Pawn in Sixty Seconds
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?"
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.
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."
Charles Kaufman worked for the Pasternacks eleven years before taking over Al's Loan and Luggage at 2134 Larimer. He remembers customers becoming so confused by which store was which that they'd wander into the wrong shop and make payments on nonexistent loans. The clerks pocketed the money anyway.
"Oh, it was rough," Kaufman says. "Back then, it was mostly suits, and if the customers didn't have the suits wrapped up, they'd snatch them away. 'How much they offer you? Twelve bucks? We'll give you fifteen.' Boy, they gave us trouble. You have no idea."
Yet Pasternack held its own. Saul was the best sidewalk pitchman on Pawnshop Row, and Kaufman ran a close second; the brothers hired him straight from high school. Saul was so worried about losing his gifted protegé that he practically staked out Union Station for the day Kaufman would return from World War II.
"I got out on a Friday, and I was back at work on Monday," Kaufman recalls.
The brothers were aggressive, but they were also ethical: They always gave customers a chance to buy back their merchandise, no matter how long it took.
"You can't be a one-way son of a bitch," Kaufman explains. "If you have it, you give it back to them. The customer is more important than what's in the showcase. Saul was a square guy. That's how we had the trade. People trusted us."
"Look at it this way," Fred says. "If a guy needed money -- if times were tough, he was down on his luck, he needed $50 for a week's groceries -- he couldn't go to a bank. He couldn't wait around for them to approve his loan. He'd starve to death. He needed that money now. So where did he go? He went to people like my dad and my uncle. That's how they always considered themselves: poor man's bankers."
But if you heard the brothers talk, you'd think they were in the poorhouse.
"They used to cry all the time: 'Oh, it's dead. No one's coming. Business is terrible,'" Fred recalls. "But they cried all the way to the bank. They could have owned the city of Denver at one time. They had money when people didn't know how to spell 'money.' They were like millionaires. My dad had a car when he was eighteen! That's like owning a jet plane today."
Yet whenever anyone asked Sam what his line of work was, he always replied: "Jeweler."
"In my dad's mind, it was a low-life business," Fred says. "Maybe because of the people who went in. Maybe because it was used merchandise. I never knew. But he never wanted me to be a pawnbroker. He always wanted me to be something better than he was, like a doctor. But I didn't want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to be a pawnbroker."
Fred eventually got his wish, but not the way he wanted: In 1962, Sam had a heart attack and died. The next day, Fred arrived at the pawnshop to replace his father.
So this guy walks into Pasternack and says he needs ten bucks. Fred asks him what he has for collateral, and the man says: "My teeth."
"I'll be back for them tomorrow," the guy says. "I promise."
"All right," Fred sighs. "Go around back and wash them out in the sink."
The guy heads to the back and washes his teeth out in the sink. Fred slips them into a plastic bag, locks them in a safe, hands over the ten bucks. The next day, the guy collects his teeth as promised.
A week later, the same guy arrives with the same teeth and asks for the same deal. Fred rolls his eyes and hands him the cash.
This continues for almost five years, as regular as clockwork.
"Can you imagine?" Fred recalls. "I must have made $1,000 interest on those teeth. But he needed $10, so I took them."
Several days later, an old woman waddles by the store, scowls at the display, swings open the door.
"I want to try on the bottoms."
"Ma'am," Fred explains. "They only go as a pair."
"I want to try them on anyway."
Fred hands her the bottoms and without washing them off, the woman slaps the teeth into place, then swivels her jaw.
"Oooo. Pretty good. How much?"
"Tell you what," Fred says. "For ten bucks, I'll throw in the tops."
The woman says: "Here's your money."
A few things about Fred.
He loves to cut weeds. Any time of the day or night, whether he's dressed in jeans or a suit, he'll spot an errant leaf, unkempt shrub or homely plant, reach for his tools and hack away.
"Once I was driving down the street, and I saw him standing on top of his truck trimming the city's trees," recalls Fred's ex-wife, Mona. "All the bushes around our house always looked brand-new. It's like his therapy or something."
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.
"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."
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."
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."
"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.
"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.
"She knows she can always come here and get fifty bucks," Scott says. And when she's repaid it, "I even deliver the VCR to her house and hook it up."
Some of his services are more modest. "I love flipping coins," Scott says. "Customers love it. If you have fun, they have fun. Everything has its price."
One recent morning at the Lakewood store, Mona had just settled in for her caffeine fix when a customer arrived. So she set down her favorite mug, which featured a prehistoric "Shopasaurus" on the side, and got to work. After the customer left, she reached for her coffee.
"Where did it go? It was just here."
"Someone made me an offer," he said. "So I sold it."
Last September, the neon sign outside the Pasternack's on Larimer flickered off for good. After 81 years, the time had come to leave the neighborhood.
"It was sad," Mona says. "But it was the right decision. The whole area is nothing but yuppies now."
She put the sign in storage, sold the building "for a good price," taped a note on the door listing the addresses of the Aurora and Lakewood stores.
Fred wasn't there to see it: He and Mona divorced in 1995. She got the pawnshops and he retired, figuring "she could have the headaches." He now spends his time skiing, pulling weeds, following the Broncos, haggling over the price of mountain bikes and chainsaws. He updated his business card to read: "No Job, No Prospects, No Worries." When he needed a wedding ring for his new wife, he visited a pawnshop.
"Naturally," he says. "Once you have it in your blood, it never leaves."
Although he agrees with Mona's decision to close the Larimer store, it's still sad to drive by an empty building where he spent much of his life. An empty building that could one day house retail shops catering to those yuppies.
"It's the end of an era," Fred says.
A while back, a guy walks into the Pasternack's store in Aurora -- this must be a few weeks ago -- and says he needs twenty bucks.
"Okay," says the broker, Dale Robinson. "Whaddya got?"
The guy grins.
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