By Alan Prendergast
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Besides, he says, no matter how many mistakes you make in the pawn business, things have a way of working out. For instance: A while back, a customer set a tiny box on the counter. Fred peeked inside, and a glass eye stared back.
"It's my spare," the man said. "It cost me two hundred bucks, but I need twenty. I can't see out of it, but it goes in my head. Here. I'll show you."
"No, no, no," Fred said. "Take the twenty bucks."
The customer never returned for the eye.
"I'm having it made into a tie tack," says Fred.
Mona Pasternack is a small woman with a puff of reddish-brown curls, lavender contact lenses and a diamond-encrusted necklace that flashes "MONA" like a neon sign. She's "over 39 years old" and grew up in west Denver, where her parents owned a grocery store. When she was a child, the only pawnshops she ever saw were from behind the closed windows of her dad's car.
"When I was growing up, Larimer was skid row," she recalls. "My parents used to drive by and watch the drunks. I was totally amazed. I had never been exposed to that element before."
Then she met Fred.
In 1987, twenty years and three kids later, Mona wrote her first pawn ticket. Now, as sales clerk, loan officer, redemption specialist and CEO for the Aurora and Lakewood stores, she's seen it all.
"There's not one element of society we don't cater to," she says. "Every day it's someone different."
Which is why she likes it.
One time, a man walked into Pasternack's wearing Gucci loafers, a silk tie and a tailored suit. He was handsome, well-spoken, professional.
"So, what do you do?" Mona asked.
"Photographer," he said.
"Oh, really? Could you take my daughter's picture for a beauty contest?"
"Sure. Why not?"
Mona took his business card, offered portfolio ideas, shook the man's hand. That night she told Fred the good news. He nearly spit out his dinner.
"He can't do it! He's a pimp!"
Another time, a shifty young man approached the counter with a gold charm bracelet featuring three names. Mona examined the trinket. She recognized the names.
So she stalled the youth, hurried to her office, called a friend.
"Do you have your charm bracelet?"
"Go get it."
"Just go get it."
The woman checked her jewelry box and gasped: "Mona -- it's gone!"
"Yeah, I know. I'm holding it."
As it turned out, the shifty young man had burglarized the woman's home. Mona called the cops, and the thug was arrested. A while later, her friend called: "Have you seen my watch?"
Mona can laugh now, but not every encounter has a happy ending. Some customers are so desperate they'll hock everything from wedding rings to wheelchairs to, yes, body parts.
"A lot of them are just trying feed their children," she says. "Whether it's worth the money or not, we give it to them. We want them to keep their dignity. Without that money, they'd be on the street begging. Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh with them or cry with them."
A prostitute used to hock her jewelry at Pasternack's; she'd take a loan and work the streets until it was paid. When she'd get arrested -- which was often -- she'd call Mona and Fred in the middle of the night to bail her out. And they would, Mona explains, to recover their investment. After a few years of this, they became such good friends that the prostitute carried photos of the Pasternack kids in her wallet.
Late one night, the phone rang again. This time it wasn't the streetwalker. It was Mona's brother, the cop. "I just arrested a hooker who has pictures of my nephew in her wallet," he said. "What's going on?'"
All this time, Mona's brother had been the one arresting the prostitute, while she and Fred kept bailing her out. "Now, that's ironic," Mona says.
But that's how it is at the Pasternack shops. "With some customers, it's more than a business relationship," Mona explains. "It's family."
One regular named Cynthia pops by the Aurora store nearly every morning. She pours herself coffee, settles back for chitchat, catches a little daytime TV. Morris, another fixture, drops by just as often. He leans against the counter, listens to broker Dale Robinson's running soliloquy on do-it-yourself homebuilding, then winds up swapping jeweler's glasses with him. They laugh, squabble, tease each other like siblings.
"You see that sign that says 'Se Habla Yiddish'?" Mona asks. "Well, Dale speaks Yiddish to Asian customers. And they understand each other!"
Each Christmas, Mona hosts a daylong party not only for regular customers, but for anyone who happens to shuffle in off the sidewalk. She used to bake pies, cakes, cookies, brownies and all sorts of goodies. But then customers began placing dessert orders in the middle of July. "That's when I decided it was time to visit King Soopers," she says.
But regulars aren't the only members of this extended family. Half of the pawnbrokers in town are surrogate uncles, aunts and cousins. At one time, Pasternack also employed a stable of old-timers such as Uncle Joe Kosin and hawker emeritus Max Luftig, who could "sell ice to Eskimos."