Retro Charlotte

1972: Trade Street Pawn Shops

Berlin’s Pawn Shop (and Frank’s next door), 1972. The Ritz-Carlton and a large parking deck occupy the site now.
Berlin’s Pawn Shop (and Frank’s next door), 1972. The Ritz-Carlton and a large parking deck occupy the site now. The Charlotte Observer

In the 1970s there were four pawn shops within a block of each other and the new Civic Center. This April, 1972 story is about that unusual way to make a living. (And be sure to look at the slide show!)

Pawn Shops Hurt By Credit System

‘We’ll Take Anything We Can Get In The Building’

By Harry Lloyd, Observer Staff Writer

Ellis Berlin can sell you a fishing rod, a hair dryer, a set of mag wheels, or a jack to lift up the corner of a house.

Jacob Sosnik can sell you a set of antique diamond earrings or a platinum bracelet encrusted with emeralds.

These two merchants, whose locations are a block apart on East Trade Street, represent the two extremes of the pawnbroking business.

There are four pawn shops in Charlotte, all within a block of each other in the downtown area near the new Civic Center.

The newest of them, Berlin’s, has been at the same spot on 231 E. Trade for 24 years. But to survive against increasing competition in a time when personal credit is available to the masses, they have gone in different directions.

“We’re a lot more selective in what we take in right now,” says Sosnik, owner of Bob’s Jewelry and Loan Co., 122 E. Trade. “We’re just looking for nice stuff now. Gradually we’re phasing out of the pawnshop end of the business.”

Bob’s still has displays of luggage, golf clubs and other forfeited items, but it is the counter of expensive jewelry that the customer sees first.

If someone should come in with a shotgun to pawn, he would probably be referred to one of the three shops down the street. And if he ended up at Berlin’s, he would almost certainly walk out with a pawn ticket and a few dollars in his pocket.

“We’ll take anything we can get in the building -- anything we can make a buck on.” says Berlin, a congenial, no-necktie fellow with a salt-and-pepper mustache.

Berlin’s shop and Frank’s Loan Office next door are typical of the “industrial” pawn shops that have existed since the Middle Ages. They serve as a quick source of cash for anyone with property to put up as collateral.

Pawn shops pay heavy license fees ($900 annually for city, county and state permits) and are stringently regulated. They cooperate closely with police to avoid traffic in stolen goods, and interest rates of 10 percent per month are set by state law.

Berlin estimates that 80 to 85 percent of all pawned items are eventually redeemed. Unclaimed items my be sold after 91 days, but in practice most articles of value will be held at least a year before going on display. Most shops supplement their supply of forfeited items with some new retail stock as well.

“What you see out front in a pawn shop is like the tip of an iceberg,” says Berlin. “There’s a lot more you don’t see.” His shop has more than 5,000 items in storage, all cataloged for location in a minute.

The incidence of repeat business in pawn shops is high. Berlin has one “customer” who comes in after every workday with a piece of equipment from his job. At the end of the month, the man and his employer return to get all the equipment out of pawn. It’s an arrangement of convenience for all three parties.

How does a pawnbroker determine how much to offer for an article? Berlin admits he still gets “rooked” on occasion, but says the average person would be “insulted” if told the generally low amount his personal effects bring. “But if you’re broke and hungry, the value of an item changes for you,” he reasons.

The average transaction at his shop is $12, whereas only a few years ago it was about $4. The most popular item for pawning is a television set because it’s “transportable and not essential.”

Arthur Frank, who took over his grandfather’s old pawn shop 28 years ago, says the business is like any other, “except I might hear a few more sob stories.”

Frank says he never asks why a customer wants money. In this business, the less you talk the better off you are,” he figures.