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People: Pawnbroker Allen Keith

February 13, 2006|HERB BROCK

Allen Keith is a pawnbroker, but when you first meet him you might think he is pursuing other professions.

He sounds like an historian.

"A lot of people don't realize that Queen Isabella pawned the crown jewels of Spain to finance part of Columbus' voyage to the New World," said Keith, co-owner with George Hollis of King's Corner Pawn and Gifts on Hustonville Road in Danville.

"Also, the children's song, 'Pop Goes the Weasel,' is about a pawnbroker. "Pop' is an old English term for pawnbroker and 'weasel' was a metal form over which they put shoes."

He sounds like a psychologist.

"I will tell these little bits of history to people who've come into a pawn shop for the first time, to put them at ease," he said.

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"The vast majority of my customers are good, hard-working, average folks who live paycheck to paycheck and have fallen on hard times and need a little cash to tide them over from one month to the next, even one week to next. They beat themselves up over their plight, feeling a sense of shame over what's happened to them financially and embarrassed when they find themselves pawning their belongings for cash."

He sounds like a banker.

"We're the bank that will mortgage your watch," he said, referring to an old line repeated by pawnbrokers trying to explain their business. "We're basically a small-time mortgage bank.

"But even though we deal in loans on smaller items than houses and cars, we really are partly a financial institution as well as commercial enterprise, one that has its roots centuries ago in Italy when a group of bankers set up a separate lending system for immigrants who could not get loans from regular banks."

And he sounds like a public relations expert.

"The biggest stigma facing the pawnbroking industry is the impression people have that pawnbrokers basically serve as fences for stolen goods," he said. "Everyone gets this idea that we're buying items that have been stolen by thieves to provide their income or crackheads to get cash to finance their habits.

"The truth is that only a tiny amount of the fencing crimes that are prosecuted involve pawn shops. In fact, a 2002 crime survey showed that less than 1 percent of fencing crimes involved pawnbrokers. In the four years I've been involved in this business, we've had only four cases where stolen property was pawned here, and in each we were able to return the stolen property to its rightful owners.

"No, we rarely get any stolen property, and we're certainly not involved in fencing it."

His clientele

On the contrary, Keith stressed, his clientele not only includes law-abiding working-class people but also more than a few "doctors, nurses, lawyers and other professionals" who often are involved in trading or collecting guns and jewelry.

"I consider our place an upscale pawnshop," he said.

Keith, 40, served four years in the Army as a member of the Special Forces. After the service, he went to a trade school to learn mechanical designing and drafting. He worked for 13 years with a Lexington firm where he designed machinery and made blueprints.

He began his career as a pawn broker a decade ago after his wife was injured.

"Tracy was injured in a car wreck, and I was looking for a second job to help with our finances," he sad. "I answered an ad for a person to work as a clerk at a gun store in Lexington. I thought my experience with weapons in the military might qualify me for the job."

As it turned out, Keith's experience as a mechanical designer also impressed the store's owner.

"The store actually was a pawn shop that dealt, like most pawn shops, heavily in guns," he said. "The owner also operated a plumbing business, and I did blueprints and other design work for him in addition to working in his pawn shop."

Keith ended up managing three pawn shops for the owner. He then decided it was time to put what he had learn-ed at those shops to use as an owner. He and Hollis opened King's Corner four years ago, and the store's business has been growing annually.

Pawn Shop 101

Just exactly what is involved in the pawn shop business? Keith offers a Pawn Shop 101 version that goes something like this:

"When customers come in the store to pawn an item, they want to give us an item to keep for a period of time in exchange for a cash loan based on our appraisal of the wholesale and retail value of the item, and that appraisal is based on our familiarity, based on years of experience, with a variety of merchandise plus access to catalogs.

"We thoroughly check out every item, and for guns and instruments, that means testing them. We want to make sure that we are making the best possible assessment of the quality of the items to ensure that our loan is as accurate as possible and ensure that in those cases where we end up selling the items, we have the highest quality used merchandise on the floor."

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