EBay and Craigslist may have changed the secondhand business, but there's still a place in the world for a pawnshop filled with stories.
And just about every item in the Elliott Salter Pawn Shop has one. Glass eyes, hearing aids, gold treasure and rare musical instruments have crossed the threshold of Elliott Salter's West Hollywood shop since he took over his father's business in the 1960s. But he won't take anything that eats.
"I had a guy once who saw this stuffed animal head I had in the shop," Salter said. "He came in and wanted to know if I wanted to buy a lion, so I go out to the car and in the back of his station wagon there's a live lion."
Salter remembers working in his father's shop as a child, when the pawn business functioned as a workingman's bank.
"There were no credit cards, no banks open on Saturday, no ATMs," Salter said. "When people needed money, that's where they went."
Collateral lending is still the main attraction of pawnshops, according to Dana Meinecke, executive director of the Texas-based National Pawnbrokers Association. It's a growth sector across the U.S.: In 1988 there were 6,900 pawnshops and today there are 13,000.
"The future is very good because we still have all of those millions of people who are unbankable, so the pawnbroker is their bank," she said. "The primary business of pawnbrokers is lending money. It is not to buy and sell."
And shops such as Salter's can compete with online sales thanks to expert service.
"Elliott has an eye for quality, he really knows what he's doing," said Joel Tepp, a longtime customer who's bought a series of musical instruments from him over the years. "Sometimes you go out of need and sometimes I'll go just to find things I didn't even know existed."
Salter's discerning selections go beyond saxophones and violins, though. Former customer and current employee Ed Thomas says Salter has a knack for choosing quirky items with a certain appeal.
"Sometimes I say you won't be able to sell that and I turn around and he'll be selling it," said Thomas. "I don't question him any more; I've been proven wrong too many times."
Taking on unusual collectibles used to be more of a risk.
But these days "people are searching for all sorts of weird things," Salter said.
The Santa Monica Boulevard shop's window displays have attracted musicians, artists and movie stars. The Von Bondie's shot an album cover there and the Muffs filmed a music video. Scenes from the jazz movie "Lush Life" took place within the pawnshop's walls. The musicians and actors would often return as customers.
"Anybody can go to Macy's or the Gap," Salter said. "People come here looking for something different."
One of the most remarkable items Salter remembers was treasure from the Spanish ship the Nuestra Senora de Atocha that sank in 1622. A man pawned a block of solid gold to raise money for his ailing daughter.
"The reflection of the gold on the green metal case was just spectacular," Thomas remembers.
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