Years ago, when Jeff Knights was a deputy sheriff with the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, he’d visit the Northwest Pawn Shop to talk with then-owner Otis Fleetwood.
“We’d get a theft or burglary or something, and it was just standard procedure to stop in there and say, ‘Hey, keep your eyes open. If something comes up, let us know,’” Knights recalled.
Today, Knights is on the other side of the counter. He has owned the shop, 801 E. Victory Way, for six years.
“I’ve only been in two pawn shops in my entire life, and I bought one of them,” he said.
Knights said many people have the perception that pawn shops are somewhat less than reputable, but Knights said that’s not the case. For him, it’s a livelihood. For his customers, it can be a lifeline in a pinch.
And, for shady characters who might try to sell to a pawn shop, it’s a wrong turn.
Knights moved to Craig from southwestern Iowa in 1993 to join the sheriff’s office. From there, he bought an auto glass shop. Then, six years ago, he got into the pawn business.
Northwest Pawn Shop also sells guns, archery supplies and hunting gear. It’s the sportsmen’s gear that most interested Knights.
“When I bought the pawn shop, I bought it more for the gun shop,” he said. “Basically, the pawn shop helps pay the bills.
“In Craig, Colo., you can’t run just a gun shop. It wouldn’t be feasible. Taxes on this building are $500 a month. So, you have to have a pretty prosperous business to make it in this town.”
The pawn business works like this: Someone who needs cash brings in an item. Knights or his employee, Jim Hixson, establish a fair market price for the item.
As an example, say the market price is $100.
Knights will loan the person $100 for 30 days at 20-percent interest.
If the person returns within 30 days with $120, the item is returned. If the person doesn’t return, the item becomes store property.
Knights said pawned items are stored during that time period.
“That stuff is off limits until they default on it,” he said. “About 40 percent of the people don’t come back … they just leave the item with us.
“Then, 10 days after the due date, we can legally sell that item. But, we generally leave it alone for another month in case somebody made a mistake or forgot.”
Then, after the waiting period is over, the item becomes part of the store’s inventory.
Knights said there are usually about 200 active loans at any one time. There are many reasons why people pawn items.
“A lot of people … they don’t have another avenue,” he said. “They can’t go to the bank and borrow $400 or $500, they can’t go to their families and borrow $400 or $500. So, we’re it.
“We have people come in on Monday morning who’ll pawn something to get gas to go to work. We’ve had grandmothers come in and pawn something to buy diapers for their grandkids.”
Often, Knights said he’ll direct those customers toward charitable services in town.
The pawn loans, he said, function like a credit card.
“They know they have to pay it back,” Knights said. “They know they’re going to pay some interest on it. But, they don’t have a credit card and can’t go to the bank to get one. So, they’ll grab a gun or a tool or a ring and come in here and say, ‘Let’s go have fun for the weekend, or let’s buy the essentials we need, let’s get our electricity bill paid, let’s pay our mortgage.’
“It’s just another avenue.”
Customers are grateful for the service, Knights said.
“People appreciate us because we are the last stop in the road,” he said. “They’re thankful. You can’t imagine how many times people say ‘thank you’ over the counter.”
Knights said some people believe that pawn shops are shady places, but the perception is changing, particularly in his store.
To sell or pawn items to the store, sellers have to provide ID and fill out paperwork that is eventually filed with Craig Police Department.
“It’s pretty up and up, when you think about it,” Knights said of his business. “The PD knows every bit of business that we do. They come in once a month and get a list of everything that’s been pawned in this shop.”
Beyond that, Knights said he won’t buy high-theft items like iPods and car stereos, and he can refuse any items that don’t feel right.
“If it’s someone who’s iffy, we just don’t deal with him,” he said. “If some kid comes in and he’s got some really expensive item and he looks like he has no business with it, we don’t want it because the PD will take it away from us.”
Occasionally, however, something will get through.
“It’s rare,” he said. “Maybe once or twice a year, (the police) might actually say, ‘We’re going to take this and give it back to its original owner.’”
In those cases, the pawn shop is entitled to restitution from the seller, but that’s also rare.
Despite hardships in the current economy, Knights said the pawn business generates nearly equal revenue year after year — no rises, no declines.
However, he said he’s noticed shifts in demographics.
“You get different clientele,” he said. “The construction guys seem like they’ve been hit the hardest. They got hit earlier than anyone else, so they were pawning their stuff a couple of years ago, and now they’ve left town.
“A lot of the customers we had two years ago struggled for a little bit and moved on somewhere else to find work.”
For the most part, the easiest items to pawn are guns, tools and jewelry, Knights said. But he’s also seen people bring in mounted elk heads, gold teeth and even a Corvette.
Many once-bankable items have been rendered obsolete over the years, he said.
“We don’t do watches. That used to be a big thing in pawn shops, but now everybody has a cell phone with the time on it, so people don’t wear watches like they used to,” he said.
Media formats are on the decline, too, particularly CDs.
“They’re worth nothing,” he said. “We haven’t taken them in years. DVDs? Same way. They’re done. Redbox killed that business. They used to be really good for us, we’d buy movies for a couple of bucks, we’d sell them for $4, and just go through them like crazy. Redbox went in and DVD sales stopped.”
Musical instruments are still brisk sellers in the pawn shop industry, but only guitars, he said.
“When I got the pawn shop, I bought a bunch of horns. … But, for some reason people won’t by a used horn,” Knights said.
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