M-F 9-5:30 P.M.
Sat. 9-1 P.M.
IN HOCK FOR THIRTY YEARS
Published: Sunday, July
Section: FEATURES SUNSHINE
By Jonathon King
THEY CARRY NAMES IN neon like ``Hock It To
Kingdom`` and ``Top Dollar Pawn.``
the outside they promise loans, cash and ``top-grade merchandise
always on sale.`` On the inside
you will find capitalism in its purest and
Yet a pawnshop is more than a bank or store. It is a place where an
unfortunate man can rent
time to regain his luck, a desperate man can
gamble a piece of his soul for a second chance,
an entrepreneurial man
can turn a retread into a deal.
And in shops where it is done right, you may find one person behind the
counter who is banker
and salesman, jeweler and gunsmith, speculator
HAL SABRA, 67, HAS DONE IT right for three decades.
In 1962, Sabra`s cousin, Irving
Freedman, opened Sunrise Pawnbrokers
in Fort Lauderdale and coaxed Hal down from New York to
From a building on Sunrise Boulevard, which now houses the Musicians
Exchange, they ran one of only three pawnbrokers in the city at the time.
Although the shop moved to Federal Highway near Oakland Park
Boulevard in 1974, Sabra kept the
name ``so we wouldn`t lose our old
customers.`` He is now semi-retired, but his sons Mark and
continue a family tradition.
``In the early
years we were putting everything we made back into the
store,`` says Hal. ``Pawnbroking didn`t
have a very good reputation here
and it was not an easy business to keep going.``
``As late as the `70s my uncle predicted that pawnbroking was dying,``
Mark Sabra, who has worked with his father for 19 years. ``It was
one of the few times he was
Today there are 70 pawnshops listed in the Fort Lauderdale phone book.
There are only 56 different banks listed in the same directory.
``Pawnshops these days are the only place to go for people who can`t get
credit or want to borrow
a small amount of money,`` says Steve Sabra.
``Have you gone into a bank lately and tried to
borrow $50 or $100?
They`d laugh you out the door.``
When you walk into the Sabras` shop there is a long glass case on one
wall displaying a collection
of jewelry -- everything from simple diamond
rings to an eight-pointed medallion best suited
for a purple ribbon and the
neck of some cherished citizen or Third World dictator.
Against another wall, rifles and shotguns are mounted. From the ceiling
hang a half-dozen guitars, both acoustic and electric. New luggage is
stacked in one corner.
The place has the feel of an old consignment store,
until you get to the counter on the far end.
There the back rooms are
guarded by a thick, wire-mesh barrier.
If your perception of a pawnshop was formed by movie scenes where a
nervous young man rushes
in to hock a TV or an old sot staggers in to
pawn a sprung watch for a few bucks, welcome to
one man`s version of
pawnbroking in the real world.
``Actually, we`re close to the Bayview section of town, so we get quite a
few customers who are
well off,`` says Hal.
``I remember a Saturday when a guy pulled up to the curb
in a Mercedes,
came in and slapped down a $20,000 watch for a $500 loan. He was
taking a weekend trip to the Keys. Of course, maybe it was a
spur-of-the-moment thing. Maybe
he missed the bank on Friday.``
As Sabra talks, a stretch limousine pulls up outside.
A man who describes
himself as an entrepreneur comes in, pays off the loan on a few pieces of
gold jewelry and praises the percentage rate.
get a better deal anywhere. And I know,`` he says as he
``In this business, you get people from the lowest economic group to the
highest,`` says Mark
Sabra. ``The secret is, you treat them all the same.``
THE WORKINGS OF A PAWNSHOP
are ancient and simple:
Say you bring in a Rolex
worth $10,000. You want to take out a $1,000
loan and use the watch as collateral.
Pawnbrokers have no set rule for how much they will loan on an item. The
amount that can be borrowed is always based on how salable the piece
will be if you don`t come
back to reclaim it.
``You assess each loan individually,`` says Mark Sabra. ``Things
carat diamonds and Rolex watches are a sure bet for resale. They`re
generally good for colla- teral.``
But even if you paid $5,000 for that gold-plated
antique gargoyle, don`t
expect much of a loan.
my chances of reselling it are bad, your chances of getting a loan on it
are bad,`` says Mark.
He says this despite the fact that there is a 14-karat gold toothpick in the
glass case and a set of conga drums in the corner. I point out the 1940s
typewriter on the shelf
and a row of cameras at least as old sitting on
Sometimes, the Sabras admit, the loan is based on the character of the
person doing the borrowing.
That`s when a pawnbroker puts on his
psychologist`s hat and makes an assessment based on a few
conversation and a lifetime behind the counter.
``I try to judge whether a person will be a good risk,`` says Steve, who
has a degree in psychology
from the University of Florida. ``If there`s
something about him that tells me he`s going to
come back and pay off his
loan, I`ll give it to him.``
But whatever the collateral or the character of the borrower, the Sabras
say they always advise
customers to borrow only what they need.
``Don`t overextend yourself so that you`re
unable to repay the loan,``
of what is brought in for collateral is eventually returned.
The rest is laid out for sale.
``I`d be the happiest man in the world if I never had merchandise to sell,``
says Hal. ``We`d rather see you come back for your property and do
business with us again.``
The Sabras` repeat customers are legendary.
describe a woman, now in her 70s, who has been a customer for
more than 20 years.
``We call her the poor little rich lady,`` says Mark. ``She lives on a trust
fund that is doled out on a limited basis. So when she wants to go on a
spree or buy something
special, she comes here, takes out a loan and
repays it when she gets the next check from her
Another steady customer brings in his golf clubs on Mondays to borrow
$30 or $40 and then pays off the loan by Friday, so he`ll have his clubs
for the weekend.
After 30 years, the regulars include family members that go back
Hal Sabra attributes the
longtime relationships with his firm`s strict policy
``We had the husband from a very, very wealthy family in town who was
here taking a loan last week,`` says Steve. ``Obviously, he didn`t want
his wife or his accountant
to know about the transaction. He`s been doing
this for years.
``Well, his wife also comes in here every once in a while, without him
knowing about it, to see
if she can find a deal on a piece of jewelry or
``So last week the husband is in taking out a loan and not two hours later,
the wife comes in
and buys something. If one had come in while the other
was here, who knows?``
SUNRISE PAWNBROKERS make six-month loans and charge
If you pay back the loan in a week or a month, it`s five percent. If
take the six months, it`s five percent each month.
So on a $1,000 loan for a Rolex, you pay back $50 if you claim it in a
month or less. If you
wait the entire six months, you pay $300.
``If you want to extend the loan, you
pay the $300 and we start all over
again,`` says Steve.
Some pawnshops make 30- and 60-day loans and charge as much as 20
percent a month.
``It`s just like in banking or getting a mortgage -- you have to shop
says Steve Sabra.
By city ordinance, pawnbrokers in Fort Lauderdale require a borrower
make out paperwork with a detailed description of each item being
pawned and a description of the borrower. They require two forms of
identification, and your
thumb- print is affixed to the signed loan form. The
precautions weed out an element that the
Sabras admit have given the
business a bad reputation.
``A few years ago it had gotten so bad that the city drew up its own
ordinance requiring the
ID forms and the thumbprint,`` says Fort
Lauderdale detective Dave Langston.
When Langston started working with the pawnbrokers six years ago, he
over a dozen stores. Now he deals with 60.
``It`s a booming business, and, yes,
there are still some sleazy places out
there,`` he says. ``We recover about $200,000 in stolen
the stores each year. But we have a pretty good rapport with the owners,
and in some cases they do a public service by alerting us when something
suspicious comes in.``
Mark Sabra says he constantly gets people in the shop looking
for an item
stolen from them during a burglary. He tells them they won`t find it at
``If some kid walks in with a three-carat diamond, he is not getting a
here,`` he says.
``After 30 years you can spot
them coming,`` adds Hal. ``You get people
trying to tempt you all the time, but it`s just not
worth it to us.
``We sleep soundly at night. That`s worth more to us than the extra
money we might make dealing stolen goods.``
The Sabras have never been robbed in 30 years, though an unstable man
was once found chipping
away at their back wall with a hammer and
``The sound-sensitive alarm picked up the noise and the cops arrived,``
recalls Mark. ``He`d
been at it for a while, but he didn`t get far.``
Still, the Sabras do take weapons
``I know a great deal about guns, but I`ve never fired one,`` Mark
Yet firearms are not the most uncomfortable items to deal with.
``The hardest thing is when you`re working with people who are pawning
items they`re attached to emotionally,`` says Mark.
The Sabras have seen untold
numbers of engagement rings and wedding
bands, family heirlooms and personal momentos.
A priceless piece of memorabilia formerly owned by one of the greatest
heavyweight fighters in the world sits in the safe behind the mesh. It is a
silver money clip
studded with a diamond, ruby and sapphire and
commemorates one of the greatest fights in history.
It was pawned years
ago by one of the fighter`s relatives, who was down on her luck. The
Sabras agree to show it only if the fighter`s name is not revealed.
The relative has since moved away and has never come back to claim the
money clip. Although collectors
have often offered to buy the piece, the
Sabras are content to leave it in the safe, awaiting
a family member who
may never return.
the sad stories,`` says Steve Sabra, ``when people come to
us as a last resort and turn over
items that are important to them.``
``We have an older woman who has been coming
in for years, turning
over a few pieces of jewelry, getting small loans that she says she needs
for her son,`` says Mark.
When the woman`s social-security
check arrives, she pays off the loan
and carries away her tiny collection until the next crisis.
PAWNSHOPS ARE NOT ALWAYS KNOWN for their benevolence.
original business of pawnbroking was fair by decree.
According to accounts in Deuteronomy
and Exodus, pawnbrokers in
biblical times could not practice usury -- the charging of exorbitant
Scholars say that the three golden
balls, the traditional sign of the
pawnbroker, may have derived from the Medici coat-of-arms.
Medici was a powerful Italian family that directed the destiny of Florence
from the 15th century until 1737. They rose to immense wealth and
influence as merchants and
As for the Sabras, they say they haven`t gained immense wealth in 30
``But every day is an adventure. It never gets boring,``
In the pawn business, the Sabras say you can always count on the
irregularities of the economy and the customers.
think that we do really well in bad economic times. But actually,
it`s just the opposite,`` says
``People are more likely to take a loan in good times, when they`re pretty
sure they`ll be able to pay it off and get their merchandise back. They`ll
overextend when they see good times coming.``
Human nature shows itself in odd
fashion at a pawnshop.
There`s the millionaire who browses on occasion and once
heavy gold chain as a collar for his dog.
There`s the fellow who came in with his bagpipes every few months for
about two years.
``He`d borrow $50 or so and always come back to retrieve his
instrument,`` recalls Mark. ``I gave him the loan, but it was a requirement
that he play the
bagpipes before he left.``
Then there are those who try to pass off a fake. The
Sabras can spot a
knockoff Rolex or a cubic zirconia coming over the counter faster than a
``Sometimes they know, sometimes they don`t,``
says Steve. ``The
people who really don`t know are shocked when you tell them. They`ll
say, `I just bought this from a guy for $5,000 last month, it can`t be fake.`
``Well, I can`t help it if they buy a watch from `some guy.` All I can do is
tell them the truth.``
Dealing with first-timers is always a challenge.
``People are often embarrassed when they visit a pawnshop for the first
time,`` says Steve.
``Sometimes it`s a choice of last resort and they don`t
know what to expect.
``You have to treat a first-time customer like a virgin. Be gentle, make
them feel comfortable and show them that your motives are honorable.``
you convince them, you have a customer for life, adds Hal, who has
known people rich and poor
who will never set foot in a bank as long as
there`s a good pawnshop in town.
``It`s not fancy and it`s not complicated,`` says Hal. ``It`s just a service
that is there for you.``
In the end, a pawnbroker who does it right
may judge you and fingerprint
you, caution and court you, but he will never take more than you
him. And in these capitalistic times, that in itself may be worth a few
Copyright 1993, SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction