In the past 100 years, the number of pawn shops has skyrocketed in the United States. During the Great Depression era, pawn shops were among the only institutions offering cash as banks failed and people were forced to give up their cherished items to make ends meet. Today, whether in big cities and small towns, pawn shops are still a primary place people can go to turn their items into cash. These shops operate as mini-banks for millions of Americans who do not hold checking accounts, and they also serve as an area of exchange for people of all class backgrounds to buy and sell unique, rare or coveted items. Electronics, musical instruments and distinctive pieces of clothing are also commonly pawned items.
The pawn shop industry has been criticized at times for preying upon the poor with inflated interest rates and low-balling the value of goods in order to turn a profit. But organizations such as the National Pawnbrokers Association, established in 1988, contend that their industry offers a viable solution for those in need of cash. Pawn shops are required to uphold clear regulations about the terms of the pawn contract and the amount of interest on the cash loans. Each pawned item is also registered to prevent the sale of stolen items.
Pawn shops are repositories of history, holding antiques, jewelry, furniture and other items that have been passed from generation to generation. Their owners may genuinely know their source, or offer tales of where they believe items came from and how much they are worth. Of course, pawn brokers do their own assessment of each item, estimating its age, authenticity and value on the open market. Along the way, they develop a unique set of skills, sniffing out the authentic from the fake, the valuable from the worthless and the art of driving a hard bargain.