So, a guy pulls into the parking lot with a steamroller.
This is how the story begins, and John Geery obviously enjoys telling it. He leans comfortably against a glass display case of heirloom jewelry, as an orchestra of used guitars and unconquered clarinets pile up in the background. Music thumps from a jet-black speaker that surely was once the centerpiece of a Lawrence party pad. And just a few feet away is what may be the largest known handgun arsenal in the city.
Geery continues. Not only does this guy have a steamroller, he’s also got a pickup full of angry guys, and a bad need for a $5,000 loan.
Yeah, this is where the punch line is supposed to go.
But this isn’t the beginning of a joke. It’s just the beginning of another day at the pawn shop.
“It was my favorite loan of all time,” said Geery, who is the manager of Lawrence’s Jayhawk Pawn and Jewelry, 1804 W. Sixth St.
It’s his favorite loan, at least for now. Geery and other pawnbrokers may get plenty of opportunities to make more loans as headlines blare about bank bailouts, tighter lending standards and stingier credit card companies. Whether right or wrong, the perception among many of the store’s customers is that banks won’t have room for “everyday” people needing a little help in tight times.
“I wouldn’t go to the banks anymore,” said Steven Haines, a Lawrence resident who uses the store for loans on a regular basis. “And the banks aren’t going to take people anymore. I bet you the pawn shops will start booming.”
But don’t expect to see a boom in used steamrollers for sale. Jewelry, guns, hand tools and used musical instruments are still the bread and butter of many pawn shops. But that’s not to say Geery wouldn’t mind seeing another steamroller. He already knew what he was going to do with the last one — which was brought in by a contractor who found himself with a need for quick cash to pay an anxious crew.
“I was going to buy it for myself,” Geery said. “It would be cool. Who wouldn’t want a steamroller?”
But, alas, the contractor did return — with principal and interest in hand — and the steamroller dream was dead. For now.
That’s the pawn shop business for you. Steamrollers don’t come through the door every day, and most people are looking for a few hundred bucks rather than a few thousand. But the steamroller story, in a nutshell, is how a pawn shop works.
You bring in something of value, and a guy like Geery loans you some cash. The pawn shop keeps the item of value as collateral. You get it back if you pay the principal and interest before 90 days. If you haven’t kept up on at least the interest payments, you lose the item and the pawn shop is free to sell it. If you at least pay the interest, they’ll keep holding it for you.
Geery’s shop, like many others, charges 10 percent per month, which is the maximum allowed by state law. Yeah, that’s more than a mortgage or a car loan or nearly any other loan you’ll find at a bank. Annualized, that’s 120 percent per year. But Geery argues the loans aren’t meant to be long term, and most banks aren’t excited to loan small amounts.
He said pawn shops are much more like another informal type of bank we may all be familiar with — the bank of Mom and Dad that you call upon when you’re in a short-term bind.
“We’re the mom and dad for people who don’t have mom and dads,” Geery said.
A glass eye.
That’s the consensus winner of the oddest item somebody has tried to pawn in the shop during the last year.
“She was starting to take it out before I said, ‘No, no, I’m not going to take that,’” said Bryce Wilson, who works the counter at the shop.
Funny story, until you realize somebody was desperate enough for a few hundred bucks to walk around with an empty eye socket.
Geery — who has worked at the store for eight years — said that long before the current economic crisis, there was no shortage of people with their own personal financial crises.
“The situations are the same between here and Las Vegas,” said Geery, who counts hundreds of pawn shops across the country as places he’s visited.
The busy times of the year are now — the holidays — tax time, and the day after the first big heating bill. Loan amounts run the gamut. The reasons do, too. Geery doesn’t ask — usually all he asks are a few questions to try to determine whether the merchandise is stolen — but many times people want to share their stories. Money to keep the utilities on is a classic one. Cash for prescription drugs is a growing one. Dough to meet this week’s payroll is one the boss wants to keep on the QT. And, yeah, there are folks who walk through the door on a Friday afternoon looking to finance a Saturday night.
“The needs are universal, whether they are white, black, Hispanic or Asian,” Geery said. “The one thing everybody has in common is that they all have a reason to be here.”
It is the perfect item to pawn — the wedding ring from your ex-husband. Pawn shops love jewelry and anything else that packs value into a small package. Most shops are small, and thus space is at a premium.
Brenda Haines laughs when she talk about how she uses her ex-husband’s ring. She could have sold it long ago, but now she regularly takes loans out on it to pay for Christmas or birthday presents, or on this day to pay for a space heater for her trailer.
The loan is better than a sale because the ring still has sentimental value — not to her, mind you, but she would like to give it to the children someday.
As long as she figures out a way to keep paying the principal and the interest, she’ll have the chance to pass it along. Haines says she’s confident that she won’t end up losing the ring to the pawn process.
Maybe. Maybe not. Geery will be rooting for her to keep the ring. Making and collecting on loans is a far better business than trying to figure out how to sell someone else’s used merchandise, he said.
But there are a half-dozen jewelry cases in the store — stuffed with chains, watches and wedding rings that “came right off the finger” — that serve as a reminder that it can happen.
Sometimes — Geery says, while sitting on a wide, slick racing tire that someone hawked — the guys at the shop bet on what will be redeemed and what will be allowed to go into “default.”
It is a betting game that favors the experienced. The first rule is to discount anything you hear.
“Everybody who says they’re going to pick it back up means it,” Geery said. “They just can’t all live through with it. They’re not lying to me. They’re just lying to themselves.
“Everything is defaulted at some point. Everything except steamrollers.”