The mood inside 3118 Greenmount Avenue is downright festive on a recent Monday afternoon. A steady stream of regular customers comes through the door to chat up the proprietor about yesterday’s Ravens victory. “How about that game?” says a guy in a Flacco jersey. Others join in—“It was a nail-biter.” “You see that onside kick?” “I couldn’t believe he dropped that pass on the conversion.” They flash smiles, slap backs, and bump fists with everybody-knows-your-name familiarity. A guy named Travis stops in to visit the shop dog, Murphy, a Lab/golden retriever mix with eager eyes and wagging tail. He scratches Murphy behind the ear and promises to return soon. It brings to mind the atmosphere of a neighborhood tavern or barbershop, but it’s actually a pawnshop, Greenmount Loan & Jewelry.
“There’s usually some lively conversation going on,” says owner Gordy Lifson. “Sometimes, the store’s almost full, and it looks like we’re busy, but everybody’s just talking about the game. It’s a great group of people.”
The vibe at Greenmount Loan defies expectations, running counter to the grim circumstances that can bring people to the shop. It originates with Lifson, who exudes how-ya-doin’ affability and empathetic charm, and his crew of six salesmen (including his son, Aaron, and son-in-law, Pat Ebling), who seem to embody the customer-first cliché. In fact, you might roll your eyes the third or fourth time one of them says, “Customers are the most important part of the business,” or “It’s all about knowing your customers and keeping them happy and satisfied.”
But then, someone like Stubbs walks in the door and proves the point. A wiry woman, Stubbs breezes through the store like a starlet on the red carpet eliciting greetings from Lifson and crew, who all know her. Just when it appears she might break into a parade wave, she approaches Lifson and asks how various family members are doing, before heading to the back of the store to pawn a ring. Jerry Bartholomew, the store manager, knows Stubbs, the ring, and what she might need. “A hundred and fifty bucks, this time?” he asks.
“Just a hundred,” she says, and as Bartholomew fills out the paperwork, Stubbs mentions having a job interview later that afternoon. Bartholomew wishes her luck. “Don’t need luck,” she says. “You know I can handle myself at a job interview. I know what to do.”
“I’m sure you do,” says Bartholomew. “I’ll bet you get the job.”
Stubbs takes her pawn slip, thanks Bartholomew, and departs with $100 in her pocket and a smile on her face.
Then, a guy comes through the door toting a 4-foot by 3-foot Memorial Stadium directional sign he’d like to pawn. Pat asks his father-in-law if he’s interested. “No way we can pass on this,” Lifson says, admiring the sign.
After completing the paperwork and giving the guy his money, Pat pulls Lifson aside. “Know what he needed the money for?” he asks. “A ticket to tonight’s playoff game [between the Orioles and Yankees].”
“I’m glad we could help,” says Lifson.
Gordy Lifson’s father, Ted, was a pawnbroker. He had a shop on Gay Street that burned down during the 1968 riots, after which he relocated to Eastern Avenue. Lifson worked summers and Christmases at the store before heading off to school at the Gemological Institute of America, where he learned to identify and grade gemstones. After graduating in 1972, he worked full-time for his dad, which only lasted six months.
“We didn’t work well together,” recalls Lifson. “He once fired me three times in one day.” Perhaps with that in mind, he initiated the following rule with Aaron and Pat: no discussion of family matters at the shop and no shoptalk on family time.
Lifson ran a boutique jewelry shop in Pikesville for 12 years. The business was doing okay, but Lifson figured he could do better. So he used the cash from a going-out-of-business sale to start a pawnshop of his own. He settled on the old Radio Center storefront—his wife spotted the “For Lease” sign in the window—at Greenmount and 31st Street in Waverly and opened Greenmount Loan in November 1987.
“At that time, people were moving from the city to the county,” he says, “but I went the other way, from the county to the city.”
He loved the neighborhood’s diversity, and still does. “Waverly is a great place to do business,” says Lifson, who bought the building 10 years ago. “We have a varied customer base. We have some wealthy, well-educated customers, and we have some not-so-wealthy, not-so-well-educated customers. We’re a stone’s throw away from Charles Village and Hopkins on one side. On the other side, you have Gorsuch and Old York. It’s a true melting pot.”
The store’s stock reflects that, with a wide variety of items lining the shelves: power tools, electric guitars, flat-screen TVs, laptops, CDs and DVDs, video game consoles, and even a zither. Bartholomew has seen people wanting to pawn sinks and tubs. Lifson’s dad once had a customer pry out his glass eye and try to pawn it. And you know that urban myth about the guy pawning his false teeth? It isn’t a myth, says Lifson.
But Greenmount specializes in jewelry, thanks largely to Lifson’s background and expertise, and it accounts for 95 percent of the store’s business. In the back, pieces are cleaned, sized, repaired, and customized. Out front, a glittering array of rings, watches, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets fill display cases stretching the length of the store.
A woman, who identifies herself as Gladys, hunches over a case looking for her next purchase. A Greenmount customer for nearly 20 years, she has three items on layaway: a necklace, a bracelet, and a watch. Gladys shows off three rings bought at Greenmount along with a gold bracelet she’s wearing. “I wish I could afford a piece of everything in here,” she says.
She once pawned jewelry to pay bills, but, these days, she’s hoping for a deal, not a loan, and remains a loyal customer. “I’ve been knowing these people for a long time,” she says. “They’ve been nice to me, they have a great selection, and they know me, so I stick with them. That’s how I do business.
“It’s like going to the hairdresser. It’s best to stick with someone who knows your hair. I take my car to the dealer to get it worked on, because they know my car better than anyone else. Same thing with a man. Just give me one man. That’s just how I am. And I get all my jewelry here, nowhere else.”
The store’s stock is mostly comprised of pawns that were never redeemed, though 80 percent of Greenmount’s customers retrieve their items. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his office, Lifson explains how it works: “We lend money. It’s a collateralized loan with the term of the loan being 30 days, although customers can extend it on a monthly basis. The item comes in, we appraise it, and ask the customer what they’re looking to borrow. If we can loan the money based on our appraisal, we generate a pawn ticket, which states the amount of the loan, the amount needed to pay off the loan and redeem the item, and the date it can be redeemed.”
Greenmount submits a police sheet on all merchandise, describing both the item and the customer, and after police have an opportunity to determine it hasn’t been reported stolen, the customer can pay off the loan and retrieve it. Jewelry takes 18 days to clear; everything else takes 10 days. All pawned items are kept in storage until the owner pays off the loan or defaults, and just enough merchandise gets forfeited to inventory the store.
Although he technically takes possession on the 31st day, Lifson says if someone calls and needs extra time to pay, he’ll often hold it or extend the loan. “After all,” he says, “if my customers don’t have anything to pawn, I don’t have any customers.”
When asked what rate Greenmount charges for its short-term loans, Lifson says it’s actually a service charge. When asked how it’s calculated, he says it’s “all disclosed on the pawn slip. It’s very reasonable.” Obviously sensitive to criticisms of pawnshops taking advantage of the disadvantaged, he notes that no bank would touch these type of loans—short term, low amount, no credit check. According to industry sources, the interest rate charged by pawnshops generally varies from three to 25 percent.
It’s a cyclical business, with people pawning at the beginning of the week (after running out of money over the weekend) and redeeming pawns at week’s end (after getting paid). Business spikes at the beginning of the month, when customers have money to redeem pawns, and at the end of the month, when they’ve run out of cash and need a quick loan. “Sometimes, I feel like a bartender,” says Bartholomew, after a customer with a self-professed gambling problem exits the store. “People come in and start talking about their situation. Some of them start crying. Some of them are ashamed, and I explain to them that it’s okay. It’ll be okay.”
The sagging economy, the high price of gold, and the popularity of cable shows such as the History Channel’s Pawn Stars—which Lifson says has been “flat-out great for our industry, in terms of giving it more of a positive connotation”—mean that the store is rarely empty. “It’s rewarding when somebody comes in and they’re in need, and they leave with what they came in for,” says Lifson. “If the BGE bill is late, and you’re here to pawn your watch, you probably don’t come through the door in a good mood. But we want you to leave happier than when you came in.
“It can be tough,” he says, “but we’re real good at it.”