04 August 2008

Turning the American Dream Into Cold Cash

Jennifer Marcoe holds the opal ring she received on her first Mother's Day. The ring is one of the treasures the family has had to pawn in order to make ends meet after husband Richard was laid off. The family is among a growing number of people who've been forced to turn to pawnshops and online auctions to raise money to pay the bills. Photo: THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Survival for Sale
By Nancy Bartley / August 4, 2008

At the pawnshop, the needs and the sacrifices are getting bigger.

It's mid-week, the end of the month, and the wolverine is leaving the pawnshop. When it returns a few weeks later — jaws frozen in a timeless snarl — it's a sign Charlie is broke. It's a situation to which he's become accustomed.

Ever since Charlie was young, growing up in Anchorage, the offspring of Eskimos who made their living in the wilderness, the wolverine was a fixture on the living-room walls, first at Charlie's grandfather's house, then his father's.

Forty years ago Charlie's great-grandfather trapped it, and over decades it was passed from one relative to another until it came to Charlie — a token of the life his ancestors once lived.

Now it hangs in Charlie's Everett apartment.

When Charlie was injured on the job at a meat-packing company four years ago, he was unable to go back to the physically demanding work and had to take lesser-paying jobs like the one he has now as an apartment manager.

When his paycheck doesn't stretch far enough, the prized family heirloom comes to the rescue.

In 2004, Charlie, whose lack of funds makes him too embarrassed to give his last name, took the wolverine to Pacific Pawn in Everett for the first time and used it as collateral for a loan.

Now with the cost of living higher than ever, the wolverine is back in action, being checked in and out of Pacific Pawn as if it were a hotel for taxidermied animals. There's a python skin on the ceiling and the heads of a moose, a seal and a bison. There's a raccoon and a duck, too, along with spare parts for humans like prosthetic legs, glass eyes and dentures as well as the usual pawnshop fare — DVDs, wedding rings, power tools and electric guitars.

As the price of gasoline and food soars and the resale value of houses drops, adjustable-rate interest on mortgages climbs and companies lay off employees, these once-cherished family treasures have become commodities traded for dollars to help people trying to make ends meet.

They are being traded at pawnshops, flea markets and online auctions in record numbers, and in many cases are making the difference between eating and going hungry, paying the mortgage and living on the street. And often, the sales are augmenting other urgent efforts to raise money — from hawking sewing, carpentry, computer and other skills to selling blood plasma.

"We are seeing significant growth" in listings, says chief executive officer Maureen Ellenberger at auctionPal, an online business that helps people sell things. On the listing form, auctionPal asks why the item is being sold, and "a lot of people are putting down, 'I need the money,' " Ellenberger says. Recently she listed an entire set of Waterford crystal purchased for a wedding 18 years ago simply because the owner was desperate to pay the rent.

Tony Hargrove searches for a customer's things held in the back of Pacific Pawn in Everett. Pawnshops store items they loan money on for 90 days. If a customer does not repay the loan or the accrued interest on the loan, the pawn broker can put the item on the shop floor to be sold. Photo: THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES

"They're selling things like children's clothing, things they'd never thought of selling before," she says. "Or they're selling things their mother had given them. We feel it's pretty tough out there."

Nancy Baughman, chief executive officer of the online e-BizAuctions.com, agrees.

The rising cost of gas tipped the scales for people who already were having a difficult time financially, she says.

"One gentleman lost his job and now he's selling all his movie memorabilia. A lady on disability is selling her grandmother's things. It's heartbreaking. I do what I can for the people."

Craigslist.com CEO Jim Buckmaster says the online classified-ad site in the first few months of 2008 had a "tremendous surge of activity" in its for-sale section — "beyond anything we've really seen before, to the point where we're scrambling to add additional server capacity." Especially busy, he noted, is the cars/trucks category "as millions of Americans look to unload their gas guzzlers — which puts money in their pockets and reduces the need for expensive gasoline." In April 2007, the Web site listed 8 million cars and trucks for sale; a year later, it was 19 million.

The past few months have brought a big change to the pawnshop industry in general, says Nick Buell, state president of the trade group Washington Pawnbrokers Association.

Buell, owner of Kent Jewelry & Loan, says not only are a lot more people coming in, "there's a change in the nature of why they're getting loans. Yesterday, half the loans went to people who needed gas money. Some said it was just to get to work. The gas prices are killing them."

In the past, he says, people got loans for more mundane things like entertainment or a household item or a vacation. "They turned to us to get them over the potholes in the road. Not anymore. Now it's for survival."

WHEN CHARLIE pushed open the barred door with the "Nordstrom of pawn shops" sign, carrying the wolverine under his arm, Jeff Maxwell gave him a smile of recognition and got out the paperwork. After four years of making loans on the wolverine, they don't haggle over prices. The head is tagged, Charlie gets 50 bucks, and he'll be back to pay off his loan, plus 3 percent interest, in a few weeks.

Pawnshops are regulated by the state, and the amount of interest they can charge is limited to 3 percent, for a maximum of 90 days, plus setup fees, unless a loan is extended. After 90 days, an item can be sold if it hasn't been reclaimed and the loan repaid.

If the customers are a few days over, Tony Hargrove and Maxwell, both longtime employees, are forgiving and not quick to put the item up for sale. That's earned them praise and a loyal following. "It's a family place," Charlie says. "They're always willing to help."

If possible.

Sometimes it's not. A Graham man who'd lost his heavy-equipment-operator's job in Enumclaw came into the shop to pawn a rifle scope, binoculars, wedding ring and other items with a retail value of $700. The best he could get was $100.

Although the man begged, Maxwell shook his head, telling him they had to buy items at a low-enough price to still make a profit.

"How can you guys sleep at night?" asked the man, who left in anger.

Although customers who want more for their goods occasionally criticize Maxwell and Hargrove, they say the business is a community service. Hargrove even plays uncle to a generation of kids who visit the shop. He pulls peppermint candy from their ears and keeps a dish on the counter. A champion kick-boxer who's adept at handling any customer, Hargrove sees it this way:

"They help us and we help them."

It's not much different at Yuppie Pawn in Kirkland, a pirate ship of toys for rich boys who also have fallen on hard times. A builder brought in his collection of weapons, including a semi-automatic rifle so high-tech the Terminator could have used it.

In a red building tucked behind a bank, the shop is packed with priceless trinkets: lacquered humidors for keeping cigars, bottles of vintage Champagne and signed photos of sports stars.

"Our economy is so bad the only thing I'm taking now are motorcycles, Rolexes, gold, DVDs, snowmobiles, some original art, jet skis, some cars. Things unique enough we can sell for a low price," says owner Brian Lurie, who started Yuppie Pawn in 1992 after his real-estate ventures stopped making money.

"I don't want your laptops, your generators . . . We only take two out of 10 things that walk in the door."

Like the sleek HK 223-caliber rifle once owned by a real-estate developer who needed cash. "I don't know what you use this for," he says, taking the rifle from a vault where he keeps it. "Home defense?"

"This past year's volume of items for sale and the volume of dollars we're taking out is so much bigger than before," he says, attributing his store's success to the cost of gas, the rise in interest rates and those people who still can afford to shop but want a bargain.

Lurie knows firsthand that "when you're making a lot of money you live big." But when hard times come, you've got a mortgage to pay like anyone else.

In hard times, it all comes down to sacrificing even very personal items.


At Kent Jewelry & Loan, Colleen O'Neil pulls a handful of broken gold necklaces out of a brown sack. Frank Buell, Nick Buell's son, weighs them carefully. Gold is selling high right now, so many in need are cleaning out their jewelry boxes or even bringing in old gold dental crowns to sell.

O'Neil, who was laid off from her job with the city of Seattle, didn't have the money to fill her tank with gas to go to job interviews.

"It was my son's idea to take this stuff to a pawnshop," she says. She leaves with $80, having sold jewelry she hadn't worn in years.

"She's a prime example of the people we're seeing now," Nick Buell says. "Lots of upper-middle-class people who are short 50 or 60 bucks."


The boxes are packed in Suzanne Lorimer's drafty Federal Way home. She says she's eager to leave and head back to California to move in with a friend until she can find a job and get back on her feet.

A year ago, a complicated illness cost Lorimer her job as a paralegal. It was impossible to both work and go to all the doctor appointments for her chronic joint problems. Many surgeries later, she remains unemployed. Lorimer, 45, quickly went through her savings, sold her stocks and eventually was unable to pay the heating bill at her rental house. When the owner wanted to raise the rent, it was more than Lorimer could bear. She gave her notice. And she's been selling as much as she can to raise cash to move.

"A friend once gave me a Coach purse," she says. "I sold it for $50. I needed gas to take my son to school. What else could I do?"

She sold the family's heirloom piano, but her mother bought it back for her. "I'm trying to hang on to that."

The amethyst ring Lorimer listed on craigslist.com was given to her by her grandmother almost 30 years ago. "I remember hearing stories of the family and the things they had to do and sacrifices they had to make, like not being able to buy a new pair of shoes and always having to get secondhand things during the Depression.

"If anyone would understand my having to sell this ring, my grandmother would."


It's new, shiny, sleek, gray and crème with two trays — a deluxe high chair for their youngest son, who's 10 months old.

"He used it only twice, but if it can get us food on the table, it's one of those things we don't need," says Jennifer Marcoe, 25, who put it on craigslist. She also listed necklaces and an opal ring, given to her on her first Mother's Day.

The ring "has significant value as far as emotional attachment, but I have to do what I have to do. I will always have the memory."

Jennifer's husband, Richard Marcoe, 28, is a plumber, but as the housing market slowed, so did his business.

"We're not ones who've ever lived off the state," she says.

So when she went to apply for food stamps, she was surprised that the family of four — with their $2,100-a-month income, minus $910 in rent, $200 in utilities, car insurance and a car payment — made too much to qualify. She's learned frugality and stretching the food budget to the max.

"Do you know how much I could buy with $200 in food stamps?" she asks.

As for the high chair, "most of the time, one of us holds him and one feeds him," Jennifer says.

So many people are struggling, she says, "and it seems the government doesn't care. I cried last night for a good hour. I just cried because I don't know what we're going to do."


Midmorning not long ago, Wes Smith sauntered into Pacific Pawn, a fresh needle stick in his arm and a handful of electronic games to sell. Smith, who has the names of his sons, David and Jaiden, tattooed on the sides of his neck, is 31, an unemployed security guard who just sold his plasma to help support his family.

His wife, Shaunna, 21, is pregnant and stays home.

Smith is hopeful he'll get a job soon and be able to move his family out of their federally subsidized apartment in Everett, where they live on $400 to $600 a month and food stamps.

"The cost of everything is killing me," he says. "Gas, stamps at 42 cents, and kids aren't getting any cheaper." He's listed his truck for sale. He'll worry about transportation when he gets a job. Because he grew up in foster care in Arizona and dropped out of high school, he wants more for his kids. Patting David's head as the boy hides his face against his father's legs, Smith elaborates:

"I want to raise my family like I never got to be raised. We live in a ghetto neighborhood with gang violence and all that. I want to move my family out of that."

He hopes he'll be employed soon at a nearby casino and once again have benefits. Until then, there's the pawnshop, he says, pocketing the $180 he just made.


Her mother made the soft-bodied fairy doll, but when it becomes difficult to pay the rent, it's no time to be sentimental, Tamra Valle believes.

Tamra and John Valle of Duvall are in their early 30s, both working — one at Safeway, one at Bartell Drugs — and have a 13-year-old daughter. But they, too, are selling all kinds of personal items.

"It's not that I don't value it, it's that I value eating and driving more," Tamra explains. Her husband's sword collection went, her rings and finally the little soft-bodied doll made by her mother, listed online for an asking price of $100.

With $1,300 rent, a car payment, $200 a month just for the gas to heat the house and paying other bills, little is left over.

"We sold our condo after the property taxes blew up," she says. "We don't drive as much. We cut down on our food bill and use coupons. We haven't bought clothes in a while. We don't get a lot of extras like ice cream, just the necessities — fruit and vegetables and meat, the cheap cuts."

EBay sales have tided them over. But the frustration of never having enough money "makes me want to move . . . maybe to northern Idaho. It's so expensive here."


Rick Gallegos, 45, was wide-eyed, a man in shock. He had spent the day trying unsuccessfully to find cars to fix and other ways to make a few bucks, and now he is at Yuppie Pawn, pawning the basics of yard maintenance and his weekend touring bike to fill his truck with gas. His middle-class life seems to be sliding away.

For many years, Gallegos — who grew up traveling the world with his diplomat father, who worked for the United Nations — was employed at a bio-tech company that made defibrillators. Not long ago, the company outsourced the work, and he lost his job. Gallegos' wife works as a bus driver, and he gets $295 a week in unemployment. But with the $3,000-a-month mortgage on their Duvall home, gas and groceries and supporting his 16-year-old son, "we're living well below our means."

It rankles him that corporate executives bring in salaries in the high seven figures and outsource the work overseas.

"What can possibly justify that kind of money?" he asks. "Outsourcing is killing anyone with a drive."

He glances around the pawnshop as if looking for the scuba gear he already brought in. Some of the disappearing trappings of the life he once knew.

Nancy Bartley is a Seattle Times staff reporter. She can be reached at 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com. Thomas James Hurst is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

Source / Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest magazine

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