Pawn shops see boost in visitors, business

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The first thing you need to know about the local pawn shop scene is that it doesn’t look much like the reality TV hit Pawn Stars.

Mike Dickerson of Brian’s Pawn and Gun on Lincoln Road recalls the most exotic thing his pawn shop ever sold was toilets.

Four toilets – to be exact – dropped off in their boxes by a home-builder who had a few to spare after completing work on a Lamar County subdivision.

They were fast-sellers.

“In two weeks, every one of them sold,” laughs Dickerson. “Our motto used to be, we’ll sell everything but toilets and the kitchen sink. I told Brian (Evans, owner), we cannot claim we do not take the toilets anymore.”

So no, Dickerson does not have daily encounters with 18th century flintlock muskets, rare guitars or Olympic gold medals.

Neither does Bill Fisher, who runs Pawn Shop Plus on West Pine Street.

“We don’t get all this rare stuff, you know the (U.S.) Constitution written in short hand and signed by everybody known to man,” Fisher said. “I mean, that’s all staged.”

Guns. Guitars. Gold. Machine tools. That’s mostly the stock and trade of local pawn shop owners who aren’t so much interested in stocking rare antiques as items they can turn around.

Televisions, too, if pawn shops are willing to risk their plummeting in value if the technology goes out-of-date.

But that doesn’t mean Pine Belt shop owners snicker at the TV show’s colorful depiction of pawn life.

“It’s the first show that I can remember that portrays pawn shops in any kind of decent light,” said Fisher, whose shop has been in Hattiesburg for 38 years.

“I mean everything else they’re selling machine guns out the back door or dealing in stolen stuff.”

Pawn Stars, which debuted in 2009 on History – formerly known as the History Channel, takes places at the family-owned Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas.

It’s been compared to Public Television’s Antiques Roadshow with its recurring plot line of customers bringing in exotic rarities. The show has spawned several offshoots including Hardcore Pawn and the southern-flavored Cajun Pawn Stars.

Fisher and Evans say Pawn Stars piqued the curiosity of a lot of folks who ordinarily wouldn’t step in the door.

“You have had more people come into pawn shops than wouldn’t normally come into the shops, because of the TV show,” Evans said.

But while the pawn business is doing well – “We’re pawning more than we ever have in 38 years,” said Fisher – owners attribute the increase in business more to a weak economy, rather than the TV show.

It goes something like this. With the economy floundering, more folks are pawning, though fewer folks are picking up the merchandise they pawn.

Evans said pre-recession, 80 percent of folks would repay their pawn loans and take back their items. Now it’s down to 50 percent.

That means owners have to be more careful with items they accept, particularly with merchandise tending to sit longer on the shop floor without selling.

Though, there are occasional exceptions to that rule.

“When Mr. (President Barack) Obama was elected president, there was some fear that he would impose some strict gun control laws, so there was a surge in gun-buying,” explained Evans, who’s been in business for 24 years.

The presence of the Internet also has had a mixed impact on pawn shop businesses. On the one hand, owners say the ability to look up almost any item on bargain websites have made them much savvier about pricing – much to the lament of pawn shop aficionados like Ken McCarty.

“You don’t get the bargains you used to,” he said.

That’s not the only trend McCarty, a retired University of Southern Mississippi history professor, has noticed in his 15 to 20 years combing pawn shops in Hattiesburg and along the Gulf Coast for old fishing reels and watches.

“What you see in there (pawn shops) is less than 20 years ago. People bring less old stuff than they used to, because they sell it on eBay,” he said.

“A lot of stuff is sold on Craigslist that you used to be able to buy from us,” agrees Dickerson.

One thing hasn’t changed though through the years, and that’s a good thing, according to Fisher.

“You meet some interesting people,” he said. “The dregs of society and the richest folks in town, and everywhere in between.”