It can be the mortgage, the car payment, the oil bill. A weekend cash crunch, or the "three-days-from-payday-and-49-cents-in-my-pocket" blues.

"When people need $25, $50 or $100 in a hurry," says Isadore Levy, co-owner of Sam's Pawnbrokers in Northwest Washington, "they come to us. We get a lot of people between paychecks who just can't make ends meet."

Once called "the poor man's banker," pawnbrokers in the Washington area say they're now attracting a middle- and upper-income clientele.

"Unfortunately, with inflation, the poor man doesn't own a gold chain or a Nikon camera," says William Gorewitz, president of the D.C. Pawnbrokers Association. "It's the middle-class people who now go to a collateral lender when they run short of cash."

Unlike banks, which Gorewitz says, "only want to make big loans with big interest," most area pawnbrokers will lend anywhere from $10 to $1,000 -- with typical amounts $25 to $50.

"We don't ask people what they want the money for, like banks do," says Gary Chelec, owner of National Pawnbrokers in Arlington. "And a lot of people when they're new in town haven't established credit here yet, so they need cash to tide them over until their first paycheck."

"Many people have already overextended their credit at stores and banks," says Robert L. Haislip, owner of Bobb's Trading Company in Mt. Rainier, Md. "We're seeing a lot more of your average middle-class workers bringing in stereos, TVs, guitars, radios and sewing machines."

Traditionally a barometer of the nation's economic health, the pawnbroker's business tends to go up when the economy goes down. "We've had a 25 to 30 percent increase in loans over last year," says Gorewitz. "And that's true for all of us."

"We're seeing a lot of new customers," says Chelec, whose clientele includes residents of wealthy Northern Virginia suburbs.

"We get people from the Vienna and McLean area who owns $200,000, $300,000 homes. When the home heating oil companies asked customers to have their checks waiting, we had a lot of people who live in the wealthy suburbs come here so they could afford to fill up their tanks."

Pawnshops rarely advertise and usually get new customers by word of mouth. "Friends tell friends about us," says Chelec, "and it breaks down any reluctance to come in.

"Some people still feel there's a stigma attached to shopping or taking out a loan here. I think that's from the stereotype of pawnshops as dirty, dingy, dark places that rob people's soul."

Most pawnshops, says Gorewitz, rely on their retail trade to survive. "We have the same interest rates as 25 years ago. So if we lend someone $100 for one month, we make $3. That's why we sell luggage."

Regulated by law, pawnshops in the District charge 3 percent interest per month on loans up to $500 and 2 percent interest on loans to $1,000 (usually the limit). The borrower is issued a ticket that can be used to claim the pawned item at any time up to four months.

In Virginia rates "haven't changed since the '30s,"" says Chelec. Interest is 10 percent a month on the first $25; 5 percent on the next $75, and 3 percent on anything over $100. Tickets are written for 30 days, but are renewable.

In Maryland, pawnshops are regulated by each county, says Haislip. In Prince George's County, interest is 3 percent on loans to $500, with a $2 minimum charge. The 30-day tickets are renewable. There are no pawnshops in Montgomery County.

The pawning procedure is fairly simple. The borrower brings in "something of value" -- the definition of which may vary from shop to shop -- but usually includes cameras, real jewelry, musical instruments, TVs and stereo equipment.

An appraiser will offer a loan, the amount of which is based on the item's worth and the appraiser's eye. "It takes 40 years experience to be a good appraiser," says Gorewitz, "and even then you can make a mistake.

"If it's something like gold, where the price fluctuates, a smart pawn broker wil lend a conservative amount to protect himself in case the price drops."

Items such as cameras, he says, "have a Blue Book trade-in value. A rule of thumb is offering one third of the retail price." Since pawnbrokers also have secondhand dealer's licenses, most will pay a little more to buy the item outright.

The borrower receives a receipt for the pawned property, which is insured by the pawnshop. The item cannot be sold unless the borrower does not repay the loan and claim it within the agreed-upon time.

Unclaimed items, by law, are sold at public auction. If an item doesn't bring the loan amount plus the interest, the pawnbroker can buy it back.

Pawnbrokers are also required to submit a daily written report to the police identifying each item taken in. "Pawnbrokers recover for the Metropolitan Police Department almost a quarter million dollars worth of stolen merchandise," claims Gorewitz. "And we don't get paid for that."

Most of the items for sale in pawnshops -- often at bargain prices -- come from auctions, estate sales and going-out-of-business sales.

Some pawnshops will guarantee their merchandise for 30 days -- long enough to find out if the item works -- and wil provide written guarantees of the authenticity of expensive items.

But meanwhile, says Chelec, "People need cash for the necessities of life. Especially when the economy stinks."