Lessons of the Pawn Shop

By Brendan I. Koerner

Believe it or not, I can pinpoint the exact day I realized that the VCR Era was over: August 27, 2000. I was on a magazine assignment up in Waterbury, Connecticut, interviewing the patrons of a dingy pawn shop about why they were swapping their precious rings, TVs, and fishing poles for high-interest loans. Early that morning, before a heroin addict pawning his uncle's pistol bilked me out of a fiver (long story), a rake-thin girl in a Pantera t-shirt strolled in holding a mint-condition VCR—can't remember the model and make, but trust me, this wasn't a Wal-Mart special. I guess she was expecting to score an easy $15 or $20, but before she could even get to the counter, one of the brothers who ran the place thundered, "We don't take VCRs anymore! You got a DVD player, come back."


At the time, I didn't even have a DVD player myself, and the advent of the $29 Apex—one of the Great Moments in Low End History—was still a few years off. But when a pawn shop in a post-industrial town declares a technology dead, it's dead. And that's not all our friends with the usurious interest rates, sketchy intake ledgers, and security gates have to teach us about the world of low-end electronics. After the jump, some more wisdom that can be gleaned from hanging out in the shops of last resort, where most of us have either a) purchased a nice electric guitar on the cheap, or b) exchanged grandma's antique brooch for a month's supply of chalupa money.

Always Bet on Gray Product color connotes more than you might think. Used to be that VCRs and the like were uniformly black, on the assumption that the color of night can blend into any interior-design scheme. But low-end products like portable DVD players now tend toward gray, which supposedly suggests more advanced technology. You can definitely see the preference for gray electronics at the local pawn shop—they stand out better along the behind-the-counter shelves, and something about the modern human psyche places a higher innate value on such lighter-colored goods. Didn't have a chance to research this in-depth up in Waterbury, but gray products tended to bring an extra $5 or so from the brothers; I guess they figured it was easier to move a gray DVD player than a black one, and so kicked in that little bonus to the pawner.

Hands Off Even though pawn-shop consumers know that they're dealing with pre-owned products as well as semi-shady merchants, they tend not to test the merchandise beyond a simple turn it on, turn it off. This goes even for complicated devices such as laptops, which can obviously suffer from a variety of ailments. This is in part due to the high-pressure tactics of your typical pawn-shop owner—they're trained to get you out of there as quickly as possible, before you discover their no-refunds policy or some other horrible secret (like the backroom where they buy hot Rolexes from the neighborhood crackhead). But I think there's also a certain willful blindness that descends upon cheap consumers who think they've discovered a real bargain. Once they see the price tag and realize, "Oh my gosh, this is 75 percent less than Circuit City!", they—okay, we—tend to forget about asking the right questions and conducting the right tests. Be forewarned—that $200 Fujitsu LifeBook T4210 won't seem like such an awesome deal when you get it home and realize that it's infected with malware just a few shades less nasty than hantavirus.


Artists Keep Technologies Alive You can still pawn your Nikon 35 mm should you so choose, and for pretty good coin, too. In fact, I'd dare say that a real top-of-the-line vintage camera will be priced higher than a mid-range SLR in a lot of pawn shops. That's because of the Artist Effect—a lot of photographers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. do their gadgets shopping in pawn shops, though not only for economic reasons. Let's face it, there's a certain romantic mystique about finding a deal at the pawn shop; I don't recall Gilby Clarke ever recording an album called Guitar Center Guitars, do you? Now, there's certainly a lot of truth to this line of thinking, but don't think for a second that pawn-shop owners don't love taking advantage of skinny college students wearing ironic t-shirts. They assume such customers are bankrolled by mom and dad, and can thus be hoodwinked for an extra $100 or so on that Nikon SP 2005 Rangefinder they're dying to buy in order to take artsy shots of their girlfriend tied up with Red Vines.


Scaling Up Many pawn-shop owners aren't electronics whizzes, and can't be bothered to look up a product's current market value upon getting it in stock. What they'll often do instead is simple multiplication; if they've been selling a 19-inch TV for, say, $100, they'll make a 27-inch TV $150. No, that's not a great bargain, but once you get into the realm of the real big screens, their sensible scaling-up approach starts to really work in your favor. If you're lucky, you can find a pawn shop that doesn't realize the exponential growth of TV prices above the 27-inch barrier, and furthermore doesn't want to clutter their limited inventory with really big units. Alas, this doesn't really work with LCDs or plasma sets, though primarily because anyone able to drop four figures on a TV probably doesn't frequent pawn shops too much. When such folks have financial troubles, they either take out a second mortgage, or start embezzling.

(Credit where credit is due—many thanks to Water Winter Wonderland for the pawn-shop pic.)

NEXT WEEK: Dongles, dongles everywhere!

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.


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