Who cares what tie-wearing Wall Streeters are buying and selling? The people bearing the brunt of the economic collapse aren't hawking stocks in New York. Instead, what people are choosing to buy, sell, and say over the counters of Portland's pawnshops paints a more revealing picture of city life in the Great Recession than any high-finance graph.
"Last year, I heard a lot of 'I need money for gas,'" says jovial Hal Hallmark, who runs the relatively upscale SE 82nd Avenue resale store Stuff. "But now people don't seem to need an excuse." Trading cash for valuables, pawnshop workers are troves of anecdotal evidence about the nature of Portland's economy.
"Like a bartender, we listen," says Josh Oller, the manager of Silver Lining Jewelry and Loan on NE Sandy. "You try to put yourself on the other side of the counter and do what [you] can to help people."
As headlines blare economic uncertainty for America, Portlanders return to trusting in the nation's more reliable founding fathers: gold and guns. Anything gold is a good investment at pawnshops in town. Last year, says Oller—the Silver Lining's gem expert—gold sold for around $600 an ounce. This March an ounce went for $900.
"People lose faith in the dollar, they want to grab something," says Oller, leaning over a glass case of flashy gold rings. "It's easier to part with items when you need money," notes Traci Jenkins, co-owner of Ace's Quick Cash on SE Division.
Almost as precious as gold these days are guns. Unlike iPods and Xboxes and Beaverton mansions, guns never depreciate in value. The young and friendly Cassie Hilderbrant is the gun expert on hand at Hawker's Lockers on NE 82nd Avenue.
"Guns, everybody's looking for guns," says Hilderbrant, relating a conversation she had with a man last fall who wanted to buy a gun before the "Barackalypse." Hilderbrant pulls her favorite weapon out from the back—a $1,200 semi-automatic "Bushmaster."
"Young guys come in here and drool over the guns," Hilderbrant laughs, cocking the unloaded Bushmaster.
Other top sellers at Portland pawnshops these days are laptops, iPods, jewelry, and DVDs.
"I hate iPods, I hate 'em," gripes Hilderbrant, groaning about the hassle of buying iPods from people appalled at the current buying price of about $40—at Hawker's Lockers a 120 GB iPod classic resells for $60. "People like to yell at us, that's our job," Hilderbrant adds with a smile. Laptops and iPods are usually snapped up in less than a week at Stuff and Ace's Quick Cash.
Cultural thinkers have opined recently that America's economic collapse may lead to a backlash against the nation's highly materialist culture. Even MTV debated this season whether to can consumerist-crazed shows like My Super Sweet 16. But at Portland pawnshops, people are still spending money on little luxuries—they're just spending less money. While people used to head to Best Buy, an increasing number now head to the pawnshop.
"People still want to go out and buy stuff, even in a down economy," says Oller at Silver Lining. "The biggest change we've seen is more people coming in for the very first time. For a long time it was upper, lower, or middle class. Now the lines are getting blurred."
Ace's Quick Cash has been seeing a lot of new faces, too. "We have people who come in saying, 'I thought I'd never have to pawn something off,'" says owner Jenkins. Pawnshop clerks agree: Wealthier people bring in better goods. Rolexes and Tiffany rings roll through pawnshop doors along with lawnmowers and record players.
The vast back hallways of Silver Lining are stuffed with such treasures. Two hundred and fifty guitars stretch across one room, and in another flat-screen TVs are lined up like sliced bread. Around one corner is a pinball machine and a ship's cannon, around another an arrowhead collection and dozens of bikes. All these objects are connected only because some Portlander somewhere was banking on them to pay rent.
In the middle of the maze, behind two heavy metal drawers, sits a safe full of tiny diamonds tucked into bland manila envelopes. "We get a lot of stuff in here, and it's not just people lookin' to pay a $25 light bill," says Oller, who navigates the mishmash of beloved items with ease. "Most of our customers are just like you and me: middle-class Americans living paycheck to paycheck. But we've done a $30-40,000 loan for people flipping houses."
Pawnshops are highly regulated in Oregon, so banish the image of price-gouging hucksters of stolen goods. Instead, clerks fill out a contract with every seller and check police reports scrupulously. The back rooms of pawnshops around town have shelves of bicycles and jewelry caught up in police investigations. At Silver Lining, an old man with a parrot on his shoulder leans up to the gated cashier window as a worker explains that pawning is a mini-loan. This loan is one of 150 the store will make on an average day in March, trading cash for goods with 6,000 customers during the month.
The state caps interest on pawned items at three percent a month and most people who drop off rings, guns, and televisions come back within 90 days to reclaim them. But pawnshops around town agree that the percent of people returning to collect their pawned items has dropped in recent months. Hawker's Lockers is seeing a pinch. Paper bags full of cast-off PlayStation 2s are starting to take up too much space.
With an influx of people looking for fast cash and less people reclaiming their items, pawnshops around town are getting pickier.
"We've tightened up our belt on what we'll buy," says Jenkins at Ace's Quick Cash. Off the list: snowboards, film cameras, and cheap tools. With 18 percent of the construction industry unemployed in Portland, piles of top-line tools have accumulated on the floors of resale stores.
After Hilderbrant returns the semi-automatic Bushmaster to the back room, a young woman opens the door to Hawker's Lockers and pulls a ring off her finger, hoping to sell it. Hilderbrant places a magnifying glass up to her eye and examines the ring for a moment.
"You're not going to like me," she says, handing the ring back and offering five dollars. The ring contains only one gram of gold and so the woman returns it to her finger and leaves the store... for now.