, and how much money in total is required to retrieve collateral.”

Woloson’s research led her to conclude that “far from being antagonistic and exploitative transactions, exchanges of objects for short-term loans have often been cooperative interactions, rooted in trust between the working poor who were trying to meet their needs and pawnbrokers who were trying to make a living.”

That was precisely the impression I garnered after talking to Batha, Daniels and Besser, three local pawn “stars” whose daily “reality” may be similar to, but is quite different from, what viewers may have seen on TV or in the movies.

Danielle Batha and Gary Besser

Danielle Batha and Gary Besser sell some pretty interesting and unique items at Chico Cash Exchange, including this wooly-mammoth tusk. “We’re out to help people,” he says, “and we want everyone to come out a winner.”
PHOTO BY MELANIE MACTAVISH

Danielle Batha
Danielle Batha manages Chico Cash Exchange. The hat she’s wearing has gold and diamonds in the hatband, comes in a fancy leather hatbox, and cost $5,000 new.
PHOTO BY MELANIE MACTAVISH

Chris Daniels

Chris Daniels, is operations manager at Oro Jewelry and Loan, in Oroville. “We want customers to know that this is a very safe and secure place,” she says.
PHOTO BY JAIME O’NEILL

Chico Cash Exchange Office

In addition to being in the pawning business, Chico Cash Exchange offers payday-advance loans.
PHOTO BY MELISSA DAUGHERTY

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