Here Today, Pawn Tomorrow

 

Ryan Lavine

“We’re a family business,” says Jay Sargent, partner and general manager of TC’s Pawn Co. in Waterbury. As I walk around his 5,600-square-foot retail space on Lakewood Road, it’s certainly not what I’d expect of a pawnshop. It’s a bright, well-organized store, with shiny glass jewelry cases and orderly rows of DVDs and CDs. Laptops and iPods line shelves, guitars hang in a neat row, and there’s nary a gun or “adult”-themed product to be seen—TC’s handles weapons sales online and doesn’t traffic in risqué materials at all. “We’re not like the stereotypical pawnshop that you see in old movies,” laughs Sargent. “It’s not a dark and smoky back room, with some old guy chewing on a cigar behind the counter. You can see we’re very mainstream. Usually mom is looking at jewelry, the kids are checking out the video games and dad is browsing through the power tools.”

Stereotypes die hard, but Sargent, who is  also president of the Connecticut Association of Pawnbrokers, is running his Better Business Bureau-accredited enterprise with every intent to dispel the preconceived notions associated with his industry. Sellers are required to present a government-issued form of ID, and each item that TC’s buys is electronically catalogued with a picture and full description. Weekly reports are sent to the Waterbury police to be checked against lists of recently stolen goods; pawned items are also held for 30  to 60 days before being put out for sale in the store or offered to prospective online buyers, while items that are acquired outright for secondhand sale are held for 10 days.

As at most pawnshops, when something is pawned, TC’s first evaluates the item for its secondhand value and lends the seller the amount in cash up front; if the seller returns for the item within the allotted time frame, he or she can get the item back for the cash lent plus interest and a processing fee. (About 85 percent return, but if they don’t, there’s no blemish on their credit report.) Rates and time frames vary between shops; Sargent has been working with legislators to establish standard statewide licensing and regulations for pawnshop operations. Currently, each municipality has its own rules.

TC’s also has been part of the Waterbury business scene for 25 years, and is heavily involved in the community, supporting  the Children’s Miracle Network Organization, the Police Activity League and many other charities.

Further helping to bust pawnshop myths is the wave of recent TV reality shows like “Hardcore Pawn” and “Pawn Stars,” which Sargent dismisses with a laugh. “Those shows are mostly staged,” he says. “You don’t get Civil War cannons or other rare collectibles in a pawnshop every day. And you certainly don’t call in an expert for each one. You have to be the expert and know what an item’s worth. Even if you don’t know, you can still go to the Internet and look it up.”

Currently, Sargent says that 30 to 40 percent of his business comes from buying and selling gold, and TC’s offers a lot of jewelry, especially diamonds and silver—display cases are stocked with pieces from Tiffany, Rolex and Cartier, and there’s even a goldsmith on the premises. In a sign of the times, there’s also an abundance of tools and heavy-construction equipment available here, everything from ladders to jackhammers—anything a general contractor would need.

Although collectibles do find their way to TC’s—they’ve handled specialty items from baseball cards and antique Spencer repeating rifles to Cessna airplanes and Cobalt power boats—the majority of the more unusual pieces are sold through online auctions like eBay, which offer a bigger market. TC’s is a licensed gun dealer, but that business is also done online or through other dealers. Actually, Sargent estimates that about 15 percent of his business now comes from Internet sales, and the building on the adjacent property, which was recently acquired, is now devoted primarily to handling Web-related transactions.

With the recent economic downturn, business has been steady at TC’s as more people need to raise quick cash however they can or find bargains. It has allowed Sargent to keep a staff of 14 full-timers and three part-timers, many of whom have been with the company for over five years. TC’s also has a second retail sales building, featuring car audio accessories (new and used) as well as larger items like snowblowers and construction-related equipment. In the back lot where autos are kept—yes, TC’s is licensed to sell used cars, too—a Ford Mustang convertible sits between a classic Dodge Dart and a Land Rover, which is next to a dump truck and behind a sailboat.

“Our clientele ranges from the unemployed to working-class families to doctors and lawyers,” says Sargent, who also describes many of his customers as “unbankable” or struggling with credit issues. “In the past two years, we’ve been able to help 20 or 30 people pay their mortgages. We’ve also had people come in, find a diamond ring they could afford, drop to one knee and propose right here in the store.

“I’ve heard more stories than you could fill your magazine with,” says Sargent. “It’s a unique business—no other like it in the world.”

For more information, call (203) 753-7591 or visit tcspawn.com.

Here Today, Pawn Tomorrow

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