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Pawnshop oddities reflect Gulf struggles

By Josh Rubin, CNN
  • Gulf pawnshop reports more middle-class clients in wake of oil spill
  • Shop's unique items include toilet-seat guitar, "Dukes of Hazzard" script, "Sopranos" shirt
  • "We're seeing a lot more high-end jewelry," says owner
  • Recession is changing stereotypes often linked to pawnshops, he says

Gulfport, Mississippi (CNN) -- A man walks into a pawnshop in Gulfport, Mississippi. Others may bring guitars or a piece of jewelry, but this man has something special.

It's a 16th century blunderbuss from Japan. Kevin Riley, the owner of Dad's Super Pawn, gingerly turned the 500-year-old weapon over in his hands, examining the antique with an expert eye. "Wow that's pretty cool," he said.

Pawnshops are wonderlands of the obscure. In Dad's there's a jersey signed by cast members of TV's "Sopranos" that was picked up from a rabid fan, a guitar made from a toilet seat that was sold to the store by a band member down on his luck and a script from TV's original "Dukes of Hazzard."

"We paid pretty good money for it because it was unique," Riley said of the script. "I honestly don't think it's a seller, it's just a conversation piece." There's always a lot to talk about in a pawnshop. Every item has a story.

You can tell a lot about the health of a community based on the items people are selling.

There is a glut of power tools on the shelves, speaking to a lack of new construction in Gulfport.

Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession and now the Gulf oil disaster have battered the town's economy. More first-time pawners are coming to the shop and they're bringing with them the mementos of better days, said Riley.

"We've been seeing a lot more high-end jewelry, one-, two-, three-carat diamonds," he said. "Stuff that people bought when the economy was booming and are now having to sell." Mississippi's middle-class have become new customers.

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Pawnbrokers are often portrayed in the media as fencers of stolen property, predatory lenders or simply people who prey on folks who are down on their luck. The current economy is changing these stereotypes, according to Riley.

"The average person pawning stuff right now ... is the blue-collar guy out there working and trying to make ends meet," he said. "Right now the job market is terrible and there are a lot of people not working, so in order to feed the family they've got to get some money."

The owner of the Japanese rifle said he'd been offered $4,000 for the gun. Riley politely told him that he needed to do some research before he would commit to buying it.

"Similar guns are selling for between $400 and $2,000, but I need to make sure that it's not a replica," said Riley.

Riley said he's been successful in the pawnbroker business by being not only shrewd, but also fair with his clients, some of whom have been coming to him for years.

A regular customer can expect to make slightly more on a sale or pawn then someone just walking in off the street, he said.

"We're not in the power tool business or the musical instrument business, we're in the people business ... 99 percent of our customers are good people, they're just not money managers," said Riley. "That's their biggest problem. They don't know how to sit down with a budget because it was never taught to them."