Pawn star falling: How the pandemic and rising tech killed a Regina staple

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“I’ve had countless people say, ‘Well, if you’re if you’re not going to be here, I don’t know what I’m going to do, because you’re the only guy I trust.'”

The front facade of City Collateral pawn shop on Tuesday, March 29, 2022 in Regina. The long-running Regina pawn shop closing its doors this year.
The front facade of City Collateral pawn shop on Tuesday, March 29, 2022 in Regina. The long-running Regina pawn shop closing its doors this year. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

Aaron Strauss remembers when City Collateral was a place where he could double his money.

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Things change, maybe with the exception of the bars on the pawn shop’s windows. Over the years, they might’ve stopped crime.

But what neither they nor Strauss can slow are the hands of a clock.

After April 9, the shop will close its doors for good.

Along a back wall, a row of western saddles sit on the floor, together but forlorn, abandoned in the inner city. On a counter top, a pair of brass roosters square off in a fighting stance, in sync with each other, but not modern sensibility. An accordion is tucked away on a shelf, born too early and pawned too late — the world has moved on, from the product and the place.

The 41-year-old’s voice brightens as he recalls long-ago family trips into the city, when he’d visit his grandpa who worked at the shop, opened on Rose Street in 1965.

It was a place of intrigue and possibility, with walled-off tunnels connecting to its basement and shelves full of oddities. But it was also a place where he could conduct business. His grandpa would pay him to pull out his loose baby teeth. These, he’d later deal to the Tooth Fairy and double his earnings.

That was back when the shop had a whole room, filled with reference materials like old Sears catalogues, used to suss out how much cash to offer for things moving across the counter.

Aaron Strauss, owner of City Collateral pawn shop, stands for a portrait inside the shop on Mar. 29, 2022. The long-running Regina pawn shop is closing its doors.
Aaron Strauss, owner of City Collateral pawn shop, stands for a portrait inside the shop on Mar. 29, 2022. The long-running Regina pawn shop is closing its doors. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

The Internet replaced all that.

In time, it would begin to replace the store itself. And when the pandemic struck City Collateral, it was already anemic.

Strauss tells the story from the office behind the counter of what is, for a few more days, his pawn shop — located on 11th Avenue since the move in 1995.

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His margins are a far cry from his tooth-selling says, with most of his wares now selling for less than half of the prices listed on their tags.

Customers poke around, eyeing the property of folks who decided not to buy it back, or couldn’t.

One man asks about warranty.

“No,” an employee says. “And all sales are final.”

Behind him a sign reads “Complaint Department, take a number” and features the image of a grenade wearing a numbered tag on its pin. This hangs next to a calendar featuring the face of Louis Riel.

A shopper examines guitars at City Collateral pawn shop on Mar. 29.
A shopper examines guitars at City Collateral pawn shop on Mar. 29. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

At the back of the shop, a man wearing a flat cap slowly examines what’s on the shelves. He looks at movies on discs that are becoming relics, thanks to advancement.

Virgil Mielke is no stranger to the business. In fact, he owned and operated it for almost 30 years.

He learned a lot about people, beginning in 1982 — a year when the ornate ashtrays for sale in the shop today might’ve still sat in affluent homes.

He remembers folks coming in and “letting off steam.”

“The first thing I learned was to keep my mouth shut,” he says.

“I was a construction man, you know, and you’re kind of tough and rough.”

But he’d put on a good face, listen and meet people where they were at.

“A lot of times, that person changes into another person right in front of you,” he says, adding that in all his years working at the pawn shop he “never had an incident with anybody.”

In fact, he had fun, buying and selling, and he developed a lot of friendships with people he felt were mistreated by society.

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Standing not far from a display case containing beautiful pieces of Indigenous beadwork, he says: “Man, it kept you young, working with people.”

But not young enough, as he too felt technology’s march.

In 2011, he handed the reins to his nephew, Strauss, who was looking to get out of farming.

“He came in at a good time, because things were getting kind of complicated for me,” Mielke says, noting that Strauss was able to set up computer systems the way the police wanted him to.

To that end, Strauss feels it’s a misconception that there’s a lot of stolen items in a pawn shop.

“Every item in a pawn shop gets reported to a police database every day,” he says, adding that anything reported stolen is collected by the cops.

“When we run our numbers at the end of a fiscal year, it’s fractions of a per cent.”

Further, he doesn’t like the perception that pawn shops capitalize on those who are down on their luck.

“I’ve had countless people say, ‘Well, if you’re not going to be here, I don’t know what I’m going to do, because you’re the only guy I trust.’”

City Collateral has been built on trust, he says.

“That’s the benefit of a of a family-run business, that you can get intergenerational loyalty from your customers.”

A lot of his clients can’t get a credit card, so his business offers a solution for those needing some cash.

“If pawn shops didn’t exist, the alternative is to get that money through crime.

“We’re effectively a bricks and mortar credit card,” he says, noting that over three-quarters of the people who pawn their valuables return to collect them.

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What isn’t collected, he sells. Or tries to.

Even the weirdest items can sell. The store owner offers the example of a recently-moved ceramic sculpture of Napoleon riding a horse, manufactured in communist East Germany and carrying the original 1970s sale price tag of over $7,000.

“How in the world this piece ended up in Regina, I’ll never know,” Strauss says.

“I’ve even had some people’s ashes that were made into a gold capsule.”

Unique items are part of the business; they aren’t the “bread and butter” of pawn.

No, things that can be easily valued like power tools, game consoles, jewelry and televisions are what has kept the lights on in the business, as Strauss has known it.

A display case holds jewelry at City Collateral pawn shop on Mar. 29.
A display case holds jewelry at City Collateral pawn shop on Mar. 29. Photo by KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

But sites like Kijiji and Facebook, with its Marketplace, allow anyone with a smart phone to buy and sell at will, without the need for his shop.

And then came the pandemic.

“There was a lot of government money flowing, and the need for short-term lending has been significantly reduced in the last couple years.”

Watching the foot traffic coming in off the street, he reckons the need to find a deal on merchandise has also become less acute.

Maybe folks are buying new TVs instead of his used ones, he muses.

He once had five full-time and two part-time staff. Now he’s down to two full-timers and one part-time.

And things will soon grind to a halt, but he’s got an exit plan, for himself and the others.

“I wouldn’t be able to sleep with myself if I left my employees here in the lurch,” he says.

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No, they’ll be coming with him to his other business — Cache Tactical.

He says the pandemic revived a taste for the outdoors, and the outlook is better at the sporting goods store, which sells everything from rifles to rucksacks.

But for now, the Heritage neighbourhood’s last purveyors of pawned goods will keep negotiating across the counters of City Collateral.

It was a business that once held promise, like the diamond engagement rings Strauss says will be hard to move before the store shuts down.

“Once that door is closed in and I hand the keys back, it will be a sad day for sure,” he says.

But, in the words of his uncle Virgil: “Time goes on, you know? Time goes on.”

bharder@postmedia.com

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