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As income drops, Queens turns to pawnshops

There is the husband who has not told his wife he has fallen behind on mortgage payments, the girl who drove from Boston to New York for a job interview and did not have money to get home, the teacher who just cannot pay the ever−increasing bills.

These are the people who now frequent the borough’s pawnshops, store owners and residents said. These are the people — the MTA workers, the elementary school teachers, the middle−class parents — who may never have given a pawnshop a second glance in years past.

But some Queens residents and pawnshop owners said that was before the economic recession began taking its toll and keeping them up at night.

“I just wait until my wife falls asleep and I walk around the house because I can’t sleep,” said Martin, who asked that his last name not be used as he stood outside Kharag Pawnbroker on Sutphin Boulevard in Jamaica. “You feel like you’re drowning because you just can’t pay everything that needs to be paid.”

Martin, 46, who would only say he works in the transportation business and lives in southern Queens, has yet to tell his wife he has missed some of their mortgage payments. He is hoping he will soon get caught up on his debts, which is why he has begun to frequent area pawnshops, selling and taking loans on items he hopes his wife will not notice are missing, including a family heirloom.

Martin’s story is not uncommon, and pawnshop owners said they hear increasingly sad tales all the time. The stories have always been an inevitable part of being in the pawn business, they said, but the patrons have become more desperate the further the economy has sunk.

“We’re seeing a lot of middle−class people that we weren’t seeing before,” said Brian Cabrera, owner of 5 Borough Pawn in Richmond Hill. “We’re seeing teachers, MTA workers, police officers. All these people are getting laid off, and banks aren’t giving money to anyone. We’re the ones helping them out.”

There are 30 licensed pawnbrokers in Queens, according to the city Department of Consumer Affairs. At these stores individuals can sell a wide variety of items, from fur coats to stereo systems or saxophones, and can take out a loan on items , such as high−end jewelry.

Pawnshops primarily make their money on the interest they charge on the items they typically hold for up to four months. Brokers in New York state may legally charge no more than 4 percent interest.

While many customers tell shop owners they often use the money for bills, Ryan Ali, a loan officer at 5 Borough Pawn, said he has noticed people who need the money just to pay for groceries or gas.

“A young lady came down from Boston for a job interview, and she got turned around and ended up here,” Ali said. “She pawned her necklace to get a bite to eat and pay tolls.”

Leslie, a public school teacher from Jamaica who did not want her last name used, said outside Sutphin Boulevard’s Cash on the Spot that she recently sold one of her two televisions for a couple hundred dollars to help pay her rent.

“I might try to sell the other one, even though it’s older,” she said. “Maybe the recession will be good for my reading habits.”

Natasha Maraj, an employee at Kharag Pawnbroker and a Jamaica resident, said she has seen the number of customers grow by at least 40 percent since last year. And in another sign of hard times, customers more frequently need an extension to help pay to get the item back, Maraj said.

Many of the borough’s pawnshop owners said more than 85 percent of their clients are able to pay back their loans and retrieve such items as 2 12 carat diamonds and Cartier watches.

“People seem to be parting with finer goods,” said Kenneth Conn, director of human resources at Gem Pawnbrokers, a chain that has shops in Astoria, Queens Village and Jamaica. “People are giving gold, larger diamonds, antique estate jewelry and family heirlooms.”

Gem Pawnbrokers has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of customers since last year, Conn said.

“They’ve lost their job, they’re scared they’re about to lose their job or their unemployment has run out,” Conn said about Gem’s clients. “They need to make ends meet. At least in this sour economy, someone is still lending.”

Despite the falling economy, pawnshop owners and city officials said they have not seen any increase in stolen goods. There have been 17 complaints filed with the Department of Consumer Affairs about pawnshops, but none involved illegal activity, such as running a store without a license, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Miller said.

“Most of those complaints were about contract and billing disputes,” she said. “To date we have not seen an uptick in complaints.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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