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Pawn Broke

The man strode to the microphone. "Bear with me," he implored the members of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and their advisers, and he began to speak of his recent trip to Las Vegas. It seemed completely unrelated to the matter at hand--an application by the chain Pawn America Minnesota to open a pawnshop at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. But Zach Metoyer, who heads the business development wing of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association, pressed on. He had been in a casino, where he spied a beautiful woman across the room. He stared at her, entranced, until someone informed him that she was a hooker. "A prostitute is a prostitute," Metoyer proclaimed, with a clumsy pause to accentuate the drama. "A pawnshop is a pawnshop--no matter how you change it."

This was just the beginning of the public comments about the Pawn America permit at that late-October commission meeting, and Metoyer's words cuttingly, concisely explained why 38th and Chicago neighbors were virulently opposed to allowing a pawnshop into the area. A pawnshop might increase burglaries and break-ins in Central, an already crime-ridden stretch of the city, they said. A pawnshop might give the addicts who regularly buy their drugs on that corner ready access to cash for their habit. A pawnshop might make it hard to woo more respectable businesses to that part of the south side; lower property values; increase gunfire; drive families away. For two months the neighbors had met and mustered support and written letters and passed around petitions with one motto in mind: Keep Pawn America Out. It all culminated at this October 25 meeting in the drafty city council chamber at Minneapolis City Hall, where at least two dozen people came to speak their minds and lend their support.

By the time the audience was called upon to speak, a city planner had already explained her reasons for recommending a denial of the permit (a last-minute change, since even the meeting agenda offered the city's staff recommendation to postpone the decision two more weeks until November 8). True, she said, the intersection was zoned to allow for a pawnshop, provided that the store had received what's known as a conditional-use permit--one that would allow such a business only if it met specific rules laid out in the zoning code. But having such an enterprise there would go against the city's comprehensive development plan (titled "Plan for the Eighties"), which proclaims that corner too small a retail strip for a pawnshop.

Moreover, a pawnshop there would not conform to the Minneapolis Plan, a document drafted to replace the earlier Eighties plan, nor would it adhere to the city's new zoning code. The plan offers broad guidelines for land use and the design of the city, while the zoning code lays out the precise regulations for homes and businesses that wish to move into specific areas. Both have been written; the zoning code is set to go into effect this week. It was after the planner's presentation that the audience was invited to speak. They moved steadily toward the mic like a machine, churning.

As chairman of the 38th and Chicago Task Force, a group that has been working for more than four years to cut crime at the troubled junction, Eric Hill has seen the problems there, he told the commission. "We understand that the pawnshop itself is not an evil establishment. But this is an at-risk intersection that must be treated with care," he said softly. "Something like this would be a big step backward, I fear. It would be very difficult to bring in a coffee shop or something."

For another 40 minutes, they asked the commission to deny Pawn America permission to set up shop. "There is nothing about a pawnshop that would be good for the children and seniors in our neighborhood," one woman stated. "Residents may give up hope or be forced to move out," another predicted, adding that she and her husband had spent $50,000 to rehab their home nearby. "Placing a pawnshop there will definitely affect the general morals of the community in an extremely negative fashion. Please," she began to weep, "make an effort to hear our community members."

There was a lone voice in favor of the permit. Not surprisingly, it came from Cary Wolski, one of Pawn America's attorneys, who rose from her front-row seat next to Brad Rixmann, the chain's founder. As she addressed the commission, she stressed that the company had submitted all the paperwork it had been asked for and it had been told that the application looked good to go. Just a year ago, she pointed out, the city changed its regulations for pawnshops, adding new conditions that had prevented Pawn America from opening a store on East Lake Street, in a much heavier commercial area than the one currently in dispute. "You said then [the new conditions were] completely consistent with the comprehensive plan, especially the chapter that's been cited today for precluding this use," she said. "Pawn America has met every one of those conditions."  

Wolski, agitated but hanging on to her composure, went on to take umbrage at the prostitute analogy and asked whether anyone on the commission had ever been in a Pawn America store. Despite the earlier comment, she stressed, not all pawnshops are the same; Pawn America stores don't resemble the dark, seedy images most people conjure up at the mention of a pawnbroker and his clientele. "They are clean. They are well-lit. The people who work there are well-trained. They don't take firearms. It's not true that all pawnshops are alike. You have in front of you a very good company," she declared. "You have no choice but to approve this application."

Oh, but they did have a choice. Despite a suggestion by one commission adviser to table the discussion until the city's rationale could be shown "legally defensible," the panel swiftly opted to vote. Two of the nine members were absent that day. The rest voted unanimously to deny Pawn America's petition. In a moment they had determined the immediate fate of a run-down Central spot and, some would argue, taken away precisely the kind of business to which the city's less fortunate residents might go for cash to tide them over week to week. All this is part of a vision for a rejuvenated, even upscaled Minneapolis that appears to have less and less room for the age-old pawn industry and, by extension, its customers.

Neighbors spilled out into the hallway, ebullient, relieved, surprised at what seemed like an easy victory. Outside, Hill smiled and rolled his eyes. "We'll see how it plays," he said, sensing that Pawn America was not about to surrender the fight.

Rixmann and his two attorneys quickly scooted down the hall for a discussion about how to proceed, already planning an appeal. "Every time Pawn America--every time a pawn store--applies for a conditional-use permit, they impose a moratorium or amend the ordinances or cook up something like this to deny it," Wolski said, frustrated. "It's pretty transparent what's happening here. There's a real knee-jerk reaction. It's the same story over and over."

Together, Rixmann and Wolski marched down the broad marble stairs of city hall. "When we put this in, we said, 'There's no way they can deny it,'" Wolski recalled. Rixmann chortled, beaten, but not admitting to defeat: "That's what we said." They opened the door into the blustery dusk, still planning to prove, legally, that Pawn America is nobody's high-class hooker.

 

Mondays are busy at the Pawn America in Robbinsdale, perched in the northwest Minneapolis suburb's quaint downtown. They are the days when people most need cash for the coming week. With a certain joyless expediency, the sales associates scuttle from client to client, eager to make a sale or quickly finish up a loan so they can get through the many customers who pop into the store. A clerk stands behind the substantial jewelry counter, buffing pinky rings before a man tries them on. A woman pawns a bracelet for $100, telling the clerk--loudly--she'll be back to pick it up next week. A customer rifles through racks of CDs and tables of videotapes in frayed boxes. All around the store, deal-hungry shoppers test the boom boxes and ogle the gold chains, on their way to buying, at cut rates, the items that came to rest inside the pawnshop--remnants of sad stories, reminders of desperation.

In his blue polo shirt with its teal and pink collar and "Dave PAWN AMERICA" embroidered on the chest, Dave Caulfield stands behind the counter, surveying the store and helping out if the clerks have questions about how much to loan. With a confidence that has come from seeing thousands of rings and radios and riveters come through pawnshops, Caulfield--"head coach" here, which is Pawn America lingo for manager--needs just a second to determine the value of each item. How much for the binoculars with the camouflage casing? $10. For the electric guitar? $100. For that electronic thingamajig? $20.

Caulfield steps outside to smoke a Marlboro Light in the evening's cool mist. "America overspends itself," he declares between puffs, as an explanation for the constant flow of customers at the Robbinsdale store, which he proudly says is the busiest in the 11-store chain. "Only in America will you be rich one day, poor the next, and rich the next." Many of the people coming in for loans are familiar customers, he says. There's a woman who comes in regularly to pawn her wedding set. She always returns to pay the interest and get it back; a couple weeks later she appears to pawn it again. Like clockwork.  

Caulfield never asks people why they need the money, but sometimes they tell him. "I lost my job; my husband divorced me; I'm waiting for my child-support check; I'm in between jobs," Caulfield runs down the list of common reasons. For people without the safety net of credit cards and savings accounts, "What better way can you come to get $100? A bank won't even touch you."

The Robbinsdale Pawn America was the very first pawnshop Brad Rixmann opened, back in 1991. No longer enthusiastic about a career in real estate, his family's business, Rixmann struck out on his own, eager to bring conscientious customer service and "curb appeal" to the pawn industry. He first went into National Pawnbrokers in Bloomington--which is now a Pawn America store--in 1989, looking to buy a VCR and TV for his father. Something about the shelves of goods in disarray sparked Rixmann's urge for an entrepreneurial challenge. The potential was great, he recalls: Add a dose of friendly salesmanship and a splash of brightness, and it could be a business that invited people in off the street. Today he heads a private company so closely held that he won't even hint at annual revenues. "When people think of pawn stores," he says, "I want them to think of us first."

But Rixmann admits he didn't realize at first how controversial pawnshops are. "Call me naive," he begins. "No one had ever told me that pawn stores were bad." Rixmann, casually dressed and unimposing in jeans and a sweater, looks a little tired this morning and explains that he was up all night with his new baby. He presents himself as a mild-mannered, family businessman with heart (he even spoke with his pastor before deciding to go into the pawn industry). When he first opened in Robbinsdale, he had to work to convince the city it would be a good business to allow. But winning Robbinsdale over was a cakewalk compared to the opposition he has faced in Minneapolis. What confuses him, he muses, is that in the ten other cities in which he has opened for business, "we've been welcomed with open arms."

Pawn America is methodically clean, fluorescently well-lit, unrelentingly without personality. The retail stores are relatively small compared with a cavernous Best Buy or other big-box chain, but they're a far cry from the dismal, dusty shops made famous by movies such as Sidney Lumet's 1965 film The Pawnbroker. Just as the black-and-white drama has been swept aside for shiny blockbusters with blazing special effects, the shadowy pawnshop with scowling broker inside a locked cage has been discarded for the commercial conventions and jingly ads of stores like those owned by Pawn America. The cookie-cutter chain appears to be the pawnbroker's new face--and the industry's future.

 

The pawn industry in America, around since colonial times, began to decline during the 1930s--a slump that lasted all the way into the 1970s, according to Swarthmore College economics professor John Caskey. The downturn began with the Depression, and while business picked up a bit with the rising economy, after World War II, pawnshop loans began to stagnate as people got access to other forms of credit. Rising incomes and expanding public-welfare programs, Caskey writes in Fringe Banking: Check-Cashing Outlets, Pawnshops, and the Poor, also left fewer people in need of pawnshops for quick cash. But starting in the mid-1970s, the number of pawnshops has exploded. One important cause, Caskey reasons, is a sharp increase in households without bank accounts. Part of the boom has also come from consolidation, and the growth of chains that are trying to dispel the stereotypes attached to the business.

The first pawnshops, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association, can be traced back to China 3,000 years ago. In the United States there were 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in 1911; today, there are almost 14,000 in operation, and about 140 of them are in Minnesota, according to the state's trade association. Generally, the Minnesota market is considered underserved, with less than ten pawnshops per million residents, Caskey writes, while states such as Texas, Georgia, and Florida each have more than 50 pawnshops per million people.

The pawn as a form of credit is ancient, simple, tangible. Jack Hartsoe, president of Cash-N-Pawn International, a chain based in St. Louis Park, says pawnshops offer short-term cash to people in a financial pinch who don't have bank accounts or credit cards to draw from. "What do you do if you need $70?" he asks in a lingering Texas drawl. "You can borrow it from a family member or a friend. You can take your stuff and sell it, in which case it's gone forever. Or you can come to us."  

At a pawnshop the amount of the loan is based on the collateral as viewed by the clerk, not on credit reports and references. Nationwide, about 60 percent of customers who get loans in pawnshops are men, ages 25 to 44, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association. Pawnshops will pay out only about half of what they could sell the item for--which in most cases is far less than the item's price tag in a retail store. The average loan is $70, Hartsoe figures, and in Minnesota the minimum term for the loan is 30 days, although Cash-N-Pawn offers a 60-day grace period before it sells the pawned goods. Interest on the loan is regulated at three percent in the state, but additional service fees and storage charges are allowed to be tacked on. The ease of the quick cash is an exchange for the steep costs you'll pay to get your goods back: If you pawn a bracelet for $70, say, to buy it back after a month, you'll have to pay an extra $15; after three months, an extra $45.

In most pawnshops in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the entire pawn transaction is videotaped, and the clerk asks for a state driver's license and other identification from the customer, as well as detailed descriptions--including serial numbers--of the items being pawned. Each day, that information is sent electronically to the local police department as part of the Automated Pawn System.

The connection between crime and pawnshops is an area of much contention but few statistics. The industry is regulated at the city level, and participation in the Automated Pawn System is voluntary, so it's hard to find far-reaching figures to indicate how often pawnshops buy and sell stolen property. Nationally, Hartsoe says, less than one percent of the goods that come through pawnshops are found to be ill-gotten. In order for stolen items to be recovered, however, the owner must provide the police a detailed description and serial number to be cross-referenced with the pawnshop inventory. Because few people have that information, it's likely that the stolen-property incidence is higher, says author Caskey, although he estimates that only about three percent of pawned goods are pilfered.

Lt. Phil Hafvenstein, commander of the license investigation division of the Minneapolis Police Department, says there is little compelling evidence to link pawnshops with increased crime. "We see the industry as being inherently legitimate. The better we regulate it, the better chance we have of finding the people who bring unwholesome products to the business," he reasons. Besides, "just eradicating the pawnshops is not going to change the need of people who use them illegitimately. Are we back to buying stuff in the backroom of a bar?"

 

The residents who live near 38th and Chicago weren't the first to say they thought having a pawnshop in the neighborhood would hike crime and deflate property values. Over the past several years, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have imposed temporary bans on new pawnshops as each city government reviewed typical concerns about the businesses. Pawn America has tried and failed to open a store once before in Minneapolis, which ended its more than two-year moratorium in January 1997. Eager to expand into the Minneapolis market, the company located a site that conformed to city conditions (not within 1,000 feet of another pawnshop or secondhand store), in a heavily commercial district at 720 E. Lake St. The chain applied for a permit, which was granted by the planning commission in April 1998.

But by May the city council voted to alter the regulations, making them more restrictive by adding check-cashing outlets to the list of businesses a pawnshop couldn't be near. After the rules changed, the city applied them retroactively to Pawn America, and rescinded its newly designated permit.

Rixmann sits up a little straighter, waves his hands a bit more aggressively as he remembers. He contends that the city acted unfairly when it took away his permit, since he had been granted it before the council passed the new law. Even now, though, he hasn't given up. Rixmann has sued the city over the imbroglio. A Hennepin County District Court judge found in favor of the defendant, but attorney Wolski says the company has appealed that decision, and arguments likely will be heard before the Minnesota Court of Appeals in January. As if waiting for a win in appeals court, a drooping Pawn America banner still hangs on the Lake Street building, which sits dark and locked on the busy street.

Pawn America isn't the only pawnshop to have experienced this sort of snubbing. Just last week Cash-N-Pawn opened its first Minneapolis location, on East Lake Street and 28th Avenue, under a permit it was granted only after a lengthy battle with the neighborhood and the city. Under strong opposition from nearby residents and Ninth Ward city council member Kathy Thurber, the permit was denied three separate times before Cash-N-Pawn sued the city and ultimately won the right to operate on a technicality.  

Jack Hartsoe still flinches when remembering the ordeal. The president of Cash-N-Pawn left his longtime Texas home for Minnesota in 1993 to open the first of his six metro pawnshops in Hopkins. (The chain also has shops in Indiana and Missouri.) A career businessman, first in construction, then in the pawnshop industry, Hartsoe reveals his roots as a literature major as he relates his trials and tribulations in Minneapolis: "If I'd have known that it was--do you know Kafka?--such a Kafkian society politically, I would have never gone there," he begins, alluding to the stories and novels of Franz Kafka, whose works like The Trial and The Castle describe the plight of the small man lost and helpless in a bureaucratic nightmare. "Not because there wasn't a need--but to get caught up in that type of situation is frustrating."

The need for pawnshops convenient to city dwellers, he stresses, seems to go unacknowledged by the planners and powers that be. "The big problem in urban areas is the cities won't let us in. Politicians in cities think if they don't address the reality, that it somehow goes away," Hartsoe concludes. "Obviously the need is greatest where the population is highest and the income level is lowest."

And that, in both regards, describes 38th and Chicago.

 

The junction of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue is a true crossroads, the nexus of four south Minneapolis neighborhoods: Central, Powderhorn Park, Bancroft, and Bryant. It's a small commercial strip, a little run-down. There's a taco eatery, an auto body shop, a small grocery, a barber, a mattress store, a pager place, a church, and more than a few empty storefronts. Travel just a couple blocks in any direction and you'll find tidy homes and lawns manicured by gentle hands. At night, neighbors say, the intersection frequently becomes a hot spot for drug deals, public drinking, and gunplay. But by daylight, the area seems benign enough; people mill around the shops, wait for the bus, drop letters in the corner mailbox. It's the kind of tiny commercial strip drivers scarcely notice as they speed by on their way to someplace else.

On a crisp, clear October Saturday, Pat Sandbakken, Eric Hill, and Margaret Skelton meander along the street. This is the troika of 38th and Chicago Task Force members who've worked so vocally to stop Pawn America. Hill spent the morning as he spends every Saturday morning, picking up trash around the intersection. On a stretch of city as faded as this, one wonders what would be so bad about a Pawn America store opening up? At least it would be one less dilapidated façade.

"Not a pawnshop," Sandbakken grunts. A pawnshop would increase the threat of burglaries. Already people come to her door trying to sell things, often, she assumes, to get money for drugs. With a pawnshop in the neighborhood, she offers, the danger to neighbors' homes--and to themselves--would only increase.

"When you need your next drug fix, you're just going to go into a garage and wheel away someone's lawn mower," Skelton concurs. And the notion that Pawn America is trying to clean up the industry's image seems of little consolation to her. "You think we should take this scuzzy business because it's the top of the line?" she challenges. "If a pawnshop comes here, I'd probably move."

Hill, a lanky, soft-spoken graduate student in physics lives closest to the disputed corner--less than a block away. A thick blond braid swings along his back as he points out some of the junction's more infamous drug dealers strolling up the block. He makes note of the many empty storefronts begging for new tenants. "It's no 50th and France," he admits. "The golden age of this area has long passed." Still, with the right kind of planning and permitting, it could become one of Minneapolis's healthy little commercial nodes "that aren't the fashionable, glamorous ones--but they serve a purpose, and people are comfortable."

If not a pawnshop, what would the three like to see here? Perhaps more restaurants like the Taco Blas that opened just a couple of months ago. Even another auto repair shop or furniture store would be welcome, Sandbakken offers, as long as they picked up the trash and served the neighborhood. Skelton envisions ornamental lighting up and down these blocks, and fixed-up storefronts to go along with the colorfully painted planters and trash cans the task force has installed along the sidewalks. Pawn America just doesn't fit into the picture. "I'm not saying it's not a nice store with nice employees," Sandbakken adds. "This is not the right neighborhood."  

Then what is?

 

Pawnshop chains like Pawn America and Cash-N-Pawn strive to locate their stores in areas where the annual household income is between about $33,000 and $40,000--where the locals will have goods worth pawning, but tend to live precariously, without much of a financial cushion. For them the pawnshop is nothing short of a savior during a financial crunch. Usually, the neighborhood activists who want to keep pawnshops out are the people least likely to need their services; banning the stores, pawnshop proponents say, only hurts the people who are already hurting the most.

"It would be nice if everyone made $75,000 a year, owned a home, and had a new car," Cash-N-Pawn's Jack Hartsoe says. "There are people who make $25,000, $30,000, $35,000 a year. They're living paycheck to paycheck. If they have something happen, they don't have the ability to deal with it. If you deny the ability to get short-term cash loans, you're not doing them any favors."

All the buzz might say that the economy is surging and America's pocketbooks are full, but, for a lot of folks, that's just not true. According to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a national nonprofit that works to protect the interests of the financially disadvantaged, some 13 percent of American households today have no form of bank account.

In recent years the Central neighborhood has seen rising incomes and home values, but is still quite poor compared with the rest of Minneapolis. The median household income in Central is $23,317, and the median home value is $68,987 according to 1998 statistics provided by Fannie Mae, the national mortgage financier. Minneapolis as a whole has a median income of $38,367 and a median home value of $107,778. While there has been an increase in households with incomes of more than $75,000 in Central since the 1990 U.S. census report, the Fannie Mae numbers show that a third of households in the neighborhood make less than $15,000 a year.

And that's where pawnbrokers come in. The sales staff at American Pawn Shop in downtown St. Paul has seen the grittier side of today's economy. The independent business is small and a little more Old World than the newer chains. Grays, the fat shop cat, slumbers atop the jewelry case and the smell of machine oil wafts through the place from the tools by the front door. From his own experience, manager Dave Bart understands that there is an intensifying need for pawn retailers locally. Fifteen years ago there were only three shops in St. Paul, he says; today there are fourteen. And business, by all indications, is booming--both the selling end and the buying. "The economy's doing really good," Bart remarks. At that, one of his sales clerks chimes in: "Depends on who you're listening to," to which Bart smirks and adds, "Bigwig politician or regular Joe?"

Bart tires of the negative image of pawnshops, which he characterizes as the poor man's version of a credit card. "They charge a higher rate than we do," he says, referring to a good share of the firms that provide plastic money. "You don't see people outraged about another credit card company opening up."

The idea that a pawnshop offers financial services to folks who otherwise would have none doesn't fly with 38th and Chicago neighbor Margaret Skelton, who won't budge from her belief that pawnshops prey on the poor and uneducated. "There are better places for them to go," she stresses, "rather than giving away all their possessions to pay rent for one month. This is a state with a lot of social services."

Yet it seems that many who oppose pawnshops--and the planners and politicians at Minneapolis City Hall--may be oblivious to people whose lives, simply put, are complicated by poverty, bad credit ratings, unemployment, disability, increasing rents, and other economic burdens. Jobs Now, a St. Paul-based coalition of community-service groups that focus on increasing employment for the poor, did a study this year showing that more than one-third of Minnesotans aren't making enough money to support a family's household needs. The study was based on the calculation that in order to pay for such necessities as food, housing, health care, and clothing for a family with two kids, both parents must be working, and both must make at least $9.27 per hour. The study showed that 36 percent of Minnesotans don't make that much money, which proves, says Jobs Now executive director Kris Jacobs, that the need for extra cash--and the pawnshops that provide it--is far more pervasive in the state than many people would like to think.  

"The conventional wisdom is that the economy is doing great, and if you're not making it there's something wrong with you. The dirty little secret is that lots of people aren't making it. Half the jobs in the economy are not livable-wage jobs," Jacobs stresses, adding that city planners and politically influential activists don't realize how many of their fellow citizens are in positions that cause them to rely on pawnshops and other quick financial fixes. "The need for such establishments is far greater than these people would suppose."

The pawn industry's bad image may stem, simply, from the fact that it caters almost exclusively to the poor, says Swarthmore economist Caskey. When he set out to write Fringe Banking, his original thesis was that the pawn trade had all but died out. Instead, he found it to be alive and well and thriving in and around cities across the nation, mainly because pawnshops smooth out the snags in today's economic fabric; they offer the only source of cash--the only safety net--for people who otherwise have no credit to carry them through the rough patches.

While municipalities may adopt stricter zoning codes and regulations to keep pawnshops out, those rules seem to be based on a wish, rather than the world as it is today: "It's like saying, 'Get the homeless off the street,'" Caskey said in a recent phone interview. "There are certain businesses that make the neighborhood look bad. Residents of these neighborhoods don't need these services, so they want to get them out. They want to make the area nicer," he continued. But for those who really do need the financial aid nearby pawnshops offer, "you're making it less convenient for them."

This urban reengineering could have yet more dangerous consequences, warns Jacobs. The activists who want to create "pretty neighborhoods" by ignoring the needs of the economically strapped could, she contends, unwittingly bring danger to their own enclaves. "Making [poor people] more desperate is not going to be the right choice for our neighborhoods. It's not going to be the right choice for our society," Jacobs says. "Those well-intentioned people end up pushing these people into a life that provides some type of survival--and it won't be legal activity. They could end up sticking you up or in some other way victimizing the neighborhood. It creates the very kind of desperate population these people want to be rid of."

The city maintains that its plan is not to push pawnshops out via new zoning codes, says Judith Martin, president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and director of the University of Minnesota's urban studies program. She bristles a bit at the term reengineering, opting instead for fine-tuning or tinkering with the edges. And she freely admits that pawnshops are at odds with the prevalent vision for the city's future. "They don't fit in comfortably," she concludes. Along with industrial and certain other commercial uses that tend to create moral objections or bring danger into neighborhoods--chemical plants, say, or strip bars--pawnshops often fall under the city's heading of so-called noxious uses. "It's unfair that pawnshops as a general category get put into that mindset," Martin says. "But they do."

Rather than expunge them altogether, the city aims to prevent them from concentrating too heavily in any particular area and to mitigate the negative impact such stores might have on surrounding neighborhoods. That can be a tricky balancing act. "There is always going to be stuff people don't like, but business owners have a right to open their businesses" as long as they operate within the law, Martin stresses. "Does that right to do business also extend to a right to have an impact on the people who happen to live nearby? No, it really shouldn't."

As far as the current Pawn America dispute goes, Martin calls it a "very awkward moment" because the new zoning code--which was passed by the city council last week and is awaiting the mayor's signature--clearly spells out expectations for pawnshops. "Pawn America is a good example of the things that get caught in the middle," Martin acknowledges.

As the controversy continues, the pawnshop wars seem to evidence one truth: Comfortable people are uncomfortable dealing with the poor. For those who are just scraping by, Jacobs ventures, a pawnshop may be the only option when the car breaks down, or the lights are going to be shut off, or there is, finally, nothing left to eat in the house. Jacobs recalls her own father, who would regularly pawn a particular chair to get enough money for his five kids to survive. He'd return and pay the interest to get the chair out of hock, then pawn it again the next time money was tight. "He probably paid a fortune for that chair," she guesses, "but that chair also was a lifeline."  

Pawn America's Rixmann says that as he battles the Minneapolis bureaucracy, he's fighting not just for his company, but for people who don't have financial stability. "Our customers typically don't come to city council meetings and say Pawn America is a good company," he says, emphasizing that poor people as a rule have little influence in the halls of justice and politics. They almost don't have a voice."

The fight is far from over. Rixmann is confident the Minnesota Court of Appeals will overturn the current ruling against Pawn America in the Lake Street lawsuit. Until then, he'll press forward with the appeal for the 38th and Chicago permit (which at press time was scheduled to be heard on November 16 by the city council's zoning and planning committee). Should that entreaty fail, the chain has its eye on another south Minneapolis location, at 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue, and is applying for permission to open there. Rixmann carries the righteousness of one who feels he has been deeply, personally wronged, and he's out to turn Minneapolis into his own private Agincourt: "I'm not going to stop," he says. "I'm not willing to stop at any point."

Even without a clear resolution in the offing, one thing is clear: All around the metropolitan area, people in need of money are going into Pawn America and other pawnshops to hock their wrench sets and radios, Walkmans and wedding bands. Every day, every week, every month, every year. Like clockwork.


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