A Pawn in Their Game

Larry Kasella's retirement plans didn't include a showdown with the St. Paul City Council

Larry Kasella reclines behind a metal desk at R.H. Auto Sales on West Seventh Street in St. Paul, smoking Doral cigarettes and shaking his head: The city of St. Paul--Kasella's employer of 34 years--has just fouled up his retirement.

Kasella started out as a janitor and worked the last 14 years as building maintenance supervisor for the St. Paul Public Library before retiring on May 29. A short three weeks later, on June 19, Kasella applied for a license to open a pawnshop on West Seventh, which bisects the brewery district his family has called home since his grandfather immigrated from Czechoslovakia. The 58-year-old Kasella has a city pension, but he's four years away from collecting Social Security, and he likes to stay active. The pawnshop seemed like a great plan to make a little money and stay in touch with folks in the neighborhood. If everything went well, Kasella planned to turn the business over to Larry Jr.

Today Kasella's plans are in limbo, if not completely scuttled. Last month, the city imposed a moratorium on opening new pawnshops, which could last up to half a year, pending a study by its Planning and Economic Development department (PED). Kasella says that move will cost him about $800 a month, just to hold the property he'd intended for the shop while it sits vacant.

With the new license moratorium in place, Kasella is stuck with an $800-a-month fee to hold an empty storefront
Craig Lassig
With the new license moratorium in place, Kasella is stuck with an $800-a-month fee to hold an empty storefront

"I know everybody out West Seventh," says the garrulous Kasella, who notes that he and his three kids all own homes within a mile of the proposed business. "I just wanted to do something with the public--I love talking to people. I wanted a family-type pawnshop. I got three grandkids. I wanted something they could come into and I wouldn't have to walk around hiding things. We made it very clear we would not deal any guns, we would not deal any X-rated movies or sex-related products. I don't want anything like that in my neighborhood." For now, the classic-car buff is helping out a friend by minding his used car lot.

Kasella argues that the modern-day pawnshop is unlike those that operated in the past. "Years ago I used to go into pawnshops downtown with my dad, and they were kind of scuzzy, you know," he recalls. "Ours is going to be nice, well-lit, clean, bright...it's gonna be a neat place."

Even with the scuz of yesteryear, Kasella has fond memories of the pawnshop as an emporium that sold dreams at a markdown. He remembers admiring his father's ruby ring and hoping that one day he could wear it proudly. Instead, Kasella's older brother was awarded the honor. But when Kasella was 14, his father took him to a pawnshop and bought him his own ruby ring, which he still wears to this day. Last Christmas he bought his wife a diamond ring from a pawnbroker, for a fraction of what it would have cost retail. These days he has his eyes open for a good cordless drill.

He won't be acquiring one at his own pawnshop any time soon. The move to suspend the issuing of new licenses came about after the Eagan-based chain Pawn America submitted an application to open a store on White Bear Avenue in St. Paul City Council President Dan Bostrom's ward on August 11. Bostrom presented a proposal to the council on August 19 calling for a one-year moratorium on pawnshops, currency exchanges, tobacco shops, and secondhand-goods stores.

Bostrom maintains that he was unaware of the applications filed by Pawn America or Kasella when he brought the issue forward, and insists that he was not out to block Pawn America from locating in his ward: "I'm not that kinda guy," he insists. Bostrom says he's known Kasella for 15 years, dating back to when Bostrom was on the St. Paul Board of Education and Kasella was heading up the custodians' union: "I told him that I understand that this could be a problem, but I figure that the issue could be of significant importance, that we have to deal with this. It certainly had nothing to do with him personally." Bostrom says he believed more study was warranted on the heels of recent revisions to the pawnshop ordinance in Minneapolis.

But Brad Rixmann, the chief manager and owner of Pawn America, maintains that his company--which runs 11 outlets around the state--was singled out: "Cities have used moratoriums as an excuse to stop pawn stores and other businesses from opening up in their community," Rixmann says. He notes that his company is very image-conscious and does not buy firearms at any of its local outlets. He also says that the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis currently require pawnshops to use the Automated Pawn System (APS), which helps track stolen goods.

According to statistics from St. Paul's License Inspections and Environmental Protection department, St. Paul had 12 pawnshops in 1995 and currently has 10, plus the two pending applications. Minneapolis, by comparison, has only four full-scale pawnshops, plus one jewelry store which has a pawn license limited to jewelry.

St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman opposed the moratorium as an unnecessarily "drastic measure" which interfered with legal, well-regulated businesses. The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Business Review Council came out against it for similar reasons. Critics like Rixmann noted that the city had recently addressed the very same issue, with study by PED and a moratorium that was in place for 22 months until it ended in November 1996. Out of that process, the City Council had required that all new pawnshops hold a Special Condition Use Permit, designed to provide a venue for neighborhood review. In Kasella's case, the neighborhood's West 7th/Fort Road Federation sent a letter stating that it did not take an official position on his application.

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