Dan Trim runs what he calls the simplest of businesses, where every transaction carries with it a reality check.
Trim’s Tiger Pawn is located on Business Loop 70 East, in an unadorned yellow corrugated metal building. Customers are generally in the lower or middle class, and sometimes they’re in a bind.
After all, bad things happen. Transmissions go out, jobs are lost, the dog breaks its leg. Parking tickets pile up, cable service and utilities are cut off and rent comes due again all too soon.
“We are sort of a reality check on what things are worth, but we can also make their day,” Trim said. If they’re in a pinch and have something to pawn, they get cash and turn their day around.”
Many customers are so-called “un-banked,” meaning they have no checking accounts or access to credit cards. So a pawnshop serves as an “ad-hock” bank, providing cash for quick sale of an item or short-term loans based purely on the intrinsic value of the collateral—whatever collateral customers might bring in.
A middle-aged man, for example, sold the shop a stand-up punching bag for $11. Placed on the retail floor, the bag listed at $33. “We’d probably take 20 for it,” Trim said.
A woman lugged in a heavy car jack, which the shop also bought. Once, a man tried to pawn a fish tank with water and fish included. Another tried to pawn a sleep apnea machine.
CDs, tires, TVs, stereos, fishing rods, cameras, pool balls, deer mounts; the shop looks like a garage sale on steroids. Some customers have pawned more than 200 items. One customer has been paying off a $40 loan over a period of seven years.
Trim grew up in the business, bought out parents Floyd and Carol Trim in 2001 and later opened shops in Mexico and Boonville. He’s now 35, and the shop has five employees. The main competitor is Tiger Pawn, which has locations on the Business Loop and Paris Road.
“It’s basic commerce, the simplest and oldest, not personal transactions,” he said. “The reason people have to borrow $20, $40 or $100 is that they are not good money managers. When you need to borrow money to pay your cable bill, you are just not a good money manager. A lot of people get overextended so when they get paid, their check is already allocated,” he said.
Customers who choose to sell an item usually receive a price about a third of expected retail value.
When pawning an item, customers and broker agree on a loan amount. The customer receives a pawn ticket that includes customer’s name, address, and physical description, type of identification provided, description of the item, amount lent, maturity date, interest rate and amount that must be paid to redeem the item.
Most loans are for 30 days, but can be extended. A loan of $50 carries a finance charge of $10 for 30 days for an annualized credit rate of 243 percent.
If the customer defaults, the item becomes the broker’s property in 90 days. In this way, pawn brokers hold enough collateral to consider the loan paid back in full at the time it is made.
About 65 percent of the customers who pawn an item choose to retrieve it, he said.
Jewelry is the most popular inventory item, thanks to the high markup on jewelry compared to other items, which allows for higher loans to customers who pawn and greater retail sale potential of unclaimed items. Jewelry sales have also been boosted in the last two years with the increased price of gold.
One display case sparkles with wedding and engagement rings — the case of broken hearts, said Jay Henderson, who has worked at Tiger Pawn for four years.
“Anytime you are down to your last twenty bucks and have to give up your wedding ring, (it) can be stressful, but people do what they’ve got to do,” Trim said.
A dozen shelves almost sag with construction power tools. “Columbia is a city that is growing fast and has a lot of construction going. Construction is cyclical,” Trim said. “Guys may have a job that pays well for three or four months and then two or three months without any work. Their tools are what they have that are valuable.”
Firearms are another popular item. Rifles and shotguns extend along one wall. Handguns were sold out. Buyers can now obtain a handgun, sometimes within 20 minutes, if they pass an FBI background check, he said.
“Our business is a pretty good indicator of the economy,” Trim said. “Cash money never goes out of style. We deal in a cash business. When the economy is bad, people need cash. When it is good, people have expendable cash. Both scenarios are positive for us.”
Loan fees and retail sales bring in about equal profits, he said.
Christmas is one of the best times of the year, but better yet is income tax refund time. “Our busiest time of the year is from the end of January to the end of March. Money is flowing and they come in and get all their stuff back or pawn things they have bought with their tax refunds,” he said.
Nine out of 10 transactions aren’t encumbered with sad stories. “You bring in your tape recorder and say I need money,” he said.
While feeling empathy for some of his customers, Trim said, “I do hear stories and I try to tune them out because none of it matters to the situation. I have had some people sobbing.”
The overall pawn-broking industry (there are about 12,000 in the United States) still suffers from a public image of a badly lit place where there are all kinds of stolen stuff is sold, he said. The Hollywood movie image of seedy pawnshops has not helped.
“There is a group of people who would never go to a pawnshop because they think it is a criminal operation. They don’t have the proper information,” Trim said.
“People are surprised when they walk in to see there isn’t some shady looking fellow behind the counter slinking around trying to make under-the-table deals,” he said.
Pawnshops in Missouri are not licensed by the state, but must be licensed by the city or county and maintain a net worth of $50,000, although no one has ever come to check on that liquidity, Trim said.
Security includes video surveillance, a panic button to the Columbia Police Department and loaded guns behind the counter. In 16 years, he has never been robbed, but the business has been hit by shoplifters.
The shop lists each item on a computer and sends this information to the Columbia Police Department and Boone County Sheriff’s Department each week.