WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – Nicholas Tsakoyias leaned over a display of hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry in his Concord, Calif., pawnshop, items brought in by people who found themselves in tough financial spots.

Watches, rings, necklaces, even gold teeth — each piece sold or pawned in just a month at Clayton Jewelry & Loan.

“We’ve always seen very low-income to extremely high-income people walking through our doors,” said Tsakoyias, co-owner of the store. “But now in the last few years, we’re seeing more of the higher-income people. Some people have lost their jobs, lost their homes or have gone through a divorce, so we are seeing a lot more people than we have before.”

Pawnshops have always been a magnet for cash-strapped customers hoping to turn their possessions into quick cash, and the recession is credited with bringing a wider clientele into the stores.

Trouble is, the down economy also is affecting pawnshops, whose owners can no longer afford to buy the run-of-the-mill merchandise coming in the door.

The exception: gold.

The precious metal, always a commodity in the world of pawnshops, is playing an even bigger role today. Gold is fetching about $1,200 an ounce on the spot market in its melted-down form, up about $300 from a year ago.

Still, no two pawnshops are alike.

Some are seeing more high-end jewelry brought in by people in a financial pinch as well as by those who don’t need the money but want to take advantage of gold’s price.

Other shops may not be seeing more customers, but say the ones they do see aren’t buying like they have in the past. Pawnbrokers, in turn, are buying less.

“Retail sales are very quiet,” said Ken Gevertz of Gevertz Jewelry & Loan Co. in North Oakland, Calif. “So, if people aren’t buying a lot of stuff, then you are going to be more particular about what you buy, because you know you are going to have to sit on it for a long period of time. You mostly have to focus on gold and jewelry.”

Pawnbrokers say those bringing in gold items are more likely to sell them outright instead of pawning the jewelry, which provides a short-term loan. When merchandise is pawned, the loan has to be paid back with fees and interest for the item to be reclaimed.

Merchandise purchased at the counter by the pawnbroker or items that pawners fail to reclaim end up on the shelves for purchase by other customers.

Pawnshops that deal in both jewelry and hardware — an industry term for merchandise such as musical instruments — can be a treasure trove of shopping surprises.

Guitars and saxophones can be found for a bargain, but don’t go looking for the latest electronic gadget. Electronics change so quickly and are so disposable in nature, it’s just not worth the trouble to buy them, pawnbrokers said.

“We try to stay away from the old stuff that’s outdated because you can’t do anything with it,” Gevertz said.

When Clayton Jewelry & Loan opened several years ago, the store took in merchandise other than gold — but not anymore, Tsakoyias said.

“We did that more as a convenience for the customer than anything else,” he said. “Electronics change within six months or a year.”

For people who pawn jewelry, it has become more difficult to come up with the money to reclaim it, Tsakoyias said.

Typically, about 90 percent of pawned merchandise is reclaimed, he said, but it’s down to about 70 percent now.

“We have more people losing their jewelry,” he said. “They haven’t been able to get a job.”

Gold isn’t the only jewelry crossing the counter.

Back when times were good, Oakland resident Lisa Thomas bought herself a diamond ring. In March, she found herself at Best Collateral in Oakland to pawn the ring to help pay the rent after she became unemployed last year.

“It was something I bought myself a long time ago,” Thomas said with a chuckle that got lost in a long sigh.

Still, she plans to buck the current trend. “I’m coming back to get it,” she said in a determined voice. “It’s a nice piece of jewelry.”

Steven Suzio, owner of the nearby Oakland Coin & Jewelry Exchange, has also seen fewer people reclaiming their pawned items.

There are “a lot more people having a lot more trouble making ends meet,” he said.

His store’s customer profile, which Suzio said ranges “from the lowest to the highest” incomes, has held steady during the recession, though more people are coming in to sell or pawn items.

“We get people with small, 10-karat gold rings all the way up to Rolexes,” he said. “Times are tough.”

But not for everyone. Some first-time pawnshop patrons are selling gold jewelry to take advantage of its record price.

“Since gold has gone up, some people who actually don’t need the money figure they could get a good price on their gold so they go ahead and sell it,” Tsakoyias said.

Then there are some people who are just aiming to pick up a little cash.

“Pawnshops have always dealt with working-class people of the lower economic structure, people maybe living month to month, some people living week to week, some people living day to day,” said Michael Krasow, president of Pacific Loan Co. in San Francisco.

“It’s holding true but you are seeing a little more (middle-class) people who have extended themselves” or lost a job, he said.

Most of the people who come to his shop are pawning their merchandise rather than selling it.

“You see guitars, TVs, musical instruments, electronic stuff — that’s something they’ve always pawned,” Krasow said. But in his shop, don’t expect to find items featured on “Pawn Stars,” a cable TV show about a Las Vegas pawnbroker.

“One thing is accurate: When (the show’s host) says, ‘You never know what’s going to walk through that door,’ that is very, very true.

“As far as what walks through his door of course, it is in Las Vegas and everything is a stage in Las Vegas, but (the show) gets gliders, they get suits of armor, Soviet missile launchers,” said Krasow, his voice trailing off in a laugh.

“I think it’s staged to some extent.”

Like other pawnshop owners, Krasow said more people are coming in to sell gold.”There is probably 300 grams of gold in this,” he said, displaying a cuff bracelet he bought.

Veron David, a jazz musician who lives in San Francisco, walked in and admired the item.

A longtime Pacific Loan customer, David had stopped by to pawn a musical instrument, something he has been doing for years when money gets tight. This time, it was a keyboard he pawned for $100.

“I’ll get it out in two weeks. These guys have literally kept me floating. I’m not kidding,” David said. “At the end of the day, this is how I manage the financial part of my life.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.