The chic couple, fresh from a European jaunt, leaned over the counter. From the breast pocket of his gray pin-striped suit, the man pulled out a slip of paper and a wad of bills.
This Georgetown couple had come to National Pawnbrokers in Arlington to redeem two antique pistols.
"Needless to say, we're not poor people, but we come here more than I can remember," said the man, explaining that he had pawned the pistols to get "just a little bit of extra money" for the European trip.
"New creative financing . . . ," says owner Gary Chelec. "More and more people are discovering us, and once you do it (pawn) that first time, it becomes easier the second and third time."
The shop was founded in 1939 by Chelec's father, the late Louis Chelec. Originally, it was one of three pawnshops in Arlington, all in Rosslyn. In those years, National Pawnbrokers operated amid a jumble of fastloan companies, tattoo parlors and gypsy fortune booths in a honky-tonk ambience that eventually was bulldozed to make room for I-66.
Fifteen years ago, National Pawnbrokers moved to its present location at 3100 Lee Hwy., about a mile from its original site, and it is now the last pawnshop in Arlington.
The pawnbrokers, like their colleagues across the country, still consider themselves a barometer of the local and national economy. Recent economic problems, say workers at the shop, have brought some increased business and more first-time customers.
"We can see that people are in a pinch a little bit more now," says store manager Joseph Horowitz, who has worked at the shop for 38 years. "A lot of people pawn things who haven't before. We've had cases where people come up in chauffeur-driven cars to pawn things because there is always a time -- no matter how rich you are -- that you need money."
Horowitz delights in watching the reaction of some new customers.
"You can always tell a person coming into the pawn shop for the first time," he says. "Their eyes are all aglow. They thought pawn shops were dilapidated old stores and they're surprised to see a nice modern building."
National Pawnbrokers has none of the dark and sinister images portrayed so vividly in the Rod Steiger movie "The Pawnbroker." Instead, it is in a brightly lit brick building that appears no different from the small discount houses in suburban shopping centers.
But the firm still holds on to one tradition. Outside the shop hang three gold balls, the family crest of the Medici family, patrons to Michelangelo and history's first recorded pawnbrokers.
Recently, Catherine Blue came into the store with her daughter-in-law, Joanne, and four grandchildren. That day, Joanne was making a lay-a-way payment on a derringer she was buying for her husband.
The Blues have been coming to National Pawnbrokers for years, Catherine Blue said, mainly for the bargains they find at the store. But four years ago they came for an urgent reason.
"Our real estate taxes came due and I was in the hospital," Catherine Blue said. "We had so many bills at the time and my husband was out of work so he pawned his guns and got the taxes paid. It was something we had to pay right then and there."
Outside the back door, a handsome young woman in designer clothes that matched the chocolate color of her late-model Cadillac, clutched a stereo against her Pierre Cardin bag and headed inside.
Chelec says most people, rich and poor, need cash for the necessities of life -- the monthly mortgage payment, the electric bill.And it is not uncommon, he says, for someone to hock something Friday for emergency weekend cash and redeem it on Monday.
"When people get strapped, they get strapped," Chelec says.
Chelec believes there is a good reason that people pick the pawnshop over a loan company or a bank: "We don't ask them what they need the money for."
Like most pawnshops, Chelec also runs a brisk retail business, although Chelec won't say how much of the business is retail. By law, however, the retail goods cannot come from pawned items, which must be sold at a public auction. To stock the retail side of the firm Chelec frequents going-out-of business and estate sales.
Customers looking for a bargain usually aren't disappointed by the price or the variety of Chelec's finds: luggage, 30 different sizes of trunks, televisions, radios, microscopes, power drills, vacuums, sewing machines, golf clubs, binoculars, typewriters, razor straps and a machine called a Lob Ster that picthed tennis balls.
Several rock groups could be equipped from the hundreds of guitars hanging like a rainbow from the ceiling and the amplifiers, drums, electric pianos and organs beneath them on the floor.
On one morning last week, a county judge passed a congressman en route to the camera counter. "I have five children so I have to have a camera," the judge quipped.
Nearby, a man Chelec said was a physician, studied a musket-like rifle that would have looked perfect slung over Davy Crockett's shoulder.
Leonard Owens, a photographer for News Media Pictures, says he has bought a typewriter, tape recorder, CB radio and at least 25 cameras at the shop.
"You can get things cheaper here and they look over the stuff pretty good so you don't get gypped," Owens said. "I've brought back a couple of things and they never said a word. They give you your money back if you're not satisfied. Any other place would say that's your tough luck."
Tucked away in the jewelry cases, amid the diamonds and gold that are the staples of modern pawnshops, is the only item not for sale -- a front dental plate with two gold teeth. In one tooth is a quarter-carat diamond.
The plate was hocked sometime in the 1940s and never redeemed. No one seems to remember the man who hocked the teeth, and no one can explain why the man never came back. "I wish I knew the answers," Horowitz said.
There are many common misconceptions about pawn shops, the most usual being that a pawned item can be sold immediately to anyone who wanders into the shop.
In addition to the requirement that pawned goods must be sold as a public auction, stringent state laws govern almost every aspect of the pawnshop business.
For instance, a pawned item cannot be sold for four months and not even then if the owner is up to date on interest payments.
The interest rates, by law, are 10 percent a month on the first $25, 5 percent on the next $75 and 3 percent on anything over $100. That's a stiff 36 percent interest a year on a $100 bracelet, although Chelec notes that nearly 80 percent of the items are redeemed and most within the four-month period proscribed by law.
"Some people are embarrassed when they come in here to make a loan for the first time," Horowitz said. "But we put them at ease, tell them not to worry. They get a loan and come back within four months. No problem. And most of our customers are repeat customers -- not fly-by-nighters."
State law also requires Chelec to complete a daily report of items that have been pawned. Each morning an Arlington police officer picks up the report and checks it against a police list of stolen items.
The system, say Chelec and Arlington police, means that very few stolen goods come across the pawnbroker's counter.
"Most of the thieves are experienced and they know not to try to sell to me because we report to the police," Chelec said. "The only stolen goods I end up with is intrafamily. Somebody might try to pawn something belonging to his father."
Chelec won't estimate the average sum he pays for pawned items. In fact, he says, the toughest part of being a pawnbroker is deciding the value of an item and how much to loan, especially given the variety of items hocked.
"It's instinct backed by knowledge," Chelec says. "We could make a hundred loans a day and if we're wrong, we eat it."