May 11, 2011 -- If you're in the market for a 10-foot suit of armor -- or have some stuff to sell for quick cash -- Naperville Jewelry and Loan, just west of Chicago, is your treasure destination.
Pawn shops are no longer seedy places with barred windows where lowlifes hock an old guitar or wristwatch to buy a bottle of Night Train. The tough economic times have made these shops the hot place for buying and selling used goods -- just as popular as eBay, yard sales or Goodwill.
"This approachable pawn shop idea has made it so that resale has become kind of chic," said Greg Holloway, one of the four owners of Naperville Jewelry and Loan. "People are into getting a deal and proud of the deal they're getting when they really make a killing."
Pawn shops are stars in the latest reality-show trend, with shows on The History Channel and Spike, among others. "Pawn Queens," airing Thursdays on TLC, features the Naperville shop and its owners: Minda Grabiec, Nikki Ruehl, Tom Brunzelle and Holloway.
Backing up Holloway's claim that resale is "chic," the shop does surprisingly robust trade in Tiffany jewelry and gifts.
"Relationships end every day," Grabiec said. "Someone wants a piece of Tiffany and they don't want to fork out several hundred dollars."
"You can clean it up and it'll look brand new," Ruehl added. "No one will ever know."
Even though Ruehl described their typical "client" as "a woman between ... mid-20s to probably mid-40s" -- not the traditional pawn shop customer -- the four owners said they quickly realized their store couldn't rely just on the female shopper.
"We wanted to [open] a store for women," Ruehl said. "But of course when you start a new business … we needed merchandise to fill the store, and people just started coming. We cater to all ages, all genders."
But they do a huge business in purses. "Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes," Ruehl exclaimed. "Women come in with purses left and right."
The old standby jewelry is still popular. But the latest high-tech gadgets compete for shelf and counter space.
"We see a lot of iPods, iPod stuff, i-anything," Ruehl said.
Then there are the offbeat items, fascinating cases of what some people deem valuable. A 10-foot-tall suit of armor in the shop doesn't have a price tag attached yet. Bill Clinton and Pee Wee Herman figures and Mae West dolls will find new owners someday. One man brought in a dog bed studded with 95,000 Swarovski crystals he claimed cost him $20,000, the owners said.
"We took a pass," Holloway said.
With precious-metal prices at stratospheric highs -- and the economy still in the dumps -- the shop is seeing a lot more gold and silver items ... even complete table settings.
"What used to be a family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation, people are cashing in," Brunzelle said.
"At $40 an ounce, it makes your fork worth $30," Holloway added.
Some customers use the store to unload after spring cleaning, others need it for more pressing reasons.
"There're still people unemployed, unfortunately," Ruehl said.
"People don't have their savings, their little cushion like they used to," Grabiec said. "Something happens with their car, or some other emergency pops up, and they need money that day."
"Or just to pay their mortgage, period," Ruehl said.
"We kind of roll our eyes when we hear, 'I'm trying to finance my trip to Paris,'" Brunzelle added. "But then you really feel heartfelt about the dad who's saying, 'You're putting food on my table.'"
Although the owners have found a successful niche in a slow economy, redefining a standby of American retail in the process, they aren't getting rich quick.
"We're staying afloat, getting the bills paid," Brunzelle said. "No new cars in the parking lot."