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Life Lessons from a Cynical Pawnbroker

"Every now and then you need to tell people to fuck off."

by Royce Kurmelovs
Dec 7 2015, 4:35pm

Michael Smith. All photos by the author

There is a chess set made of whale teeth in Michael Smith's front window. It was carved by a farmer from Mount Barker, South Australia, he says. Behind the counter, he's got a bass guitar, but he says it's crap. Over the last few months he's gone through three limited edition Gibsons and a Les Paul 50 anniversary edition which he sold for $7,000 [$5,000 USD] to a lawyer.

Smith and Sinclair is the oldest independent pawnshop in Perth, Australia, and Smith, 46, is quite possibly the world's most cynical pawnbroker. About 18 months ago, he officially took over from his father, who had also taken it over from his father. The fittings haven't changed since Smith's grandfather, a watchmaker, opened a store after WWII and the business has outlived three buildings since.

The shop is mostly a jeweler, but Smith says the pawnbroker sign out front is a glowing beacon to the city's "scumbags." On any given day, he wrestles with the best and worst Perth has to offer and it gives him a special kind of wisdom he's happy to share.

On Perth: "Great lifestyle. Mean city. Never used to be that way, but it probably is now. Just breathing in Perth will cost you a fortune."

On business: "I don't like avoidable hassles."

On hassles: "Stand firm. Tell them to get fucked, piss off, get out."

On people: "Everyone's someone else. Everyone's telling a story."

On wedding rings and divorce: "Gold is gold. Diamond is diamond. But the kids, they get all sold up in the romance."

On living: "There are a million different ways to live a life."

On school reunions: "Most people are happy living tiny lives."

Smith's father and uncle when they first introduced computers. It was so strange it made the paper.

In exchange for buying him a beer, he tells me how he got started in the family business when he got kicked out of school because he spent his time surfing instead of staring at books. When he failed his Year 11 exams, the principal chewed him out and told him not to come back. After that he went to work in his uncle's shop in Fremantle, back when it was still a "dirty, port harbor town" full of "wharfies and junkies and bogans." As he explains, "for a 16-year-old suburban boy, I was in good company."

That was 1985 and a golden age for the city's pawnbrokers. There were "60, 70 guys" between Fremantle and Perth looking to make a dollar buying low and selling high, he says. Among them were the two guys who started Cash Converters; Smith still remembers them "sniffing around." A little later, they opened several stores across the city and went global, making them the most internationally recognizable West Australian export next to Gina Rinehart.

Smith is full of war stories from his time behind the counter. His store has been robbed once, after hours. He's dragged passed-out junkies from his doorway and watched as people tried to lift his jewelry in front of him. Once a woman attempted a snatch-and-run on two rings Smith had been showing her. She was quick, but he was quicker. Before she could make it out of the store, he had hit the remote locks and watched, laughing, as she struggled with the door. "I wish I still had the CCTV footage," he says.

It happens about once a week, someone walks in with stolen jewelry and a story about how they inherited it from their aunt or uncle.

Then there's the regular check-ups by cops. "We had this one a few months back," he says. "A real attitude on him and he thought all pawnbrokers are scum. So I said to him call coppers are bent. He was stunned I put it back on him.

"Every now and then you need to tell people to fuck off."

And it happens about once a week, usually when someone walks in with stolen goods and a story about how they inherited it from their aunt or uncle. It might be a ring, a necklace, or a nice watch, but it doesn't matter, because the story always changes and Smith won't touch it. Regulations cover every aspect of the industry and Smith's family have been in business for over 60 years because they know exactly what a thing is worth. Someone else's watch is worthless.

Michael Smith. The doctor had cut away "a bit of something" from his ear earlier that day.

"They think they're actually telling you something new," he says. "But I've lived a life. I think the way these scumbags think. They think they're being original, but the 20-year-old dumb-shit junkies now are no different to those 30-years-ago."

People have all kinds of reasons to pawn their formerly treasured possessions. Smith told me about a once-wealthy socialite who needed a loan to fly business class to keep face with her friends and a mother who talked about her kids while she borrowed money to gamble with. Then there was the young guy in the flashy suit who had just developed a taste for the substances and was trying to pawn the family jewelry.

Then there are surprises, like Smith's richest customer, who wears clothes full of holes and smells like an alleyway, or the hopeless, 50-year-old, street-sleeping junkie who actually managed to turn his life around.

From his shop window, Smith looks out onto Perth's street and watches it walk right in through his front door. Sometimes its whales' teeth or ivory and sometimes it's trouble. Very rarely, it comes in wanting a little bit of wisdom, but when it does, that's something Michael Smith gives for free.

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