Retailers may have suffered more than most in the current recession but Phil Vinter discovered that there’s one one high street fixture that is going from strength to strength.
In a dimly lit, dirty alleyway in an unsalubrious part of town a scruffy Fagin-type character sits behind thick iron bars licking his lips at the prospect of exploiting desperate folk who have fallen on hard times by giving them a few pounds for their expensive trinkets. . .
I’d never entered a pawnbrokers before, but that’s how I’d always imagined it would be. Dodgy, unsavoury, dangerous. One step up from a loan shark. Somewhere to avoid at all costs.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Uncle’s pawnbrokers in Bordesley Green to find out more about this multimillion pound business. The first surprise was its location. Far from being a rundown side street in a part of town no one visits, I found myself by a busy roundabout, next to a main road by a row of shops.
I had expected the frontage to be a small barred window topped by dirty, peeling, gold-lettered writing. Instead I was greeted by bright green signage which screamed out the name and nature of the business. A large window displayed chains, bracelets and all manner of jewellery for sale.
Inside it had the feel of a bookies – sparsely decorated with a barred, glass-fronted counter at one end. Harrods it may not be, but retail is not the nature of this business.
Then the door opened. A customer. A woman in her early forties.
“Hello there,” she said as she entered.
“What can we do for you today?” Replied 55-year-old Simon Rider from behind the counter.
The woman pulled a bracelet from her pocket and asked how much they would give her for it?
Simon inspected it closely with a magnifying glass and said: “How much do you need?”
“I was hoping for 40 quid,” said the woman.
Mr Rider looked up from the jewellery towards the woman. “I’ll give you 50 if you like,”
“Great,” she said.
That I thought would be the end of the conversation, but to my surprise it wasn’t. Mr Rider and co-manager Sarah Davies then started chatting to the woman about her recent holiday to Turkey.
It turned out the woman, Mary Manning, had been using the shop for more than two decades to pawn items when she needed a few extra quid.
Ms Manning said: “It is convenient. If you know you have got the assets and you know you are going to get it back then it is better than selling it.
“I do think there are some dodgy people out there and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I know the people here and I know they are fair and will try and work with you if you are struggling to pay them back in time. They don’t just sell your products as soon as your credit ticket is up.”
According to 41-year-old co-owner Karl Pountney, who also owns branches in Aston and Northfield, the key to the business’s success is the friendship and trust he and his staff have built up with customers over the 24 years since he set the business up with his father.
“It is a business, but most of our customers have been using us for years. We want them to come back so we try and work with them as much as we can. If we know them and trust them we’ll always give them a few extra pounds for the items they bring in.” To trade legally pawnbrokers must have a consumer credit licence. Anyone with a criminal record is refused. Under the terms of the licence a minimum of six months credit must be provided by pawnbroker.
Before offering credit to customers, three forms of ID have to be verified and Mr Pountney said he has to be confident that the person selling the item is the owner.
Between four and nine per cent interest (lower interest rates for more expensive goods) are offered on items and providing the interest is paid off after six months, the customer is issued with another ‘ticket’ giving another six months credit. The amount of credit given for an item is anywhere between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of its estimated value.
A Fort Knox-style security set up featuring CCTV cameras, quadruple locking doors and time lock safes keep the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods stored safely in the three shops. Mr Pountney said that what he does is no different to what banks do.
“I loan money to people just like a bank does, but I provide credit a lot more quickly and often to people who for whatever reason might not be able to get credit from a bank,” he said
To have survived and successfully grown the business over a quarter of a century, Uncle’s must have developed a good reputation, but Mr Pountney although things have improved in recent years there are, unfortunately, many unscrupulous credit lending establishments still about.
“I’ve heard some terrible stories about people selling their gold off after seeing an advert on TV for a tenth of a price of what it’s worth,” he said. “Gold has gone up a lot in value recently, but it is going to go up even more. I would strongly advise people to hang on to their gold, or if they need money now pawn it, but don’t sell it yet, especially not at some of the prices I’ve seen quoted.”
Mr Poutney said he has had a wide variety of customers coming into his shops over the years. Everyone from young single mothers to Premiership sports stars.
“I can’t reveal names, but I have had some famous and very wealthy people come through the doors over the years. I’ve had several footballers who were struggling with gambling problems. I’ve had a boxing world champion and several hugely successful businessmen.
“It’s important to note that we don’t just help people who are struggling financially, we’ve also been responsible for helping a number of people start up successful businesses by giving them credit when the banks wouldn’t touch them.”
Run properly and fairly pawnbrokers can provide a useful service and Uncle’s is clearly a million miles away from the dark, dangerous world of loan sharks.
As I turned to walk out and saw the three of them smiling and chatting to another regular, the image of a scruffy Fagin and a nasty Bill Sykes working their evil from behind the counter couldn’t be further from my mind.
* Fact File
Top ten most unusual items Uncle’s has been asked for credit on:
1. Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 97/98 – £10,000
2. Lonsdale boxing belt – £8,000
3. Canal boat – £20,000
4. Mink coat – £3,000
5. Steam train – £4,000
6. Painting – £15,000
7. Olympic torch signed by Muhammad Ali – £10,000
8. George Best autographed photo – £3,000
9. Medals belonging to a lady mayoress – £2,000
10. Kashmir rug – £1,300