Diane Mastrull: Pawnbroker sees uptick at 'the poor man's bank'

Posted: July 10, 2011

Outfitted in two-tone spectator shoes, a bow tie, pleated pants, and a white dress shirt as perfectly pressed as his mustache was groomed, Stanton Myerson, a jeweler's loupe dangling from a chain around his neck, seemed conspicuously out of place as proprietor of a business that sells, among many things, Whoop Ass pepper spray.

That impression was reinforced when the 61-year-old grandfather started to talk and a high-pitched voice emerged from his equally nonintimidating 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pound frame.

Don't be fooled - Myerson is no pushover, no matter how sad the stories customers tell when they come through the door of his shop on 69th Street in Upper Darby, near the Tower Theater and the SEPTA terminal.

In the pawn business, being an emotional wall when confronted with teary tales of woe - or belligerent protests over the price being offered for personal treasures - is critical to success, Myerson maintains.

"If you get sucked in, then you're broke," he said.

He's certainly not that. In this, the 97th year of Lou's Jewelry & Pawn - started by Myerson's father, Louis, in Philadelphia, then headquartered for many years in Chester, and now believed to be the oldest family-owned pawn business in America - annual revenues exceed $2 million.

Myerson, president of the Pennsylvania Pawnbrokers Association and one of 65 licensed pawnbrokers in the state, has noticed an "uptick" in business that he expects will be sustained for at least the next five years.

Along with the surge in gold prices and the financial squeeze many are still feeling, Myerson attributes the influx of new pawnshop visitors to the generally positive exposure the industry - regulated by state banking departments - has been enjoying from such popular cable shows as History's Pawn Stars and truTV's Hardcore Pawn.

"That has catapulted us into the mainstream," Myerson said in his office, one floor above the store. He was seated behind a desk cluttered with paperwork and collectibles, including postcards, inkwells, and a "Stan the Man" nameplate.

On his computer was a letter he recently fired off to state legislators, detailing his concerns about a bill pending in the House that would, Myerson contends, place onerous restrictions and requirements on licensed pawnbrokers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with businesses such as jewelers and antiques dealers doing some of the same work and not regulated by the state Pawnbrokers Act of 1937.

Not that he always pushes back. A focus of antigun demonstrators who took issue with his selling firearms, Myerson gave up the practice and the license to do so in July 2006, concluding that "it was not in our best interest to continue selling them."

He has pulled out of locations he had in Delaware, reducing his onetime chain of five pawnshops to just the Upper Darby store. There one day last week, business was steady at the cashier's window, mostly from men and women with no bank accounts who were cashing checks and taking advantage of another service the eight employees at Lou's provide to attract customers: making utility-bill payments.

"We're still the poor man's bank," Myerson said of the role of the pawnshop, which industrywide has far less of "the sleaze factor" once associated with it, he contended.

The clientele now is "younger, more computer-savvy" and well-educated about the value of merchandise, Myerson said, attributing that to the cable shows and the Web: "With the Internet, they can find out anything about anything at any time."

That has put pressure on profit margins, Myerson admitted. "Because the clients are smarter, our margins are shorter; but that's OK because our volume is greater."

The rule of thumb at Lou's: Any loan is generally 30 percent to 40 percent of the market value of the item put up for it. To give original owners a chance to recoup it, such property is held a minimum of four months - more often, eight to nine months, Myerson said - before it is offered for sale to the general public.

Property can be retrieved upon payment of the loan principal plus interest, which regulators have set at 3 percent a month, Myerson said.

Lou's issues 15,000 loans a year, averaging $100 to $150, with jewelry the most common item brought in to secure funding, said Myerson, who was an economics major in college and in 1980 became an appraiser certified by the Gemological Institute of America because "it gave me credibility."

The robber who held a gun to Myerson's head when he was 15 and left in charge of the family store in Chester for a few hours wasn't interested in credentials - he stole two rings.

The experience didn't shake Myerson's passion for the business. "There is nothing else I wanted to do - period," he said of his career aspirations.

To him, the pawn business is theater. Myerson is a showman.

"My clients love to be entertained," he said. "They love the banter, the interaction."

Not all of them.

Sylvania Jordan of Philadelphia had dropped by Tuesday to unload an accordion a friend had given her that she, a clarinet player, didn't want. Myerson had estimated its age at more than 60 years; its worth, $15.

"The best we could do is use it for parts," he told Jordan, pointing out the instrument's many deficiencies, including jammed bass buttons. "Maybe a paperweight."

Jordan didn't crack a smile.

"Don't sell it for over $100, or I'll be real mad," she snapped on the way out.

Myerson replied: "I know you have $15. Would you like to buy something?"

Diane Mastrull:

To watch a video of the wisecracking Stanton Myerson interacting with customers at his Upper Darby pawnshop, go to www.philly.com/business

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus