Engaging, intelligent and well-versed in a variety of subjects, the proprietors of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, subject of a reality show on the History Channel, have done more to improve the public perception of the pawn business than anything else in recent times.
Even as the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" — a name that could easily be mispronounced as another kind of star — comes across on one level as the low-brow cousin of Public Television's "Antiques Roadshow." It has a similar appeal insofar as both present details of history and popular culture, parading a variety of items past a series of experts. In the case of "Pawn Stars," the experts are generally rather colorful.
Still, the pawn business is a cache that's a good deal more gritty than glamorous owing to the nature of the business. Technically, an item is pawned when it is posted as collateral on a short-term loan. When the loan is repaid with interest, the collateral item — typically in hard luck movies something like a guitar, a wedding ring or the family silver — is returned. If the loan isn't repaid within the agreed upon time, the broker is free to sell the item to recover the loaned amount.
Pawn brokers also will purchase items outright and re-sell them, the most typical scenario shown on the History Channel program. On TV, it's usually folks looking to make a few extra dollars. In movie culture, it's apt to be characters down on their luck. In reality, it's probably a little of both.
While the hard luck aspect of pawnbroking gives the business a rough public image, a more unsavory association doesn't help, the reality that thieves often try to take advantage of pawn brokers to turn stolen property into cash.
The practice, of course, is illegal and pawn brokers with good business sense are apt to shy away from goods they suspect are ill-gotten because if such items end up being seized by police, the broker loses money.
Still, until the emergence of Internet sales venues like eBay and Craigslist, pawn shops have been among the few businesses where stolen goods are able to be converted to cash. As a result, pawn shop operators are as apt to fall victim to the criminal element as those whose items are stolen.
Different areas have different ways of dealing with the problem, though Harford County's way appears to have been fairly lax, until a new county law went into effect this month.
The new law requires pawn brokers to hold purchased or pawned items for 30 days before selling them and keep records of all pawn and purchase transactions on file for three years. It's not an unreasonable burden on the pawn brokers, considering similar holding periods are on the books in other areas where there are pawn shops.
Given that the nature of the business is such that it depends to a degree on the axiom that possession is nine-tenths of the law, a bit of regulation to protect the property in the fraction that euphemistically isn't on the up and up is a good idea.