Jeremy Rowland woke up alone, away from his wife and teenage son, in the back office of the pawnshop he now calls home.
He pulled himself out of his brown recliner, counted the cash in his register and posted the day’s deals on Instagram. Lysol and hand sanitizer within reach, he perched beside the shop’s new drive-through window. In the thick of a global pandemic, Triple R Pawn was still open.
Rowland had closed the store for 10 days in March, fearful he would bring the coronavirus home. Then came the questions from concerned customers who had already secured loans against their property, and who would need him in the months to come. Rowland needed them, too.
“I can’t go home,” he said, fielding calls from three cellphones. “We have bills to pay, we have a livelihood. We discussed it as a family, and we made the decision that I’m the sacrificial lamb.”
In Ash Flat, Ark. — a city of 1,082 where more than a quarter live in poverty — the coronavirus first felt like a distant threat. The abrupt recession that has since catapulted more than 17 million Americans out of work didn’t immediately register in this rural outpost near the Missouri border.
But Rowland’s pawnshop has long been indispensable for customers just getting by. And it was only a matter of time before the economic pain rippling across the nation exacerbated the hardship many in town knew all too well.
When the recession did touch down, the residents of Ash Flat and surrounding Sharp County wouldn’t only wonder whether they should stock up on essentials. They’d worry how to pay for them.
“A lot of people think it’s a choice to just go to the grocery store,” said Jeremy’s wife, Pamela, who’s managing the business from home. “It’s not here.”
The coronavirus has unleashed an unprecedented economic crisis, one so pervasive that Washington is rolling out trillions of dollars to support individuals and businesses. But pawnshops operate in a slice of the economy that was bypassed by the nation’s prosperity of recent years. Many of their of customers don’t have bank accounts and would be hard-pressed to borrow from more mainstream lenders. They could also face longer waits for their stimulus checks — $1,200 for millions of adults — because the program prioritizes direct deposit.
Pawnshops allow people with few alternatives to borrow against their possessions. In Ash Flat, where the median household income of $19,837 is less than one third of the national average, it can be the only option. Pawning a generator for $300 could cover a car payment. A 12-gauge shotgun might command $100, and provide a cushion until Social Security comes through.
“You have a lot of individuals that do live paycheck to paycheck,” said Ethan Barnes, president of the Spring River Area Chamber of Commerce, who like Rowland, is a lifelong resident of Sharp County. “Jeremy’s business may be that lifeline that helps somebody put an extra pound of ground beef on the table for their family.”
Earlier in the outbreak, Pamela joked that her husband of 23 years could move into the pawnshop. But they quickly recognized just how stark their choices were: close the store and cut off those who depend on it, or accept the health risks of staying open.
To close would mean turning away the man who pawns firearms to care for his cancer-stricken wife, Pamela said. Or the woman who regularly comes in at the end of the month, after her money has dried up but the bills have not.
So the Rowlands began mapping out how to safely reopen. They installed a shower and washer and dryer in the back office and set up a recliner for Jeremy to sleep. They built a drive-through window so he could limit his exposure to customers. And they now ask clients with large items to pull up to the main entrance and stay in their cars while Jeremy unloads their haul.
It’s all so that when the phones do ring, Rowland is there to answer.
“Triple R Pawn, this is Jeremy. How can I help you?”
‘A lot of signs saying ‘closed’ ’
For the Rowlands, the decision to stay open was less about serving the newly afflicted than wanting to stand behind those who had depended on the pawnshop for years.
Sharp County is so rural, Barnes said, that it initially was insulated from the sweeping layoffs and economic tidal wave roiling the nation. One of the county’s top employers is a Walmart Supercenter that opened 25 years ago. Triple R sits nearby, at the only stoplight in Ash Flat.
Some local businesses never reopened after deadly tornadoes ripped through Arkansas in 2008. Much of the state budget relies on tourism sales tax dollars, which will dry up as the industry sputters.
Barnes has worked for years to attract investors and new businesses, pitching the area’s affordable real estate and deep sense of community. “It’s just a matter of people coming here and realizing the potential,” he said.
But in the past week, the coronavirus and its repercussions have started slipping through. When Sharp County reported its first confirmed case earlier this month, retailers, restaurants and other businesses couldn’t ignore it, even though Arkansas is among the few states without a stay-at-home order.
“If you drive down the main strip in Sharp County, you’ll see a lot of signs saying ‘closed,’ ” Barnes said.
Soon Rowland’s services could take on new urgency. In places as secluded as Ash Flat and as bustling as New York City, the majority of pawnshop customers are among the nation’s 63 million unbanked or underbanked adults, according to 2017 figures from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That means scores of U.S. households don’t have a checking or savings account, or that they had an account but also sought financial services outside the banking system.
As the federal government scrambles to issue loans and stimulus checks under what’s known as the Cares Act, those on the economy’s margins may not get relief.
Tracy Harrison, a freelance makeup artist in Homestead, Fla., near Miami, said she hasn’t been able to meet with clients since the outbreak. For years she has relied on the employees at Naranja Trading Post & Pawn to get through hard times when “ends don’t quite meet. They may be looking at each other, but they can’t quite shake hands.”
Pawn brokers provide short-term loans to people who offer their belongings as collateral. The average loan is small — around $150 — and has no effect on a customer’s credit history.
Harrison knew that stocking up on toilet paper, cleaning supplies and extra groceries during the pandemic would bust her budget. So she pawned her flat-screen TV and a necklace with a pendant for $350.
“If it had not been for them being open, I wouldn’t have been able to get what I needed,” Harrison said. “I can’t go to the bank and say ‘I need to borrow $300.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, right, get out of here.’ ”
Economic downturns always give rise to businesses offering loans to those in urgent need — and at a high premium, said Ellen Harnick, an executive vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending. But unlike car-title or payday loans, pawn customers don’t risk falling further into debt if they can’t make a payment.
“When the bill comes due and the person can’t afford it, if you have a pawn loan, the consequence is that you lose the thing you pawned,” Harnick said. “With these other lenders, you don’t have that out, so your debt mounts. And once it starts compounding, it can be pretty catastrophic.”
At Daddy’s Cash in Miami, Andres Arcila served a customer who worked at AmericanAirlines Arena — home of the Miami Heat — who wasn’t sure he’d get a full paycheck after the NBA suspended its season. Another told Arcila, the store’s manager, that he depended on contracts with Chinese customers who were behind on their payments.
“For a lot of people, in this moment, who’s going to lend you money for jewelry? For a computer? TV?” Arcila said. “Banks are not going to help you with that. We are their only hope.”
Eric Modell, a fourth-generation pawn broker in New York City, has had to accept the limits of what he can offer, even for customers with whom he has long-standing relationships. His business, Modell Collateral Loans, offers loans on jewelry and serves as a secondhand dealer.
Modell’s first sense that the economy was cracking came well before New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) started broadcasting live updates about the outbreak; it was when the travel industry began to bleed. A worker at a nearby Times Square hotel came into Modell’s 47th Street location saying his hours and pay had been cut. The man pawned a watch and gold items for several thousand dollars.
One day last month, a high-end jewelry manufacturer whom Modell has known for years brought in his entire product line. The jeweler told Modell he didn’t know how he would make rent or pay his employees.
“It was a hard thing to see,” Modell said. “He was trying to be proactive, but he knew he needed a significant amount of money. I think I gave him half of what he needed, but that’s all I could do.”
‘We’ll have to see how long we have’
The full weight of the coronavirus recession may have yet to hit Sharp County, but any support would be welcome. Under the federal relief package, small businesses of fewer than 500 employees can apply for loans.
In rural Arkansas, “small businesses can be one, two or three employees — mom and dad and son and daughter running the business,” Barnes said. He added that the individual stimulus checks of $1,200 would be a “blessing from the sky” for many families.
“We’ll have to see how long we have until we, unfortunately, exhaust our other resources to get by, to even buy groceries,” Barnes said, “maybe buy a few extra cleaning supplies.”
Triple R Pawn will be there. On weekdays, Rowland closes the shop around 4:30 p.m., though the phones ring for hours beyond that. He might fill evenings or weekends scrolling through Twitter and TikTok, or taking his boat out to “social distance in the middle of the lake.” Pamela has been trying to prepare and pack healthy dinners for Jeremy, though she’s still satisfying his sweet tooth with his favorite German chocolate cake.
For the Rowlands, the test of these times — the pandemic, living apart, hauling generators out of peoples’ trunks — briefly fades away sometime after 9 p.m. Jeremy settles into the brown recliner in his makeshift home. And once more, his cellphone lights up, this time with a FaceTime call from Pamela and Ty, their 18-year-old son.
Photography by Terra Fondriest for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design by Audrey Valbuena. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld.