Top Dollar Pawn
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: John Brackett
All manner of reliable used tools, musical instruments, sporting goods and jewelry stock the shelves at Top Dollar Pawn & Sales stores on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, minus the fancy packaging and bright signage found in retail stores. And that’s exactly the way owner Ray Clark and his growing and dedicated clientele want it, not forgetting lower prices and a singular business strategy that often allows customers to walk out with more money than they came in with.
It’s all part of the sometimes misunderstood nature of the pawn trade that continues to evolve from once-dubious backstreet status to current TV prominence as increasingly informed folks seek bargains or much-needed quick financial fixes because of economic uncertainties.
“It’s not like Wal-Mart where you just walk in, ring up what you’ve got and then say ‘goodbye’,” said Clark, who opened the Hilton Head branch of Top Dollar in 1986 with his mother Rosemary Jorgensen and a publicity assist from “Sheena,” a now departed mountain lion that once joined him at work every day and helped generate no shortage of curious customers, some of whom Clark now counts as longtime friends and regular golf buddies.
“This is the kind of business that requires a personal touch,” Clark added, “and a lot of people are not happy to be here to borrow money. They feel the need to explain ‘why’ and give you their stories. You can’t help but become close to them and feel their pain, although this is a business and you can’t run it with just your heart. That’s one of the tougher aspects of the business, especially in an economy like the one we have now.”
Here’s how it works: People experiencing financial straits, be it for medication, power bills, rent or simply because of overdue paychecks, can take out loans, i.e. pawn their property for cash and, in turn, receive 90 days to repay the loans and retrieve their items, ending their transactions by paying modest fees strictly regulated by the South Carolina State Department of Commerce.
“A lot of people still don’t realize they can do this,” Clark said, “and it’s great feeling when you see their eyes light up… ‘You mean I can come and get this back?’” Then there are customers who, minus overwhelming sentimental attachment to their possessions, can simply sell them to Top Dollar and walk out with welcome influxes of needed cash. Still others are simply mindful shoppers seeking bargains on the same goods they’d find in retail outlets, often saving up to 50 percent in the process.
Jewelry, scrap gold and guns are among today’s top sellers at Top Dollar, and its Clark’s task to stay abreast of ever-changing consumer trends and ongoing advances in technology that can turn certain items obsolete seemingly overnight. “If I give out a loan on a television or a computer, I have to hold it in the back room for three months,” he said, “and that can be an eternity with electronics these days. For example,” he continued, “digital cameras used to be popular, but today every cell phone has a digital camera that’s built right in. Things are always changing, and one of my jobs is to stay on top of things and figure out what I can sell something for in a reasonable time.”
Among the ongoing misnomers about pawn shops is that they’re havens for stolen goods. Clark and staff keep a wary and learned eye out for thieves and maintain a close working relationship with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department. “We don’t want to sell anything that’s stolen both for the victim’s or the customer’s sake,” he said. “We gladly give it back to authorities and end up losing money over it, and that’s how it should be.” (Top Dollar can go after criminals for selling goods under false pretenses, although the chances of recompense are generally slim.)
A personable family man who is raising three children with his wife Debbie in Bluffton, Clark opened a second Top Dollar branch in Bluffton in 2006. Both stores have experienced an upswing in customers due to a lingering national recession. The business has also drawn an assist from the proliferation of popular cable television shows highlighting life behind the counters of pawn shops.
“They’re not exactly realistic—they are TV shows after all—but they have helped put the business in a different light where it doesn’t seem so bad to go a pawn shop. Before, going to a pawn shop was compared to having your dog run over or something,” Clark said with a laugh, “and we still have people who tell us how they’ve been reluctant to come in. That’s been our biggest obstacle—educating people about what we do. And once they come in and deal with us, they almost always leave happy.”
Top Dollar Pawn & Sales operates stores on Hilton Head Island at 11 Mathews Drive, (843) 681-3400) and in Bluffton at 10F Kitties Landing, (843) 836-5626), open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., with additional 10 a.m.-4 p.m. hours Saturday in Bluffton. More information is available at topdollarpawn.us.