Goldstein, president and CEO of Empire Loan, is a third-generation pawnbroker who just opened his seventh store, in Lowell. The others are in Boston, Worcester, Stoughton, New Bedford, and two in Providence. The weak economy has hurt many businesses, but has helped the pawn business because people need loans quickly, with no credit checks. Goldstein just got a permit to open an eighth shop in Lynn.
Q. What exactly is a pawnshop? My only notion is from movies, when some shady-looking character pawns his grandmother’s wedding ring to pay for his booze.
A. I’ve been fighting that image my entire life. My grandfather was a pawnbroker in the Bronx, and he passed that store on to my father, so I’ve been doing this ever since I was a kid. Pawning is the original form of lending. Pawn-type loans date back to ancient China, and to the House of Medici.
Q. How does it work?
A. If people need to borrow money, they bring in something of theirs, like jewelry or a watch. Let’s say someone brings in a Rolex. I get it appraised. We usually loan at 70 percent of the value. So if the watch is worth $1,000, we’ll loan $700. If the owner says yes, we make out the terms of an agreement. He has to show a government-issued photo ID, and we take a picture of him and the item. I give him the money, and he gives me the watch. I put it in an envelope and it gets stored in a safe.
Q. So how does he get it out of hock?
A. We charge 3 percent interest on the loan, and he can come in anytime up to six months after the loan and pay us back. If he comes back in three months, he would owe us $763 and he would get his watch back.
Q. What if he doesn’t come back?
A. He’s under no obligation to pay back that loan, because I have more than $700 in my hand, with that watch. But 88 percent of people who borrow money from us pay back their loan and get their merchandise back. If they don’t come back after six months, I put it in the showcase to sell.
Q. Who are your clients?
A. Most of them are blue-collar workers. We don’t see extremely impoverished people because they don’t own things.
Q. How has the weak economy affected your business?
A. The job market is down, certainly there are more people who need money. We have seen more suburban folks come in. But the economy hasn’t affected my business as dramatically as the price of gold has. When I started my business in 1985, gold was trading for somewhere between $275 and $325 an ounce. Five years ago, it started to spike, and gold has gone up to over $1,700 per ounce.
Q. What does that mean for your business?
A. It means the gold chain my customers took off their neck to pawn in 1985, with a $50 loan, now I can loan $200 on it. It’s good for my customers, and it’s good for me.
Q. What do you think of the pawnbroking shows on television?
A. I’ve spent my life trying to legitimize my business, and then the reality shows come on. Some of them are kind of fun, and I get more calls because of them. But “Hardcore Pawn” is my worst nightmare. This guy is awful. He lies to customers. He cheats them. It drives me crazy.
Q. Tell me about a memorable customer.
A. Noel had some mental challenges, a low IQ. He was a nice man, very simple. He ended up in a shelter, where he met Marie. She was also low IQ, and she was very sweet. One day, he’s dressed a little nicer. He borrows on Marie’s bracelet and says they are going to city hall and getting married. I asked him what they were going to do after. He says, “Not much.” I told him to come back to the store. I go to the bakery up the street and say, “You’ve got to make me a wedding cake, fast.” She put together a little tiered cake and we had a cake-cutting ceremony at the store for Noel and Marie.
Q. Have you ever pawned anything?
A. No, I have never needed to. I’ve been really fortunate and I feel an obligation to make sure that we as a company give back to the community. Through our Empire Loan Charitable Foundation, we recently pledged $125,000 to the Mattapan Community Health Center for its new construction. It’s a beautiful space.
Interview was edited and condensed. Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.