St. Nicholas, the patron saint of pawnbrokers, once rescued three young women from prostitution by giving each a bag of gold for a dowry. The traditional sign for a pawnshop has three gold balls -- one for each bag of gold -- and pawnshops are still associated with prostitution, if only through geographic proximity.
If you know what you're looking for, pawnshops are best for seeking out jewelry, musical instruments, electronics, and cameras. One pawnbroker explained why the shops specialize in those items: "It's very difficult to know a lot about antiques, so we don't deal in those. Jewelry is very easy to analyze, and the prices for cameras and things are in the papers every day." They're a dying breed, but two of the last traditional pawnshops can still be found on Eighth Avenue, wedged among the porn houses near the Port Authority. Tom Waits would get a kick out of this branch of Gem Pawnbrokers (608 Eighth Avenue, near 40th Street; 730-1124). Here's where you might think about pawning your mother's silver before drinking yourself into a stupor and enlisting at the Army pavilion on Times Square. Scattered items of dubious quality sit on one side of the store: battered cameras with filthy optics, off-brand guitars to match your sombrero. Assorted bongos are priced between $27.95 and $159.95 the pair, and a nice hexagonal accordion is $239.95. The store fixtures themselves are for sale. Not a good sign.
But the setting isn't entirely bankrupt of opportunity. Gem does cheap jewelry best: A Baume & Mercier watch in stainless steel and gold, approximately $2,500 new, is on sale for $1,200. Negotiable. "Anything in a pawnshop is negotiable," says the affable man behind the counter. "Except me."
Gold jewelry is sold by the pennyweight (a unit of weight equal to 1.55 grams and abbreviated as "dwt"). At Gem, fourteen-karat gold is sold at $14.99 per dwt, a good price. A chunky fourteen-karat bracelet, fourteen pennyweight, is priced at $355, negotiable. (Good thing it's negotiable: At $14.99 per dwt, the price works out to $209.86.) Do the math before you buy. A solid-gold Indian-head ring -- hideous -- is $189. But melted down, it's a bargain.
Century Pawnbrokers (725 Eighth Avenue, near 46th Street; 245-7977) is a quality institution. You can tell by the bars on the windows. There's stuff in here you'd want to protect from Eighth Avenue. You will find nice jewelry at this place, if you can stomach the possibility that you may well be wearing someone's wedding ring, pawned before her descent into the Life. Century gets real musical instruments -- Gibsons and Fenders, Selmer saxophones -- but you can expect to pay market prices, and then some. A 1971 Martin D12-28 twelve-string guitar is stickered at $1,995. But as it's not a particularly coveted Martin, from an undistinguished year, it's worth about half that.
The bargain, again, is jewelry. As the man behind the counter explains, "Styles change, yeah, but the metals are millions of years old." Asked to point out the best bargain in the store, he offers an unbelievably gaudy diamond ring for $9,995. He peers through a jeweler's loupe and confirms that the piece holds more than ten carats' worth of gem-quality stones. He pulls out a Tourneau catalogue, and we compare watch prices. He has a Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the bezel set with 44 diamonds, which Tourneau offers new for $24,950. His price: $10,995 (negotiable).
The Century is a family business, operated by men who are clearly experts. A man walks in with a guitar he would like to sell. It is the shape of a Fender Stratocaster but is strangely stenciled with the words les paul (a model offered by Fender's arch-rival Gibson). He is politely shown the door. Pawnshops don't buy used goods anyway -- they're licensed only to accept them in hock and issue loans against them.
Pawnshops also pop up in semi-respectable neighborhoods, like Lincoln Square (724 Amsterdam Avenue, near 96th Street; 865-8860). Okay, so this block, with its thrift store, check-cashing establishment, and tavern called the Dive Bar, isn't the most appetizing. And Lincoln Square's surly staff presides over the most appalling selection of religious icons this side of Lourdes. Still, the price per dwt is acceptable -- $20 -- a bargain if you buy gold by the square foot. Electronic gear here is equally unimpressive; there's a whole wall full of overpriced major-brand VCRs ($89.95 to $110).
The funky old ladies' watches are worth browsing -- there was a nice retro Longines for $95 and a Bulova for $15. But if you're really in the market for a watch, head to 48th Street Pawnbrokers (32 West 48th Street; 354-7705). It's a tiny little mom-and-son shop at the entrance to a jewelry arcade; there's barely room for five customers to stand at the wraparound counter. Linda and Barry Tillman are nice people, and they have great watches. I've always wanted a pocket watch, and they specialize in them. An open-faced silver Hamilton from 1906 is $100; if you want to get it working, it will cost another $100. A gold Hamilton that actually tells the time is $500. (Remember: negotiable.)
And don't restrict the search to places with three gold balls in front. Look up pawnshop in the Yellow Pages and you see a number of places that are not, strictly speaking, pawnshops; the real thing requires a special license. Often these mock pawnshops specialize more narrowly. One oddball is the Thrift and New Shoppe (602 Ninth Avenue, at 43rd Street; 265-3087). For the price of something generic from Pottery Barn -- perhaps 30 bucks -- you can walk out with an original Stangl vase. Thrift and New has an astonishing array of vintage American pottery, and the prices are silly: A McCoy vase runs between $29 and $45; a Red Wing vase, between $25 and $50. Why? Low overhead. The store is cheerfully decrepit, and the manager couldn't care less: "If you get hit by a paint chip, you get a discount," he said.
My favorite of the ersatz pawnshops is The Bargain Stop (195 Seventh Avenue, at 22nd Street; 463-9740). Audio equipment is dirt cheap, including retro gems: wonderful old tube amps (both stereo and guitar) and machines for spinning vinyl. I found a nice Thorens turntable for $225; I'd seen the same for double in an audio shop. McIntosh tube gear is a fortune these days in the more legit stores; Bargain Stop had a tuner-preamp for $425, which is a steal. Cameras are a good buy: A Canon A-1 in decent shape with a 50-mm. lens is $275, not bad for an old professional workhorse. And guitars of the three-G phylum (Gibson, Gretsch, and Guild) are well represented, including vintage arch-tops. I found a Guild F45 acoustic/electric guitar stickered at $750; I've seen the same instrument in worse condition for $850. The price for which they're willing to part with these instruments is another story: Be aggressive.
Yes, be aggressive. And know what you're buying. One upmarket antique dealer put it poignantly: "They'll take advantage of anyone at any time; unless you know what you're doing, you're gonna get beat."