BALTIMORE — Lined up outside on black asphalt, a row of power tools and bicycles sat lonely. Nudged among them was a sole lawn mower. On the brick building behind them, a crew of five grass trimmers leaned against the wall, pointing upward to a large green sign that read Superpawn.
Throughout an afternoon wave, five people showed up at the Laurel, Md., pawnshop solely to inquire about the lone lawn mower. Each person crouched and tiptoed in their own way to inspect the springtime necessity.
One man reached out to grab the handle and quickly pulled his arms back to his chest, glancing side to side; it was a momentary lapse in thinking and a sign of the current times of living during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly a month ago, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order closing nonessential businesses across the state. As a nonbank lender, pawnshops are able to keep their doors open.
Superpawn manager Brad Wood wasn't surprised pawnshops are allowed to stay open under Hogan's order. He knows the necessity of them, especially now.
"I know how many people come to us to make almost every month's paycheck or every other month's paycheck or when they don't get enough hours," said Wood, 32, of Ellicott City. "We're the only people who are willing to help them. A bank is not going to give them money. Right now, more than ever, people need cash."
That need was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 297,000 people filing for unemployment in Maryland over the past month as businesses were forced to shutter.
"Most of the people that need the unemployment (checks), the people who got laid off first, they're not getting money and they can't wait a couple more weeks so that's why we're here," Wood said. "That's the community that we serve."
Before the coronavirus, Superpawn owner Brad Kay said there wasn't a time during the store's regular 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. hours when at least three customers weren't being helped. Regulars and newcomers alike were constantly roaming the aisles of the 4,000-square-foot shop. That is no longer Kay's reality.
Since he shut down his showroom at the end of March, an effort to keep employees and customers safe, business has naturally been slower. Kay, 52, has certain items lined up outside his store, things like the lonely lawn mower and other outdoor necessities that people may be looking for during the pandemic. Otherwise, he's dependent on online sales and customers who pawn.
At Superpawn, the five to six employees on shift at any given time wear masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Four gray plastic tables create a blockade outside the front door, preventing customers from entering the shop. Wood and other employees frequently remind customers to stay 6 feet apart.
The store also now has reduced hours, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday.
"It's still frightening, especially to be out in public, especially helping the public like we do," Kay said.
Kimp Grant, a regular customer, was back Wednesday, three days after he had pawned a computer. He returned to get it back, Grant's way of supporting local businesses.
"I know businesses around here are going to be suffering a lot," Grant said. "I came up here, put something in and then brought it out to help them a little bit."
With Grant's transaction, Superpawn was able to make money off the pawn fee charged for selling and buying back the item, usually about $15 per $100. Wood said pawn fees are crucial revenue during the pandemic.
Kay said he has seen a spike in online sales. He's offering customers "lightning fast shipping" and a 30-day money-back deal for anything bought online. Those offers help in all but one department.
"You can't really sell jewelry (online) typically. That's one of the biggest hits," Kay said. "That's the kind of thing people like to look at personally and up close."
In person, however, jewelry has been a popular item to pawn, according to Wood.
"People take (the wedding ring) off their finger (to pawn)," he said. "And once they get it back, they put it right back on their finger."
For Wood, those sales are heartbreaking.
"It's hard to go through a transaction like that and not feel," Wood said, shaking his head. "That's the only thing that they have that's of intrinsic value, something that's of value that they can get cash for to do what they need to do."
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