The Women of Pawn

The last few years, the pawn industry has worked tirelessly to improve its image, as well as deflect or mitigate the stereotypical portrayal of a pawnbroker.  Nothing does this better than the realization that there are many women pawnbrokers that are working in the industry.  The number of women pawnbrokers has grown in the last decade, as well as their involvement as advocates for the industry on a regional, state, and national level.  

The truth is, most people simply do not equate pawnbroking with the better sex.  Just type “female pawnbroker” into Google and you will get a quick idea of just how little attention women in the pawn industry have received.  Names like Rick Harrison, Seth Gold, Scott Lee Cohen and Chumlee abound in the media with few women garnering mention even in local newspapers.  

Whether it is acknowledged or not, the women of the pawn industry are working hard everyday to build their businesses and their industry, to change the way pawnbrokers are perceived as a whole.  2010 has been a strong year for the industry, and it is women who have been behind many major breakthroughs, and are a driving force in affecting real change.  

Was it always this way?  There was a time when there were few or no women on the scene, even in the NPA.  Ramona Thompson can recall a day when she was the only woman on the 55 member National Pawnbrokers Association Board of Directors.  She longed to have a female colleague on the board, to say nothing of the fact that few women even participated in early NPA conventions. Ramona is still going strong, has three daughters in the business, and continues to visit senators and representatives in Washington, DC.  She now serves on the NPA Board of Directors with at least five other women.

While there are thousands of women working in the pawn industry, we have chosen five outstanding pawnbrokers because of their diverse approach to business, as well as their exemplary work for the National Pawnbrokers Association as a whole. In politics, business, community relations, law enforcement or innovation, each woman brings to her business a unique, personal touch and a diverse set of focuses. From the veterans to the rookies, they all have great stories to tell.  

Fran Bishop

Ramona Thompson’s prayers were answered in 1998 when Fran Bishop, by then a seven year NPA member, walked onto the NPA Board of Directors.  It would be hard to give Fran a proper introduction, she has served the NPA in so many different facets: NPA Past President, she heads up the Association’s legislative efforts, she has lobbied in Washington DC on behalf of the pawn industry more times than she can remember, and the list goes on and on.  Suffice it to say, everyone who has come in contact with Fran Bishop holds her in high esteem.  

“In my other life I grew up milking cows in Michigan,” she said, narrating the path that would eventually lead to becoming a pawnbroker.  After she got out of school, Fran went to work for Piggly Wiggly corporate headquarters and became the second woman vice president of the company.  She explained how she worked for an attorney who sent her to train as a paralegal. “It gave me every opportunity,” she said. “Anything I wanted to do or to change, I could do it.  That was the way it worked: If you wanted to dig it out, here’s your shovel.”

From there, Fran opened a rent to own business with her husband in Alabama, and it was through the businesses that Fran met a couple that integrated pawn shops into their rent to own store.  Minnie Williams would be the first female pawnbroker that Fran would ever meet.  “I used to say ‘When I grow up, I want to be like Minnie.’  They told us to see what they had done and so we went to Boseman, Montana and she showed me the ropes. When we came home, we got a glass counter and started making loans in February of 1989.  We had very little in the beginning, and knew even less.  We even took our own jewelry to put on display. In a few years, the pawn store took over most of the space and we have expanded two or three times.”

In the 1980’s, Fran explained, being a female pawnbroker wasn’t always easy.  “Customers always wanted to see the guy…bossman…dude, and you just have to stand your ground.”  Fran coined the response, “Sometimes I’ve been known to know what I’m doing.”  
At the start of her tenure on the NPA Board, Fran was dissatisfied with the balance of men to women.  “The complexion of the board did not reflect the industry, and I wanted to find more women for the board.  The first meeting in Houston, early 90’s, not a lot of women there and they didn’t say a lot.  But if you got on a round table, and got them around, they would really come out and talk.  It’s the sign of the times, the evolution of women coming to the forefront.”

Fran Bishop is currently the leader of the NPA Government Relations Committee.  They have tackled all kinds of legislative issues and are currently working on challenging the new IRS 1099 Tax Code Amendments.   One of the biggest and most rewarding tasks she has ever had to face was improving the relationship between the pawn industry and the ATF.  She worked hard to improve communications between the pawnbrokers and the ATF.  “We fixed an adversarial relationship.”

Nancy Martin

Another longtime pawnbroker and NPA Board Member, Nancy Martin began her career as a gold buyer in North Carolina in1980.  Up until that point she had been a stay at home mom.  “So many of our gold buying customers told us we should try pawnbroking,” she said.  “We had an empty store building, and we had to learn from scratch, no family history or reference to pawnbroking, but we committed ourselves wholly to it.”

According to Nancy, in the beginning a woman pawnbroker was tough.  “When I started pawnbroking, I was lied to by almost everyone that would come in.  Customers thought they could tell me that my husband gave them a better deal or something of that sort.  I developed an index card system where I kept every loan, and I would flip to a card and reference a past loan quickly.  But some of the customers preferred me.  I believe that a big percentage of people would go to their mothers for money instead of their fathers.  Therefore, a female was a normal place to go for money.  Once I understood that, I relaxed and everything was just fine.”

Fast becoming an industry leader, Nancy helped form the NC State Pawnbrokers Association in 1989.  “Our laws were antiquated and not a stable base on which to operate,” she explained.  “We were manipulated by law enforcement a little in the start.  Our image in the minds of law makers was negative, but we fought to improve it the whole time.”

What started out as an unfortunate incident, forced Nancy to help educate law enforcement.  “Both my husband and I were arrested because an officer confiscated a pawned firearm from our store, and I knew by common sense that they could not do it.  However, there was not any law to protect us.  We should be allowed to hold merchandise in our possession until we needed to go to court.  It was police harassment.  We were fingerprinted and photographed for mugshots.  They dismissed the case eventually.  From that point on, my goal was to maintain a good rapport with the police, while educating people how the business works.  I grew up in a family that was not political, but because of the situation I had to learn the law.  By knowing the law I was able to achieve a compromise with law enforcement and put an end to them confiscating illegal merchandise illegally.”

After a long and successful career, her advice to other would be pawnbrokers, “It really is a man’s world.  We have to prove that we’re worthy and capable.  I’m a widow now, and the weight stops on my shoulders.  It is a struggle, a little harder perhaps.  But the feeling is greater to know that I did it.”

“I think it’s a wonderful job, I feel like I’m helping people everyday and that’s why I still do it.”  Nancy Martin is 73 years old and still working the pawn counter with her daughter.

Jessica Barakat

Jessica Barakat is young, talkative and vivacious, with long dark hair and a natural style. Barakat runs community 10Ks, advocates for small businesses in her town and has worked in the family business since she was a girl.

Barakat runs Crown Pawnbrokers, a pawnshop on 14th Street in downtown Washington, D.C., positioned in the historic U Street corridor. She is a third generation pawnbroker. Barakat’s grandfather opened up shop on 14th Street in 1939, selling tailored suits. When the pawn industry started growing in the 1960s, he secured his pawnbrokers’ license and extended his business to include musical instruments and electronics.

Barakat worked in the shop on weekends and holidays through school, and gradually started taking on more responsibility. Her approach to the business mirrors her grandfather’s.  “He would loan way over what things were worth,” Barakat said, “because it was a relationship. That’s part of being a good pawnbroker.”

Barakat is currently working on a graduate gemologist degree. From her mid-town location, Barakat has watched the neighborhood undergo a lot of change. Today, Crown Pawnbrokers is in a vibrant part of town bustling with foot traffic.

“Our neighborhood has changed immensely,” Barakat said. “Fifteen years ago, there was nothing here,” she said. “Now, there’s a doggie day care, thrift stores, a flower shop – new things pop up all the time. I think we fit right in,” she said with a smile.

Barakat says her shop fits in well with the popular go-green movement and its promotion of sustainability and reusing items. “People are getting more comfortable with the going green, and that’s essentially what we do.  For customers who come and sell last year’s model of a leading digital camera, I’m able to make them feel a little better.”

“We have fun every day,” Barakat said. “It’s a fun job.”

Diane Taylor

Diane Taylor comes from a retail background and has worked tirelessly to improve the image of pawnbrokers and to make communities aware of the good work pawnbrokers are doing every day.  “Like many women in the industry, I didn’t grow up saying I want to be a pawnbroker,” she said. “I have a degree in marketing merchandising and advertising.”  Her husband is a jeweler and it is this unique blend that has brought a more clean and corporate structure to the business.  

She’s also the first woman president of the Collateral Loan and Second Hand Dealers Association of California and serves on the NPA Board of Directors.  She says that people are more willing to engage her, because she breaks the stereotypes.  “I haven’t been turned away because of it.  In fact, in Washington, DC we had an appointment with a high-powered legislator’s staff member.  When we arrived, the legislator met us directly, because of his interest in Pawn Stars, and because I was in his district.  We help the community more than anyone realizes.”

Kathy Pierce

A mother of three, Kathy runs the successful Monster Pawn in Illinois.  She is active on the Board of Directors and is also the chair of the Future Business Leaders Scholarship.

“I’m a busy girl,” she laughed.  

She finds that being a woman in the pawn industry is an advantage.  “They just don’t play with us, they see us as their mom their sister.  I also get the construction guys who try to tell me that I don’t know how much their equipment is, but they have to get used to a girl knowing her tools and being in charge.”

She says that she thinks there aren’t more women in the industry, because they simply never thought about applying at a pawn shop to get a job.  “When I was growing up, I never thought about doing this,” she admits.  “I have a Bachelor’s in Mass Communications.  You work at the pawn shop and you find out you’re good at it and you’re like huh… You have a sense of humor, you have to be intelligent and have a strong sense of self.”

Janis Feazelle

Janis has owned and operated her store in South Carolina for 25 years. She learned the trade from her father, who opened his own store during Janis’ senior year in high school. At first Janis was shocked about her father’s decision. He had been a lobbyist and had a prestigious military career.  Janis had never dreamed that he would enter into the pawn industry to build a business that he could leave to his children.  
“He said he was going to open a Pawnshop and I almost fell off the bed.  I thought, why would you open a pawnshop,” she explained. “Hollywood has always been unfair about the way it portrays us, but when I started going into my father’s shop I realized that pawn shops weren’t at all what I thought.”

When in 1985, her husband decided he was going to open a pawnshop of his own, Janis’ father helped him get started.  In 1986 when her husband suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away, she had to make a split decision about keeping the shop open.  “We were only open for 8 months. I had to make a conscious decision and keep it. My youngest brother was just out of the navy and I asked him if he would come work for me.  And so he ran the store, until I resigned from my corporate job.”

Janis explained that she struggled with customers expressing amazement and doubt about a woman owning a pawn shop. “We’re in a small town and I would let my brother make all the decisions,” she said. “Normally, I would correct or tweak him after the fact. For that reason, most people believed he was owner of the store. If there was a problem solving issue, and they wanted to speak to the owner, they were surprised to see a woman. There was a time when nobody would believe it. It’s not that way so much anymore.”

According to Janis, women make great pawnbrokers because they are compassionate and take the time to listen to their customers’ issues. As an NPA Board Member and a seasoned pawnbroker, she encourages more women to join the industry. “Don’t let your inhibitions hold you back,” she advises. “It is a little intimidating, but it’s a largely regulated industry, and once you get started, you learn something new everyday.  It’s inspiring.”  

Across the board, women in the pawn industry work side by side with their male counterparts bringing their unique perspective, skills and business acumen to the job.  The industry is stronger because of it.  

Fran Bishop states, “I would like to see more women stepping up on the state level as well as the national level to work on committees and hold offices.”  She says that it’s important to get into a leadership position and not just to attend the meetings. “Come to the front girls!  I’m not going to be doing this forever and neither is Ramona!”