Behind the counter at Central Loan & Gun Exchange hangs a six-and-a-half-foot-long assault rifle. The recoil from such a weapon could send the shooter flying over a pole-vault bar. Of course, it's only a replica used for teaching purposes in the military; even a child who's only handled Super Soakers could tell it's a fake.
This article's author, John Metcalfe, talks here about reporting the article, his worst experience with guns, and what he keeps in his personal arsenal.
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Or so you'd think. "Every day, somebody would come in here and say, 'What kind of gun is that? Wow—I'd like to have that gun!'" says Alan Goldman, the pawnshop's 60-year-old owner. Weary of explaining the obvious, a few years ago an employee attached a sign to the ridiculously oversized weapon reading, "This is an enlarged model."
"And they still ask," Goldman says.
Customers who dream of owning guns they can't carry without assistance are the reason Central has been in business since 1927. From its original location in Pioneer Square to its present digs at 1016 First Avenue, the shop has provided all manner of intimidating and esoteric armaments to Seattle's gun heads. John Wayne even staged a scene at Central for his 1974 cop film, McQ, solidifying the shop's reputation as a destination for people who like shootin' stuff.
But First Avenue is no longer the gun-shopping mecca it once was. With the erection of every new condo development, Alan and his brother Larry Goldman have seen a corresponding drop in sales receipts. In the late '90s, they might've sold 2,000 guns a year, says Alan, whereas last year it was about 750. They say the other aspects of their pawn business, such as loans, have disintegrated as well.
Employees at Barney's Jewelry & Loan and Palace Jewelry & Loan—which, along with Central, are all that's left of roughly two dozen pawnshops that operated downtown in the '60s—don't seem very surprised at the drop-off in the Goldman business. Those two shops each carry a diverse range of goods—tools, banjos, PlayStations, Led Zeppelin albums—whereas Central is pretty much just guns and jewelry. And one of those items isn't much in vogue among an enlightened urban population, or even among many pawnbrokers.
"You got to be an idiot" to specialize in guns, says Brian Lurie, who owns Yuppie Pawn and Consignment in Kirkland. "All I need to do is be the pawnshop that sells the gun to the guy in Virginia. I mean, you're doomed. Even if you do everything right, you're doomed. They're going to sue everyone in sight."
The Goldman brothers have also decided they're doomed. They don't blame the guns; they blame squeezed parking, credit cards, and the payday loan industry. "It's so easy for you to get ways to get cash other than using your personal items," says Alan.
So on May 25, Alan and Larry are leaving First, and with them will go the last major downtown gun shop. They have no plans to reopen. "I'll get laid off my job on my birthday," says Larry, who'll soon be 53.
Alan Goldman took over Central in 1990 from his father, Gerson Goldman, who'd bought it in the '70s. The paterfamilias had already built up a solid rapport with the neighborhood's transients, low-income-housing dwellers, loggers, and longshoremen. Out of sympathy or shrewdness, Gerson accepted stock no sane pawnbroker would touch, such as a seemingly limitless supply of dentures from the mouth of a regular named Charlie, who would use the cash to buy booze.
Larry, a jewelry maker who attended Cornish College of the Arts, merged his own Pike Place Market pawn business into Central five years ago. The brothers thought they had the ultimate synergy. "When the wife comes in and her husband wants to look at guns," explains Alan, "then she can look at jewelry and not be bored."
The merchandise selection had an added benefit of one side of the store protecting the other: The shop has had little trouble with criminals. Mostly it's been the other way around, to hear the brothers tell it. "I was the king of getting people busted," says Larry. "Everyone thinks, 'Oh, pawnshops just want to buy stolen stuff so they can get it for cheap.' That's not what we're about."
One time, a suspicious man came in to pawn a Nikon camera loaded with film. Larry took the camera, snapped the man's picture, and gave the film to the police. In 1990, Larry made the papers for a trap he helped spring on a thief who'd knocked off a Beaumont, Texas, Zales store. What wasn't reported was that the disguised detectives stationed around his shop initially pounced on the wrong man.
Though neither brother professes a special affinity for shooting, their cache continued to grow and diversify. They'd take in guns from newly married husbands, cash-desperate wretches, and occasionally from the families of suicide victims. "Believe me, we hate that worse than anybody," says Alan. In 1991, shortly before going to jail for tax evasion, strip-club mogul Frank Colacurcio Jr. unloaded his collection at the shop, according to Alan. "He's a little tiny shit, a little tiny guy, and he of course had the biggest guns you could think of," he says. "He was totally a Napoleon guy." (Colacurcio didn't return a call for comment.)
These guns would then sit in glass cabinets until new admirers—"doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs," as Alan describes his client base—picked them out. Shotgun and rifle purchasers got their goodies in a day; handgun owners had to sweat for a week.
Unlike many gun traffickers, who prefer to keep a little distance between their blasters and the unwashed public, Central allows eager hands to grope. A 1732 English "anti-boarding device" with a muzzle big enough to accept a deli pickle stands prominently in the shop on a swivel stand; customers can aim it out the door and pretend to spray pedestrians with "grape shot, powder, and anything sharp," as the price tag describes the ammo. There is reading material for the serious enthusiast, such as On Target magazine ("Got a Varmint Problem? We've Got Solutions").
The brothers display this weaponry in a shop that's barely changed since the New Deal. It sports the same dingy, checkered linoleum floor, the same peeling and likely lead-based ceiling paint. Stuffed animal heads poke out from darkened areas of the shop. The end-of the-earth outpost environment of Central is exactly what the National Pawn Association has been trying to overcome in recent years. The association's Web site states it's "working hard to upgrade the image of pawnshops" with "bright, sophisticated lighting" (Central has sporadically illuminating ballasts) and "modern merchandising programs to rival the major discount stores" (Central's antediluvian PC sports the latest in green-and-black text).
"It's very unpalatable for people to walk into that," says Brad Shain, CEO of Issaquah-based Pawn X-Change. Shain's company has opened 25 pawnshops in Washington in the last 15 years; he attributes his success to uniformed employees, preferred-customer cards, and, yes, bright lighting. "Once you walk in, you go, 'Hey, this doesn't feel like a pawnshop!'" Rather, he suggests, it feels like a Target or a Best Buy.
Shain's stores don't stock guns, needless to say. "I think we appeal to a much broader audience, frankly, because we don't handle firearms."
"Whoopee," says Alan, regarding modernization at the cost of guns. "That's an opinion. Everybody has one."
Once the shop closes, Larry plans on running a jewelry stand in Pioneer Square Antique Mall, where people will pay "three times what they would in a pawnshop" for the same jewelry, he hopes. Alan says he's going to sell Central's guns to other pawnshops, private buyers, and auction houses. Well, except for one: Reaching into a messy cabinet, he retrieves a box. Nestled inside is a cute, little 1849 Colt pocket pistol.
"Eventually I'll sell it," he says, carefully shutting the box again and putting it back into the cabinet. "Nothing's worth treasuring your whole life."