Business for the Maitland Pawn Shop was uncharacteristically brisk in the first weeks of lockdown. Not with a steady stream of clients trying to sell their valuables for cash, but with tradespeople, contractors, and do-it-yourself handymen and women trying to find that elusive second-hand tool.
Their secret was having those tools when places that normally sell new tools were closed. Although most of its 35 years have been spent buying and selling second-hand goods, the store has shifted to also selling new hardware parts and tools. This allowed it to operate throughout the lockdown.
Owner Johan van Rensburg says: “Sales on that side of the business picked up tremendously, but that’s because the big hardware stores did not want to open.”
As the lockdown moved to level four, Van Rensburg says he has been surprised that people haven’t flooded in to pawn their belongings. This state of affairs has caused quite a debate among his office staff — people are struggling to make ends meet, so why aren’t they selling?
“People are always needing cash, especially now. But they probably think we are closed. We would have thought people would be flocking to sell valuable goods,” Van Rensburg says.
The shop is filled from floor to ceiling with vintage furniture, birdcages and lawnmowers. Lampshades hang from the ceiling, and copper faucets compete for space with rolls of duct tape. The business is also taking advantage of the need for hand sanitisers and alcohol-based hand rubs. The building is bursting at the seams, with some products placed outside the shop.
“The year started out like any year would, with a flood of people exchanging valuables for cash during the long January month and, since then, it’s changed tremendously. But pawning has been quiet recently,” Van Rensburg says, standing over his wood-and-glass counter holding more valuable and sentimental items like rings, watches and chains.
But although pawning has been slower than usual, sales have picked up in products for what he can only imagine are home DIY projects.
“A lot of people who have money in the pocket are coming in to buy things we have on sale from people who have no need for it or need the money. I’ve had clients who are sitting bored at home wanting to start projects and build workshops, so they’re coming in to buy benches, tools; it’s usually trade tools they’re looking for,” he says.
One area of the business that has seen an increase is Van Rensburg’s small money-lending scheme. He offers people money in exchange for holding their valuables as collateral. They pay off the debt monthly, with interest, and their items are returned when they have repaid in full.
“The people who come and borrow money using their valuables are usually working- to middle-class people. They generally are employed; many of them are government workers waiting on their next paycheck. And some of them are just waiting to be called back to work again. They use chains and rings. Nothing that is too valuable,” he says.
“We’ve had a few people come to us from the suburbs, which are a bit far away. It is making me think people have been seeing our website and saw that we are open.”
But as the economy buckles under the restrictions of lockdown, fewer people can pay their debts. Van Rensburg has a backlog of people he needs to call to remind them about their debt. But he stresses he doesn’t want to be a “jerk in times like this.”