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The Conversations With Distinguished Gentlemen Issue

Hock Talk

This is how the glorified pawnshop works, according to José Luis Arregín, the broker: Money-strapped clients hock their stuff for half its value in cash.
June 2, 2009, 12:00am

INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY ZARATUSTRA VÁZQUEZ

Nacional Monte de Piedad was founded in 1775, almost 50 years before Mexico declared its independence. Its HQ, a huge building bought during the 19th century, is located right in the heart of downtown Mexico City. This is how the glorified pawnshop works, according to José Luis Arregín, the broker: Money-strapped clients hock their stuff for half its value in cash. If the owners don’t pay the loan back in time, the object is sold and the other half of the money is mailed to the client. Sounds good, right? Still, I know many people who claim they’ve never received anything for stuff they left there. Then again, most of the people I asked smoke a lot of marijuana and often omit important details.

Vice: Hi. Any strange stories for us?

José Luis Arregín:

There once was a person who brought in his father’s ashes. The evaluator told him that he couldn’t receive them, but the guy said his mother had just died, that her body was lying in bed, and that he desperately needed the money. So the evaluator received the ashes as an “hourglass with no pedestal.” A few days later, the guy returned to retrieve the ashes.

Have you ever been cheated?

No, our team is very prepared. We often see customers who’ve been cheated. A client came to pawn a Rolex once—he had a bill that said he paid more than $10,000 for it. We told him it was fake, and the customer got really mad and started yelling at everybody. He said we were trying to rob him, that we were shit. He made a huge scandal but we convinced him he was cheated.

Anyone ever try to pawn a living creature?

Some time ago, a guy came with a lion.

Did he come in with the lion on a leash or did he just bring a photo?

He brought it in a van. He waited in line, and when he got to the window, he asked the evaluator to come outside and see the lion’s condition. I think the lion was OK, but of course we didn’t want anything to do with it.

Poor thing. The man was probably sure that you would be able to help him.

We do help! We opened a branch office on the coast, and a boatman came in with a shark’s jaw with guitar strings in between the teeth. It had a great sound. He said he had a big financial problem and that was the only valuable thing he owned. The evaluator was moved, and it was received as a “harp.”

INTERVIEW BY LANDER DEWEER PHOTOS BY ULRIKE BIETS

This year, the Mont-de-Piété (Mountain of Piety), in Brussels’ working-class Marollen district, celebrates its 390th birthday. It is the only pawnshop in all of Belgium, is run by the government, and looks like it was built for rich folks. We scored a short interview with one of the tellers, but when we tried to take a photo we were stopped by security and booted. This is what we got out of her on the way out.

Vice: Hi. Can you tell me the rules of this pawnshop?

Jenny:

The rules of Mont-de-Piété are very simple: Everyone can come here and pledge their valuables. The most common objects are jewelry, art, watches, and antiques. Our experts value the objects on the basis of an appraised amount, and we make a loan contract. The clients always receive cash.

What happens with these valuables?

Ninety-five percent of the goods get repaid by the original owners. The other 5 percent we sell at auction. Most of the clients only want to deposit their valuables. Recently a man offered us a massive bronze statue simply because he didn’t want to leave it at home while he went away for two weeks.

Have the world’s financial woes affected your business?

Sure. Over the last couple months, our clientele has grown strongly. If people get bills they can’t pay, they know we can always help them—no questions asked.

Upon ejection, we found an interesting cross section of patrons: rich, poor, white, black, old, young, male, and female. They all had two things in common: They reeked of embarrassment and they didn’t want to chat. (Our favorite excuse: “I don’t speak Dutch, French, or English.”) Finally, Nikira agreed to answer a couple questions as long as we didn’t snap her picture.

Vice: What’s a nice lady like you doing in a place like this?

Nikira:

Obviously, I need money. I’m about to visit my parents in Morocco, and I need to call them a lot to prepare for my trip. That’ll cost me, and I don’t make much money.

Did you pawn anything you really cared about today?

Some precious necklaces and bracelets I got from my ex-husband. I don’t live with that man anymore and I can’t wear three necklaces at once, so…

CONTINUED:
A PAWNSHOP IN... New York | Mexico City & Brussels | Amsterdam & Vienna | Paris & Milan | Berlin & São Paulo | Helsinki & Barcelona | Melbourne & Tokyo | Vancouver & Aukland | Stockholm & London |