Pawn in Sixty Seconds

The Pasternacks have always been willing to lend a hand. Or a foot...

So, Fred Pasternack is standing behind the counter on his first day at work -- this must be back in 1962 -- when a guy walks into the pawnshop.

"I need a loan."

"Okay," Fred says. "Whaddya got to hock?"

Jay Bevenour
The broker's wild! Fred Pasternack stands before a painting of his family's Larimer Street pawnshop.
Brett Amole
The broker's wild! Fred Pasternack stands before a painting of his family's Larimer Street pawnshop.

The guy reaches inside his jacket, fumbles around a minute, then plops down an artificial arm.

"What? You've gotta be kidding me," Fred says. "You can't pawn that!"

"Come on," the guy replies. "I need ten bucks. I need it for food. I'll be back tomorrow."

"Don't you have a ring or a watch?"

"Nope. This is it."

Fred thinks it over. The guy must be good for it: What's he going to do? He needs that arm.

"Okay. Ten bucks."

The guy signs the pawn book, pockets the cash, leaves the prosthetic. A few minutes later, Fred's uncle, Saul Pasternack, returns from lunch.

"Are you crazy?" Saul shouts. "You gave the guy ten bucks! What are we supposed to do with it? Put it in the window with a sign saying, 'Used arm for sale'?"

"He'll be back," Fred offers. "I guarantee it."

"Yeah, well, if he doesn't, punk, you're eating that ten bucks."

But the next day, the guy returns. He digs into his pocket, fumbles around a minute, hands over eleven dollars -- ten for the arm, one for the interest.

Fred makes his first buck. He's a pawnbroker.

Sam Pasternack was born in 1901 in the back of his dad's tailor shop on Larimer Street. So when it came time for Sam and his older brother, Saul, to launch their own business, there could be only one address.

Back then, Larimer was the commercial heart of Denver. If you needed a pair of shoes, a crate of groceries or a shot of whiskey, that's where you went. But back then, Larimer was also known as "Pawnshop Row." And if you needed a short-term loan to buy those shoes, groceries and shots, you first visited people like Sam and Saul.

Pasternack Brothers Pawn opened in 1919, in a crackerbox of a storefront at 18th and Larimer. Saul and Sam, the middle sons of Russian immigrants, had no idea what they were doing. They had no clue that their enterprise would one day be the oldest, largest and most resilient family-owned pawnshop in Denver. They only knew that they wanted to be businessmen.

"They had no education and no experience, but they knew people," says Fred Pasternack, Sam's son. "At the time, Jews were the lenders in town. Every pawnshop in Denver had a Jewish owner. So that's what they did."

Saul was shrewd, cantankerous and tough, with a big belly and a big, bald head. He knew his way around a game of craps, too, and would often return from a dice game with a wallet so fat he couldn't fold it. At the shop, he evaluated merchandise, handled negotiations, wrote the loans.

"And he did it all in his head," Fred says. "He never had an adding machine or a cash register in his life."

Sam was easygoing, even-tempered. He'd had rheumatic fever as a child and was more frail than his older brother. He made the bank deposits, visited the competition.

"Saul was the businessman, and my dad was the gofer," Fred says. "They made a great team. My uncle loved my dad. He was his guardian angel. They were inseparable. They had an unbreakable bond."

Which was fortunate, because in the beginning, they struggled. To fill the cash box, Sam, who was eighteen when they started the business, and Saul, who was 22, ventured into the dark and smoky back rooms of lower downtown.

"They hustled pool," Fred says. "My dad would get some guy to play my uncle for five bucks, and then my uncle would win. Oh, he was good. That's how they got the money to loan out the next day."

The brothers also stepped into the ring during amateur boxing bouts.

"My uncle Saul had one hell of a left," Fred says. "He won purses, buckles, trophies, watches, everything."

Fred's father was another story.

"They called him 'One-Round Sammy,'" Fred says. "As soon as the other fighter reared back for a punch, he'd fall. He'd never even get hit! But that way, he'd get free admission for the night and get to watch my uncle."

With Saul's savvy and Sam's charm, the Pasternack shelves, clothes racks and display cases soon overflowed with jewelry, luggage, suits, hats, shoes and coats -- the big pawn items of the day.

"You know what their biggest expense was?" Fred says. "Mothballs."

But it wasn't easy. That stretch of Larimer was jammed with pawnshops, including Capital, Hub, Cub, GI Joe's, Pacific, Globe, Utah, Wedgle's and Al's Loan and Luggage. Brokers prowled the sidewalks like panthers, pouncing on customers with one-liners, pitches and one-time-only promises.

"It was very cutthroat," Fred says. "They all had the same customers and the same merchandise, so they had to hustle. They'd stand on the sidewalk: 'Pssst! Hey, buddy. Whaddya got to hock? You need five bucks? I'll give you five bucks. Come inside and I'll fix you up.' Oh, it was funny."

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