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When times are bad, pawn business is good

BRIAN ETTKIN STAFF WRITER
Section: Unwind,  Page: UW3

Date: Sunday, July 12, 2009

Keven Gottlieb is friendly with customers, but not overly friendly because he understands some of them are, well, embarrassed to be customers.


Some of them drive into his parking lot in cars with tinted windows and wait for other customers to exit Capital City Cash before they enter.


"Some customers like their privacy," Gottlieb said. "Some customers still feel embarrassed or ashamed that they have to come in and sell their stuff."


It doesn't matter that cherry rosewood jewelry display cases and paneling inset with gleaming mirrors dress up the small store, which opened about a month ago at 1321 Central Ave. in Colonie after moving from Albany.


A stigma about selling valuables to a pawnshop still exists.


Yet, people sell more merchandise to Gottlieb than ever: Since the start of the recession, the amount of merchandise being sold to him is up about 75 percent, he said.


And it shows. Although he's dressed casually and wears ankle socks and Adidas shoes, Gottlieb has also adorned himself with the spoils of his business: a 3.5 carat diamond ring with a wholesale price tag of $6,000, a Rolex Explorer II watch, a Baraka 18-carat gold-and-rubber bracelet with a diamond clasp, a 14-carat gold railroad bracelet, a gold chain with a Star of David medallion, and a white-gold chain with the Hebrew letter chai.


When times are bad, his business is good.


Jewelry, fine watches, coin collections and gold can be sold to buy food, pay rent or cover unexpected expenses. Everyone has their reasons for selling valuables to a pawnshop.


A guy whose fiancee broke up with him recently sold her princess-cut, 1.5 carat engagement ring to Gottlieb, who said the man was crying when he sold it.


"He might still be paying the jewelry store for it," Gottlieb said.


One time, Gottlieb said, a former National Football League player sold him a Super Bowl ring.


"I'd be inclined to believe it was from gambling," he said.


Once, a disabled man perambulating in a wheelchair sold Gottlieb his titanium prosthetic leg.


Traditional pawnbrokers lend money to customers who provide items of value that are used for collateral. If the loan is paid off, the customer receives his items back.


However, Gottlieb doesn't offer loans. The overwhelming majority of his transactions are straight sales. Gottlieb said he sells the majority of merchandise he buys to retailers at wholesale prices, though anyone can come into his store to buy it, too.


On occasion a customer who sells an item asks for the opportunity to buy it back, such as the other day, when a middle-aged blonde with a Russian accent walked in.


She asked for a loan.


Gottlieb doesn't offer loans.


She asked for $150 for her X's-and-hearts gold bracelet.


He weighed it on his scale and offered $100.


She asked for two or three months to buy it back.


He offered four weeks, during which time anyone could buy it for $150. After that it would be melted down and refined.


She paused. Considered the terms. Then sold it.


Earlier that week a brunette in her early 20s walked in the shop.


"How much for the ring?" she asked, showing one to Gottlieb.


He eyed it through a jeweler's loupe, and then said, "You know this isn't real?"


"This isn't real?" she said. "That's (bull). I got it from my ex-boyfriend."


"I'd talk to him," said Gottlieb, who's been married for two years.


She left the shop with her cubic zirconia ring.


"I think she knew," he'd later say. "She wanted to sound like she was surprised."


Three or four of every potential 10 customers try to pass off imitation merchandise as the real thing, he said.


Gottlieb knows the real thing, and it's no wonder. Direct in conversation and street smart, he started cleaning counters and answering the phone at his father's pawnshop in Utica when he was 3.


After his father, Gary, was diagnosed with lymphoma, Keven dropped out of school in the summer following sixth grade to help care for and be with him. Keven never returned. He hadn't liked school though he earned good grades, he said. His mother was supposed to home-school him. That didn't last, he said. Keven received his education at the pawnshops his father owned.


"He was the best teacher I ever had," said Keven, who's now in his 20s, but asked that his acual age not appear in print.


From his father, a former Marine and boxer who trained attack dogs, he learned stoicism and toughness. Gary survived that cancer (it went into remission after 47 radiation treatments) and its recurrence. He endured a brain hemorrhage in 2003. It was a third bout with cancer -- this time it attacked his lungs -- that killed him in 2007.


"He never once complained, Why him?" said Keven, who owns one of the pawnshops in Utica that had belonged to his father. "He was a hell of a fighter."


From him, Keven learned the pawn business.


And business in these hard times is good.


Brian Ettkin can be reached at 454-5457 or by e-mail at bettkin@timesunion.com.


BOX:


Average pawn customer


36 is the average age


$29,000 is the average household income


80% are employed


82% have a high school diploma or GED


33% are homeowners


Source: National Pawnbrokers Association


BOX:


Registered doing-business-as names for Capital City Cash


Albany Gold Buyers


Albany Jewelry Buyers


Albany Diamond Buyers


Albany Rolex Buyers


Capital Cash 4 Gold


Public Metal and Diamond