AN ATLANTA INSTITUTION FOR 63 YEARS
David Goldwasser gets a good laugh when he watches the History Channel’s hit show “Pawn Stars,” a reality-based television show dramatizing a family of pawnbrokers paying big money for sought-after items. However, Goldwasser knows from personal experience that the real business of running a pawnshop is far from the romanticized Hollywood version.
For 63 years, the Goldwasser family ran the Brooklyn Loan Company in downtown Atlanta, and the harsh reality of the business often involved helping patrons navigate the complex game of human survival.
In 1937, Goldwasser’s Jewish immigrant father Harry bought the pawnshop from Abe Abelson and moved the store to 763 Marietta Street in the Bellwood District. At that time, Atlanta was still feeling the grip of the Great Depression; hungry, jobless, hopeless people formed long soup kitchen lines against the backdrop of closed banks.
As they do in today’s economic crisis, pawnshops like the Brooklyn Loan Company became financial alternatives to banks during the Depression. Customers burdened with the cloak of poverty came into Harry’s pawnshop seeking relief in the form of quick cash for valuable items.
“The Depression made everyday living hard in Atlanta,” Goldwasser said. “It’s fascinating to me to look through the old store records and see how many loans my father gave to people on a weekly basis, some as low as $1 and as high as $10. The average loan during the time was $3.” A dollar had a lot of buying power during the Depression, as a loaf of bread was 15 cents and a dozen eggs was 15 cents.
The Brooklyn Loan Company emerged from the Depression with a solid clientele. Many of Harry Goldwasser’s customers credited his store with helping them survive the Depression, and the proprietor was called the “Good Jew” by many of his customers.
In the following years, the store found a niche specializing in high-tech instruments and equipment. Students, ardent hunters, industrial workers everybody who came in could find whatever they were looking for, as the store sold everything from microscopes to frets to banjos to kites to gold to rare ammunition and grovers.
The shop also offered watch and radio repair. Even local companies had accounts at the store because no other store had as extensive a stock as the Brooklyn Loan Company. Still, the store’s main clientele were still the poor working class people from the surrounding Bellwood District.
“[They] were the millworkers, the maids, cooks, bellhops, railway workers, immigrants, poor blacks and whites,” Goldwasser remembered. “They kept the business running.”
These were the folks who rode the trolley or walked to work coming from homes that still did not have indoor plumbing and electricity.
“Most people didn’t have electricity, so they would come into the shop and buy long extension cords to get electricity from a neighbor,” Goldwasser said. “People really took care of each other back then.”
Not only were the workers the backbone of the store’s business, but many of the workers used the store to build the city of Atlanta. Goldwasser remembers working in the store alongside his father as a teenager and seeing men with missing fingers and limbs buying industrial tools for their jobs.
Most of these workers were employed at the Exposition Cotton Mill, the Barrel Hoop Company, Anderson McGruff lumber yard, the railroad or one of the many other industries that populated the gritty Bellwood District.
In 1957, Goldwasser’s father died, and he took over the full management of the store and moved the store to a larger facility up the street to 751 Marietta Street. He was well-prepared for his new role; he continued to follow his father’s business model, especially the practice of making money but with the compassion for the customer at the forefront.
He knew that every pawned item had a story, and he built relationships by listening to his customers’ stories. He even instituted his own home-grown version of charity by keeping a running tab at a local café for extremely needy customers.
“A man came in and pawned his mechanical arm for a loan,” Goldwasser remembered. “After a year, he came back to get his arm, and I forgave the loan. He just really needed the money.”
However, there were some purchased items that were too sacred and too symbolic to ever resell.
“A Holocaust survivor came in and pawned his Russian prayer book,” Goldwasser said. “I still have the book. It is so beautiful and ornate.”
During the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Atlanta started changing socially and demographically, especially around the store. The Civil Rights movement started gaining national attention, and Goldwasser saw the changes all around him.
Although the Brooklyn Loan Company had always accepted a mixed-race clientele, the larger Atlanta business community did not; students started protesting local businesses like Woolworth’s and Lester Maddox’s Pickrick, which discriminated against non-whites.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, his brother came to Goldwasser’s store and other stores and asked them, if out of respect, they would close their stores on April 9, 1968, the day of King’s funeral.
“I closed the store because I respected Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Goldwasser attested. “He didn’t just help Atlanta, he helped the entire nation live up to the Constitution.”
As the automobile industry grew, the trolley system that so many locals relied on was replaced by buses, and the community around the store rapidly changed. People started moving to the suburbs, and many African Americans moved to a better income bracket when major Atlanta companies started hiring them.
“The clientele started becoming more transient and less stable,” Goldwasser said.
The Bellwood District disappeared as all of the industries closed or moved out of the state. In 1969, Goldwasser decided to move his business to Doraville, and, with the help of his friend Bernard Halpern, relocated to Pinetree Plaza Shopping Center. He stayed in business in Doraville for another 31 years.
He admits that if it were not for his mother May, his brother Michael, his sister Marcia and her husband Stuart Naterman, the store would never have survived as long as it did.
On Nov. 30, 2000, Goldwasser retired and closed the doors of the Brooklyn Loan Company forever; at the time, his store had the seventh-oldest federal firearms license in Georgia. Now, he spends his time traveling and teaching young entrepreneurs how to run a successful pawnshop business.
What he focuses on with his mentees is the reality of the pawnshop business. He warns young entrepreneurs that the Hollywood fantasy version is a hoax; people rarely go into a pawnshop selling their Picassos.
People will often come in jobless and homeless hoping that a treasured family heirloom will net enough to pay the mortgage.
“What kept me excited about my job was meeting and talking to people and learning that it’s possible to run a hard pawnshop business and still show compassion towards store clientele,” Goldwasser said.
Goldwasser knows that his family has been blessed to have a business that served the citizenry of Atlanta with passion for decades.
Editor’s note: Tiffany Parks is an English instructor at Gwinnett Technical College. She earned a master’s degree in English education at Georgia State University and enjoys writing.
By Tiffany Parks