If you’d like a reading on how the economy is affecting the average San Franciscan, you could call an economist. You could study wages and layoffs. You might even graph the rise of foreclosures.
Or you could stop into the Provident Loan Association on Mission Street behind the Old Mint.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said manager Ben Shemano. “We have people bringing in their last treasures, filled with unrealistic hopes and expectations.”
Shemano and others at Provident don’t like to think of it as a pawn shop. There are no handguns, toaster ovens or electric guitars in the window. The store – which deals in jewelry, silver and fine art – was founded by the city’s financial bigwigs in 1912 to combat runaway loan sharking. For generations it has been the place to go when a piece of jewelry happened into your hands through inheritance, good luck or a broken heart.
“For years I developed a cozy little business with engagement rings,” Shemano said. “The engagement didn’t work out, someone wanted to go to Mexico, so they sold it.”
Things changed about a year ago. People aren’t coming in for spare cash any more. This is financial life and death.
“This is the worst I have ever seen,” said managing partner Joseph Chait. He would know: His late father took over the business in 1965; his wife’s grandfather started working there in 1952. Chait has been there since 1971.
“We are seeing more people who, if they are not at the end of their rope, they are close to it. They are just trying to stave it off.”
Customers come through the door in a sad, daily procession. They are close to default on their mortgage, car payments or their kid’s tuition. They have made the wrenching decision to quite literally sell the family jewels.
Shemano said they tell stories about a piece of jewelry or silver, how it has been in the family for generations. With every telling, the imagined value tends to grow.
“You’ve got to pop bubbles sometimes,” Chait said. “They tell you, ‘I remember this silver tea set from when I was little.’ And you have to say, ‘Well, it’s worth $40.’ ”
At times there are tears – “about once a week or twice a month on average,” Chait said.
Other times reality is slow to sink in. Chait recalls a woman who wanted cash for her silver and gold Rolex watch. She needed the money, she said, to make her Lexus payment.
“They are looking to get money to solve their problems,” Chait said. “We’re the lenders of last resort.”
Most of the customers are hoping for one of those “shoe box” stories. Chait said a fishing buddy once brought in a shoe box full of old jewelry from his grandmother. One piece included a blue stone that Chait said “might be worth something.”
It turned out to be a sapphire set in a piece made by a famous designer. It sold for $30,000.
It usually doesn’t work out that way.
Last week a woman came in with more than a dozen items. She told him several of the pieces had been custom crafted. She had sky-high appraisals.
Shemano took a look at what she had. Before he met her eyes, he knew she would be disappointed.
“It was just a nightmare,” he said. “She asked for the number, and it was just devastating to her.”
She told him how she’d had an impressive job with an international firm that went belly-up. Her investments went south, and now she and her husband had rented a three-bedroom home with two other couples.
The plan was to sell the jewels, get a little cushion and hope for an economic uptick. Surely, she thought, her grandmother’s prized pearl necklace would fetch a nice price.
“It’s always Grandma’s pearls,” Shemano said. “They bring in these high appraisals. But how can you price for a secondary market when there is no secondary market?”
The woman quietly packed up her jewelry and said she’d like to get some other bids. Shemano, as he often does, provided her with a list of others in the city who deal in jewelry.
Twenty-four hours later, the woman was back. She’d take the offer, she said.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Source: San Francisco Chronicle