December 2013

Top Dollar Pawn:Buy & Sell

Author: Frank Dunne Jr. | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Who could ever forget the pawnshop scene from the 1983 film Trading Places? Down and out, Louis Winthorpe III tries to pawn off his $6,000-plus Rochefoucauld—the sports watch of the ’80s—and is offered a measly $50. “It tells time simultaneously in Monte Carlo, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Rome, and Gstaad!” he protests.

“In Philadelphia it’s worth fifty bucks,” retorts the pawnbroker.

A wonderfully funny scene, no doubt about it, but not entirely accurate in the real world, and certainly not at Top Dollar Pawn & Sales. First of all, you’re not likely to see Bo Diddley behind the counter. More important, you’ll get a fairer price for your merchandise, and if you hear a little voice in your head telling you that you’re doing something shady or disreputable, feel free to tell ’em to shut up.

“The biggest problem we’ve had in the industry is the image,” said Top Dollar owner Ray Clark, who has been in the pawn business for over 30 years. “Movies and TV have always depicted it as the seedy guy behind the steel cage, paying $20 for your grandfather’s gold pocket watch or buying stolen stuff through the back door.”

Not so, according to Clark and his industry colleagues. For one thing, the State Department of Consumer Affairs regulates the industry. “They enforce the laws, grant the licenses, and revoke them when necessary,” Clark said. “We’re fully licensed, bonded, and insured.” And the pawn license is not a one-size-fits-all deal. “I have a precious metals license, which is required by this state, and a federal firearms license.” Meaning that buying a firearm at a pawnshop is no different from buying through other channels; a background check is required for all firearms coming in and going out. If you bring a firearm in to sell or pawn, the Sheriff’s Department will run a check to confirm that it is legal, and any time a firearm leaves the store, whether you’re purchasing or reclaiming, it you’ll have to pass a background check. So if you pawn and reclaim a firearm multiple times, you’ll have to pass the background check each time you reclaim it.

Simply put, pawn is a non-traditional, if you will, option for buying and selling merchandise or, for some folks, borrowing money. “We keep an eye on what our customers come in looking for; that’s what we try to buy and that’s what we try to sell,” Clark said. “And we try to give a good price.”

Sounds just like retail from that standpoint, except that the merchandise suppliers are other customers, and if you find what you’re looking for, you’re going to pay a lot less than you would at retail, even online. Take golf clubs, for example. Wouldn’t you love to pay as much as 70 percent less than you would for a new set? But, you say, they’re used! Of course they are, but look at it this way: as soon as you take that first swing with your brand new clubs, you’ve got a used set in your bag.

On the other side of the transaction—people selling or pawning items—Clark says another misconception is that it’s only for people experiencing hard times, forced to part with cherished items or unable to get a more traditional loan. In some cases yes, that’s true. “It’s good for people who need money quick,” he said. “They have emergencies and don’t have time to wait for a bank to come through. Here they can walk in and walk out with cash.”

Other folks are simply getting rid of items that they no longer need or want. Top Dollar Pawn & Sales provides an option to clear out the closets and get some value in return. The only caveat is it’s got to be something that Clark will be able to sell. “I’ll be completely honest with people,” he said. “If I can’t sell or get a good price for something, I obviously can’t offer a good price. So I’ll advise somebody that they might get more if they tried selling something directly to another person.” A good example is the shelves full of cameras at the back of Clark’s Hilton Head Island store (he has a second location in Bluffton). Digital SLR cameras are still very marketable in the pawn business, but the little compact digitals have little value since everybody’s got a camera in their phone now.

Clark opened the Hilton Head Island store on Mathews Drive in 1986 and a second location in Hardeeville in 1993, which he relocated to Bluffton on Kitties Landing Road in 1993. He says the inventory and clientele are by and large the same at both stores, although the Bluffton location sees greater traffic. To give an example of what you’ll find when you visit, the floor at Top Dollar of Hilton Head is crowded with power tools and equipment, musical instruments and other band gear, electronics, and sporting goods (primarily golf clubs and hunting and fishing gear). Handguns and gold and jewelry are displayed in glass cases for obvious reasons.

Demand for certain items comes and goes over time in the pawn business, but the business also experiences seasonal cycles just like the retail sector. For example, this time of year is very busy for jewelry and gold sales with the Christmas season coming up. “We have some really nice pieces in here…great for gifts,” Clark said, noting that people don’t necessarily sell their jewelry because it’s broken or damaged. “They look at a piece that they haven’t worn in a few years and say why not clean out the jewelry box and make room for new stuff?”

Clark laughs when asked if people ever come in expecting a scene from the Pawn Stars television program. “I get it all the time, and it’s been great!” he said. “I tell them that that’s not the reality. Those crazy things you see on shows like that are planted by the producers. This is the reality.” But hey…at least it brings them into the store. 

Top Dollar Pawn & Sales is located at 11 Mathews Drive, Suite 7, Hilton Head Island (843) 681-3400 or 10 Kitties Landing Road, Suite F, Bluffton (843) 836-5626.

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