Pawn Shops

Original Airdate: December 4 (2012)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

Pawnbroking—or lending money on portable security—is one of the world's oldest professions. It can be traced back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire in the West and to China three thousand years ago in the East.

Hank Josephs of Corpus Christi remembers he got the idea to change his family's dry goods store into a pawn shop during WWII:

"Our sergeant would lend the guys five bucks on their watches, their service watches, and when they got paid two weeks later, they'd pay him back ten dollars. I said, ‘That's a hell of a deal. I want in on that deal.'"

Josephs recalls one of the more bizarre stories that came out of the shop:

"The one in which a guy walked in and said, ‘I want to borrow five bucks on my eye.' Had a prosthetic eye. Pulled it out of his head. He had gotten it in the service. He says, ‘I want five dollars; I need a—need a bottle of wine.' I loaned him five dollars on the wine. Some people came in later—he never did come back. People came in later and said, What's the strangest thing you ever took in? I pull out the box with the eye in it. I said, ‘Here,' and showed them the prosthetic eye, which was a beautiful brown eye with veins running through it. So we had some farmers come in and they had seen the eye, and they were looking for a wedding set. I told them, I say, if they bought the wedding set, I'd give them the eye. So sure enough they bought a wedding set, I gave them the eye, and that was the last of that."

Robert Cogswell of Austin explains a problem he had in the 1970s:

"I had this sophisticated instrument, but I was not a sophisticated guitar player. And I worried about my guitar. It was such a nice instrument that I didn't want it to get stolen. So I carried it with me a lot of the time, even when I was riding bicycles, and I was worried about it getting smashed or broken or damaged. It was an unhealthy relationship for a person who was already married. It was like I had this guitar on the side."

Cogswell describes finding a $15 answer to his dilemma hanging in a pawn shop:

"This Gretsch was made of something like three-eighths-inch plywood. It didn't pick up sound very well. In other words, it's a very quiet guitar, which is perfect for a person who can't play well."

He relates how he was a bit apprehensive at first to purchase it:

"I said, ‘This guitar is not the way it was when it was built. It's much better. The person who owned it really loved it because it's worn at this point, and it's worn at that point, and he has adjusted the nut and he's adjusted the strings so that they fit this guitar right. So that person loves this guitar, and I don't want to buy it out from under that person, if he's coming back to get it.' And he said, ‘No, you can buy this one. The guy who left that guitar has pawned it here five times. And he brought it in this time and said, "Okay, you can sell it this time because I'm taking this money straight to the bus station, and I'm going back home to Kentucky."'"

The recent economic slump has boosted business for pawn shops and has led to the appearance of online pawnbrokers. The industry has also been aided by popular TV shows like Pawn Stars.

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