Mike Fink was dumbfounded last month when he opened a letter from Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck inviting him to an awards ceremony to receive some kind of recognition.
“I called them back,” Fink said, sitting in the cluttered back room of his pawn shop on Congress Street. “I asked, ‘Are you sure about this – that it’s me you are giving an award to?’ ”
Yes, the pawnbroker was told, the police are sure.
So on Saturday, Fink will be one of 13 citizens and more than two dozen officers and police department employees who will be recognized during the Portland Police Annual Awards Breakfast, at the Ocean Gateway terminal. He’ll be the only one honored in part for his skills as a video producer.
Fink’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/guitargrave, features videos of customers trying to pawn stolen goods in the store, Guitar Grave. Police also are shown coming into the shop, to inquire about stolen goods or ask for Fink’s help identifying suspects.
The collection of 40 videos, called “Tales from the Grave,” features comical sound effects, such as corny soundtracks from 1960s police dramas, and serves the dual purpose of identifying lawbreakers and amusing the shop’s staff and the YouTube channel’s small but loyal following.
“I like it because I can safely view some of Portland’s eccentrics without having to be in the room to experience it,” said one fan, Rick Dalton, a cab driver in Portland.
An employee of the shop, Mark Belanger, edits the video, which is shot with a Sony camcorder that a customer pawned for cash.
Not all of Fink’s videos are crime-related. Some show funny encounters at the counter or ranting customers who think they’re getting raw deals – sometimes followed by store employees laughing as soon as the customers leave.
Some are heartwarming. In the “Paying it Forward Episode,” a woman steps up with $20 to help a deflated young man who is short on cash buy the guitar of his dreams. “This is like one of those moments you read about when humankind just comes to the fore,” the man says.
But it’s the crime episodes that show why Fink is a favorite of police.
In the short episode “We just stole it,” Finks tells a would-be trio of customers that he’s not interested in buying a cellphone because they’re old and the manufacturer went out of business years ago.
As the trio walks out of the store, a woman says, “He’s such a liar. … We just stole it!”
A five-minute episode filmed in October, “Stolen wedding ring,” has three scenes: the attempt to sell a stolen ring to Fink, who takes it and calls police; the police interview with Fink; then a visit by the grateful owner who got his wedding band back.
A message attached to the video asks viewers to call police if they recognize the suspect.
One of Fink’s video episodes, “Know him? We’ve got his ID!” shows a uniformed police officer walk into the store and show Fink a photo of a suspect. “Does this guy look familiar to you?” asks the cop, identified in the video as “Officer Awesome.”
Fink looks at the photo and casually says, “Yeah. Yeah, I know who it is.”
“Oh my God,” the officer says, raising his hands and looking up as if receiving a gift from heaven. “When was the last time you’ve seen him?”
“It’s been quite a while,” Fink deadpans as he riffles through some papers on his cluttered counter.
“I think he’s been stealing presents, Christmas stuff,” the officer explains.
“OK, I believe that. I think he stole something from a customer here. I didn’t catch him, but I didn’t return that,” Fink says as he tosses an ID onto the counter in front of the cop.
“You have his ID?” the officer says, smiling as if he’d just received a Christmas present himself. “You are the man.”
Fink, 60, has been in business in Portland for a decade, after moving up from Biddeford. In August, he closed his sandwich shop next door to the Guitar Grave, blaming disruptive anti-abortion protests targeting the nearby Planned Parenthood clinic.
Over the years, Fink has helped police recover thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen precious metals, stones, electronics and other goods, the police department said in a news release.
Sauschuck said in an interview that Fink has built a collaborative relationship with the police. “He’s a responsible businessman who has his eyes open. He knows when people don’t seem right,” Sauschuck said.
Fink said a burglar stole items from his home a few years ago, so he knows the feelings of anger and loss that linger after a theft.
He said he gets a lot of satisfaction when people or the police come into the store to retrieve stolen property.
“It pays to be honest,” he said. “It’s not that hard, and it’s more fulfilling in the long run.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org