Pawn in Sixty Seconds

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

"Those guys were old-school," Mona recalls. "They'd tell customers, 'Don't waste my time. Give me the money.' Some worked until they were ninety years old. They'd come in, take naps on a big leather chair and spring to life when customers arrived."

Once, Uncle Joe fell into such a catatonic slumber that a new customer couldn't rouse him. "We got a pair of cymbals and crashed them over his head," Mona chuckles. "He hardly moved. We thought he was dead. He scared us to death."

The gallery of characters is endless.

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.

"You can't help but have your life enriched by them," Mona says. "The real people wear blue jeans."

So a couple of brokers are lounging on Larimer one day -- this must be back in the '70s -- when a station wagon pulls to the curb between Pasternack's and Cub Loan. The driver walks around back and begins unloading a drum kit.

"Let me help you with that," Fred says, springing forward, leaving his competitors eating dust. "Come inside the store and I'll fix you up."

A few minutes later, Fred and his customer return to get the rest of the drums from the car -- but they're gone.

"Hey," says Alan Shur of Cub Loan. "I've got them at my place. Go get the other two and I'll give you a pawn."

"No way," Fred says. "I'll give him the pawn."

"No," Alan says. "I'll give him the pawn."

Fred shoves Alan.

Alan shoves Fred.

Around they go, slapping and fumbling and flailing around like a couple of third-graders, when suddenly, Alan snatches Fred's hairpiece and flings it into the gutter.

"It's alive!" someone shouts.

"Kill it! Kill it!"

Al stomps the toupee into roadkill.

Fred watches Alan exhaust himself. Then he slaps the mangled rug on his head, corrals the customer and closes the deal.

Fred and Mona have three children.

At 23, Phyll is the youngest. She used to work at a flower shop, and when she finally took a job at Pasternack's, she fitted all the pens with plastic blossoms. She's the Pasternack "who does not love the pawn business the most," Mona says.

Paul is the middle kid. He's 25. He wanted to be an astronaut. Then he grew to be 6'4" and informed his mother that he was too tall to fit inside the space shuttle. He plays 3-D chess, speaks Klingon to customers and once "took down" a hapless robber with an unloaded shotgun. He's the Pasternack computer whiz.

Scott, 32, is the oldest. He played school football, attended college a few years, later became a gemologist. He's now pursuing his own pawnshop "M.D."

"I know a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing," he says.

Scott is stocky and compact, with his dad's large nose, receding hairline and restless energy. Like his siblings, he practically grew up on Larimer. Each night over dinner he, Paul and Phyll would hear who'd pawned what, to whom and for how much. But his most vivid memory isn't the bartering or the characters.

When he was ten, he was visiting the Larimer Street Pasternack's for the day when several gunmen burst in. They pistol-whipped Fred, placed a gun to Scott's head and ordered customers and employees to lie on the floor. While the robbers rummaged for cash, a plainclothes security guard slipped a gun from his holster. Two gunman were hit.

"It was scary," Scott says. "But it was never a deterrent for wanting to work there. If anything, it made the desire stronger."

It shows. The Lakewood store, which Scott manages, is a monument to the family's success. Filling a space that once housed a lumber business, it's huge, packed wall to wall with the usual assortment of electric guitars, TVs, guns and gold chains. But it also features items found only at Pasternack's. An orange Broncos bowling ball. A pair of wooden cigar-store Indians. A set of prehistoric maglidon teeth.

"It's a monster shark," Scott says. "They're fourteen million years old."

The Lakewood shop is also more refined. There are no bars on the windows, no cages encircling the loan counter, no pawnbrokers prowling the sidewalks.

"It's cleaned up now," Scott says.

The pawn business itself is more regulated these days. Gun purchases are screened by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Interest rates are regulated by the state. Merchandise in hock is spot-checked by police. Customers are fingerprinted and photographed.

"And if they like their picture, we give it to them," Scott says.

The competition is stiffer, too. Twenty years ago, there were probably fifty pawnshops in metro Denver. Today that figure has more than doubled. Corporate chains such as Pawn One, US Pawn, EZ Pawn and Cash America have gobbled up family-owned operations, hiring clerks with little experience and relying on quick merchandise turnover to raise profits.

"They only care about the money," Scott says. "The mom-and-pops like us, we care about the money, too, but we also care about the people."

For example, on the first of each month, a 72-year-old woman brings Scott her VCR. He pawns it for $50. Without the money, she can't make her electric bill.

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