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Friday, May 02, 2008 11:49 PM

Pawnshop Society

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A telling sign of overconsumption can be seen in the now booming pawnshop business.

Carin Dillingham handed over her watch to the pawnbrokers at Society Hill Loan as if she were giving up one of her bones.

The 30-year-old bookkeeper stood pregnant, broke and sad under rows of pawned guitars hanging like curing hams from the ceiling of the ragged South Street shop. She got a $20 loan for her $200 Bulova, a gift from the Harley-Davidson Co., where she used to work.

"It feels so weird," said Dillingham, accompanied by her fiance, Pat Lapetina, 35, an unemployed ironworker doing painting jobs on the side. The couple recently moved to South Philadelphia from Florida to build a life.

"I worked hard for this watch. I'm middle-class, not poor. I can't believe I have to do this to buy gas."

"People are cleaning out their houses of gold, silver, whatever, to get money just to fill their cars with gas," said Nat Leonard, 51, whose grandfather opened Society Hill in 1929. "People are pawning out like crazy." "I've got business owners coming in to pawn things just to make their payrolls," Leonard said, incredulous. "I've never seen that before."

"Upper-income people are in pawnshops nowadays, needing money right away to meet payments," said Bill Stull, chairman of the department of economics at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management.

"We are in an economy in which many people are living right at the margins, even middle- and upper-income people. They have little savings, they've borrowed so much, their credit-card bills are high, and their house values are going down."

Over at Carver W. Reed & Co., a pawnshop at 10th and Sansom Streets since Lincoln was president, more and more higher-echelon people are filing in, owner Tod Gordon said.

"The upper middle class is feeling the crunch like never before," he said. "They're bringing in diamonds and gold to pay for margin calls on stocks. There's a feeling of despair.

And the shop is holding 30 guitars, worth $170,000, that a Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia musician owned. "He bought a bunch of properties right when everything in the economy was hitting the fan," Leonard said. "I feel awful about it. I don't want to sell his stuff out."

Of course, as always, things are worse at the bottom of the ladder.

"I'm seeing people extending their loans, unable to pay back their $100 loans for diapers, food, medicine," said Bob Sink, owner of JR Auto Tags & Pawnshop in Bristol Township.

"These folks are making $10 an hour or whatever working at Home Depot and can't cut down on expenses any more," Sink said. "So they borrow against a gold chain or a new tool. The economy is really hurting them."

Also stung are young people, hitting pawnshops in unprecedented numbers.

"We never saw so many people in here 30 and younger," Society Hill associate Damien Robinson said. He spoke as a 22-year-old Neumann College graduate walked out with a $75 loan on her Dell laptop computer. "What are young people going to do for rent now that apartments are so expensive?"
Flea Market Boom

Online auctions show desperation amidst flea market boom.
The for-sale listings on the online hub Craigslist come with plaintive notices, like the one from the teenager in Georgia who said her mother lost her job and pleaded, "Please buy anything you can to help out."

Or the seller in Milwaukee who wrote in one post of needing to pay bills — and put a diamond engagement ring up for bids to do it.

Struggling with mounting debt and rising prices, faced with the toughest economic times since the early 1990s, Americans are selling prized possessions online and at flea markets at alarming rates.

To meet higher gas, food and prescription drug bills, they are selling off grandmother's dishes and their own belongings. Some of the household purging has been extremely painful — families forced to part with heirlooms.

"This is not about downsizing. It's about needing gas money," said Nancy Baughman, founder of eBizAuctions, an online auction service she runs out of her garage in Raleigh, N.C. One former affluent customer is now unemployed and had to unload Hermes leather jackets and Versace jeans and silk shirts.

At Craigslist, which has become a kind of online flea market for the world, the number of for-sale listings has soared 70 percent since last July. In March, the number of listings more than doubled to almost 15 million from the year-ago period.

Craigslist CEO Jeff Buckmaster acknowledged the increasing popularity of selling all sort of items on the Web, but said the rate of growth is "moving above the usual trend line." He said he was amazed at the desperate tone in some ads.

Christine Hadley, a 53-year-old registered nurse from Reading, Pa., says she used to be "a clotheshorse," splurging on pricey Dooney & Bourke handbags. But her live-in boyfriend left last year, and she has had trouble finding a job.

Piles of unpaid bills forced her to sell more than 80 items, including the handbags, which went for more than $1,000 on a site called AuctionPal.com. Now, except for some artwork and threadbare furniture, her house is looking sparse.

"I need the money for essentials — to pay my bills and to eat," Hadley said.

For LiveDeal.com, a classifieds and business directory site, for-sale listings for January through March rose 10 percent from the previous year.

"We can definitely detect economic stress on the part of the consumer," said John Raven, the site's chief operating officer.

On Craigslist, Buckmaster said, three of the four fastest-growing for-sale categories are tied to gas — recreational vehicles like campers and trailers, cars and trucks, and boats.

Donations to the Salvation Army were down 20 percent in the January-to-March period. George Hood, the charity's national community relations and development secretary, said that was probably partly because people were selling their belongings instead.
A Tank Of Gas, Then What?

Say you pawn your $200 watch for $20. That does not even buy a tank of gas. What do you do for your next tank of gas?

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
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