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Pawn in Sixty Seconds

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

Fred collects teeth, too. Whenever one of his kids or grandkids loses a molar, bicuspid or incisor, he plops it into a jar.

"I'm making a necklace," he says.

Fred dresses like a leprechaun for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and follows the horses with a bucket and a shovel. He was once interviewed by talk-radio host Steve Kelley, who wondered aloud why the imp had been trailing him instead of the mounted patrol.

 
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.

"Because you put out more shit than the horses," the leprechaun replied.

Fred, who's 63, also skis, follows the Broncos, scoots around in a '65 Porsche and volunteers with the Optimists Club and a half-dozen other civic groups. But more than anything, Fred likes to barter. Mona can't count the times she woke to find the family's VCR sold out from under them. One night he even brought in a customer to make an offer on the bedroom TV.

"I hid under the covers," Mona remembers. "I was not a happy camper. But that's how he is. He's never paid retail in his life."

Show him a pair of stereo speakers, a gold necklace or a rabbit rifle, and he'll tell you not only what it's worth, but where you can sell it for a profit. He became so adept at sizing up customers that he even added the following initials to his business card: M.D.

"That stands for 'Maven of Dreck,'" Fred says. "I'm an expert on junk."

But it took a lifetime of mistakes to reach that status. Before he finally was allowed to join the family business, Fred worked as "head shlep" for Capital, a competing pawnshop, and as a salesman at Gart Sports, where he honed his own pitches. But still, Saul considered his nephew a bungling upstart.

Back in the early '60s, during Saul's lunch hour, a customer arrived with a bag of golf clubs. He was a regular: Every few weeks he'd lug in the clubs, and every few weeks Saul would write him a $75 loan. So Fred dispensed the $75 without a second thought. But later, when he unzipped the bag to copy the serial numbers, Fred uncovered the scam: The man had left him with woods only, no irons.

"What?" Saul said. "You're going to eat that $75, punk."

But Fred's uncle had an ace up his sleeve: The customer had a sax in hock. When he came to claim it, Saul pulled his nephew aside and told him: "Watch and learn."

Saul tallied figures, calculated interest, added taxes, spoke a mile a minute with that slight lisp of his. The customer owed only $150 on the horn, but after Saul finished with him, he handed over $225.

"I saw him do it and I still don't know what happened," Fred recalls. "He never said a word about the clubs. He just picked a number from the air. And the guy never argued. No one did. That's the way he was. Customers gave him money and hugged him afterward. I asked him, 'What did you do?' He said, 'None of your goddamn business' and threw the $75 in my face."

Fred checked every golf club from that moment on. Even so, mishaps continued. One time a customer set three loose diamonds on the counter. He wanted $800, but Fred offered only $600, so the man shopped around. After a few hours, he returned: "I'll take the $600."

Fred examined the stones, which appeared to be the same size, shape and cut, then handed over the cash. But when he placed the rocks on display, Fred realized his mistake: Between his first and second visits, the customer had replaced the real diamonds with fakes.

"I took my loss," he says. "You learn. You move on."

In 1969, Fred moved into his own building. His uncle had died three years after Sam passed away, and many of the original tenants of Pawnshop Row were being pushed out by urban renewal, which would level dozens of buildings and replace them with parking lots and a few high-rises. Although some pawnshops left Larimer altogether, for Broadway or a few faded storefronts along East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, others, like Pasternack, just moved further up Larimer.

Fred painted his building at 2119 Larimer orange and black, hung a 35-foot neon sign in front that proclaimed it was now "Pasternack's Pawnshop," scribbled "Lucky Money" above the window to attract the dog-racing crowd and had the walls painted with caricatures of himself flinging dollar bills into the air. Later, he even added a Pasternack sign in the alley.

The self-promotion paid off. Fred later bought out smaller pawnshops, opened a second store at 9745 East Colfax Avenue in 1983 and then opened a third satellite at 6851 West Colfax in Lakewood eleven years later. What had started as a two-man operation blossomed into a 27-employee family dynasty. On some weekends, the original store was so busy that Fred would yell, "Close the doors, I'm going blind!"

"Until the chains came in, I was the biggest," Fred says. "My uncle and my dad had a great business, but I did better. I expanded. They would have never taken the chance. They never bought property. They never owned their own store. To the day they died, they rented. Why? You tell me. But I'll tell you this: The guy who never takes a chance never grows."

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