golden age
Source Jim Devine
Date 11/06/09/12:56

A Real Economic Meltdown
Portland, Ore.

JOSH OLLER sits me down in the conference room of Silver Lining, a pawn shop in northeastern Portland. It’s a Monday and only 10 a.m., but already three lines are forming at the loan windows. At the front, a woman in a colorful windbreaker and hot pink pants leans on her elbows on the counter. A man in a long black trench coat waits patiently behind her with a guitar.

Mr. Oller runs Silver Lining with his father, Earl. While we talk, a painting of Earl, made to look like Elvis, watches us from its black velvet canvas. The son has a sedate manner, his calm blue eyes set off by a faded navy polo shirt.

He didn’t think he’d go into pawning. He aspired to a career in federal law enforcement. But after he graduated from college, a longing to remain in Oregon, near family and forests, made him reconsider. “It’s a good business,” he says. “Every day is different. You never know what’s going to come through the door.”

The economic downturn has, according to Mr. Oller, brought more middle-class customers to the loan windows. But the real change in pawning has to do with the skyrocketing price of gold. With gold at $1,500 an ounce, pawnshops are making easy profits by buying gold jewelry and selling it to refineries. For sellers, those gold cufflinks languishing in a jewelry box might now cover several weeks’ worth of groceries.

Even gold dust has become worth pursuing. Inspired by stories he’d heard of people boiling the carpets in old jewelry manufacturing buildings to recover remnants of precious metals, Mr. Oller installed a special sewage filtration system in his shop. Now, after employees work with jewelry, they can wash their hands — those tricky crevasses in the knuckles and under their nails — without throwing money, literally, down the drain. Silver Lining’s sewage sludge is collected, dried, baked and burned. “It’s gross,” he admits. But from hand-washing water, he said, the shop collected about $1,000 last year.

Mr. Oller takes me on a tour of the store, including its maze of storage rooms filled with the traditional pawn loot: electronics and guns. But I have a passion for old junk and we both perk up in a low-ceilinged room holding objects that defy categorization.

“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to a small turquoise trunk. It holds a ventriloquist’s dummy. I desperately want to look at it, but Mr. Oller has moved on to a 100-year-old bottle of Kentucky whiskey. “How much did you loan for that?” I ask.

“Probably 50 bucks,” he says. And then there are the items for which it’s nearly impossible to name a price, like the miniature but functional cannon made out of brass.

When we finish the tour, I find myself drawn to the jewelry cases. It’s hard not to imagine the sad stories behind the diamond rings sitting there — love soured, jobs lost. But I steel myself to see if there’s any gold vintage jewelry, the kind I wear and love. The absence of this — of any gold jewelry — is notable.

Most days I wear a gold Victorian lion pendant that my boyfriend got for me when I sold my first book. I’d long admired it in the window of an estate jewelry store in Berkeley, Calif., where I was living at the time. The impeccably made lion holds a little diamond shard in his fierce mouth. His eyes shine with ruby beads. His whiskers grow from tiny specks beneath his perfectly carved nostrils. I love to think about where he came from, and whom he will belong to after I’m gone. I hate to think — in fact, can’t bring myself to think — of his horrible end if I pawned him. Straight to the scrapper, he’d go.

When I say the fate of all the gold jewelry seems sad, Mr. Oller shrugs. “Gold’s just a commodity, like grain,” he says.

From a pawnbroker’s perspective, this outlook makes sense. Regular customers can no longer afford gold jewelry, and so pawnbrokers stand to make more selling it all to refineries. But I think of my grandmother’s filigreed earrings and my lion pendant, both antique pieces made with great care, now part of my own history. I imagine these objects melted into bars and sold on the open market — to China, to Russia. It’s unsettling.

For a while I wonder whether I can set up a little booth in front of the pawnshop and convince people to sell their antique jewelry to me instead, to save it from its fiery end. But this would probably be illegal, financially suspect ... maybe even insane. I settle on hoping that some people, despite this extended recession, can afford to keep their heirloom earrings and cufflinks, medallions and lockets — those little pieces of our human history, sentimental and unrefined.

Robin Romm is the author of "The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks."

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