They rise, phoenixlike, from the ashes of the '80s, those pricey toys of yesteryear: the Rolex you took snorkeling off Cancun, the BMW you gave yourself after closing that first sweetheart deal, the set of Nagel seriographs. They're as beautiful as ever, as evocative of the flush of the decade. Only now they have a new home. In the cold glare of 1993, the riches of the boom years sit, many of them, in pawnshops. Exit the Yuppie. Enter the Yuppie pawnshop.
It is popping up nationwide, wherever there's an Erte print that isn't earning its keep. These are a new breed of pawnshop: well lighted, spacious and devoid of three-inch, bulletproof plexiglass or the iron-bar-covered windows of yore. The clientele are professionals, most of whom had never expected to enter a pawnshop, now moved by the espresso makers in the window or the bills back home. "We get everything from brokers to small businessmen struggling with their businesses," says Kainon Vilminot, 23, who owns the Roswell Road Pawn Shop, nestled amid the nightclubs and singles bars of Atlanta's trendy Buckhead neighborhood. Business, he says, is on the way upscale. "We sell more cellular phones than we do guns."
The pawnbrokers themselves are often new to the game. Brian Lurie sold real estate until the market started to go sour. Then, he says, "I thought, 'What do people basically need? Food, clothing and shelter. What do people want? Sex and money.' Well, I couldn't do anything about the sex, but I could help them get money." In April 1992, in what was once a specialty wine store in comfortable Kirkland, Wash., Lurie opened Trickle Down Inc., A Yuppie Pawn Shop to cater to a new generation of the financially strapped. With an initial setup fee of $12 for a $100 loan, Lurie charges 3 percent interest per month with a 90-day contract. If the person doesn't then pay up or extend the contract, the item goes up for sale. "I consider myself a friendly banker," he says. "I want to make my money in fees and interest."
Tal Shmargal took the upscale pawn idea even further. In April 1990, he set up shop in Beverly Hills-"a nicer, more gentler pawnshop," he says. "It was a new trend." Catering to the local gentry, Shmargal does a steady business in Rolls-Royces, Porsches, jewelry and other "toys." "We have a lot of famous customers," he says. "But of course, I can't tell you their names." In the interest of discretion, Collateral Lenders of Beverly Hills, unlike the pawnshops of old, provides a VIP room ("You come through the back door and no one will see you")-and will even haggle in the privacy of your limo.
For casualties of the recession like Tom Wallace, upscale pawn offers a new lease on life. As a real-estate developer in Washington, Wallace made a fortune in the '80s and spent one to boot. On a 1985 family trip, "we flew first class everywhere, drove everywhere by limousine and bought very beautiful things." Things like emerald and gold bracelets and rings, Cartier watches, fur coats-"Those kind of little tchotchkes." But in 1989, the money ran out. Wallace tried to sell the stuff he'd just bought. "The antique silvers and crystals were only getting 15 cents per dollar," he recalls. "And the fur coats you could have used for throw rugs for all the money they were giving us for them." By early last year, he hadn't seen a check in 18 months. "By then we'd gotten used to tuna and noodles and macaroni."
That spring he became one of Lurie's first customers. Several of Wallace's Ertes still hang at the Yuppie Pawn Shop, as does his rare, 300-year-old painting of Capt. James Cook being killed by the natives of the Hawaiian Islands, painted by the then Lt. William Bligh-who went on to command the ill-fated HMS Bounty. Wallace has now restarted his real-estate career and says he'll be able to reclaim all his art from Lurie in a week to 10 days. Business, he says, will soon be even richer than during the boom days. "But the lifestyle isn't going to change. We've gotten used to macaroni and cheese and we like it."