The Wilson Quarterly

A SECONDHAND STORE IN A SECONDHAND TOWN IS ABOUT WHAT YOU’D EXPECT. A bit derelict, a bit kooky. Rows of thin gold necklaces, mostly crosses and hearts too small to melt down for scrap. Four Sony PlayStations, only two of which work. Boxes of cords to who knows what. Tools — piles of screwdrivers and buzz saws and toolboxes and doohickeys on collapsible tables. Scuffed guitars hanging by their necks. Guns and more guns — some mounted on a pegboard wall and others stuck in a cardboard barrel, butts up. Unopened, unwatchable movies. “Kitchen” scales never purchased for cooking.

In a place like Braddock, Pennsylvania, nothing much surprises you. It’s a poor place, mostly black, mostly a shadow of the boomtown steel days. Some say they should just tear the whole place up and pave a highway through it. Others suggest a new shopping mall in lieu of the roadway. Still others think it should become a green paradise, a playground for artists and intellectuals to put down roots and educate people on sustainability.

Norm doesn’t take much stock in those ideas.

“It didn’t look too good when I got here,” he says of Braddock and the shop. His father-in-law had owned Steel City Pawnbrokers since 1952 and Norm started working here because of his wife. Her father needed some help, and Norm had just quit his job at Stop-N-Go in nearby Oakland.

“It’s a timeless business, one of the oldest in the world — before malls,” he proclaims.

Despite just barely staying afloat (he and the other employees call it a “miracle,” and none of them are quite sure of the true balance of the store’s books), Norm is in five days a week, usually perched on a secondhand stool between Dennis and Ray. Dennis is the “music guy,” mid-forties with black curly hair. He’s the odd man out of the trio — more spry than Norm or Ray, a bit more hip. He works here for the health insurance and to supplement his income as a jazz musician. Ray doesn’t seem to have anything better to do, so he keeps coming in. And Norm?

“I’ve wanted to get out of here a number of times,” he says. “I used to work with my wife’s uncle, and he wanted it his way” — stock perfectly aligned, interactions with customers strictly prescribed.

“I’d quit at least once a week. I’d walk out, and my father-in-law would call and tell me, ‘I’m not gonna be around forever, you’ll be in charge eventually.’”

“He left you an empire!” Ray chimes in. Norm rubs his balding head, amused. When he smiles, he looks a little like Dopey from Snow White. He took over Steel City in the mid-1990s after his wife’s dad died. Even so: “My father-in-law has got some grip on me and won’t go away.”

“It takes balls to own a pawn shop,” Ray assures. He’s in his mid-fifties and sits next to Norm in a chair with a strap-on back massager. The seat and style screams hotel décor and is no doubt one of the many “finds” they’ve come across over the years. Ray has a bad… well, everything, and rarely rises from his throne unless he has to. Dennis mills around the store, fiddling with guitars or tools, singing “Let It Be” in front of a wall of worn LPs.

It would be easy to imagine Norm and Ray sitting almost anywhere — two retirees at the end of a dock with fishing poles propped in their metal lawn chairs; on a front porch gripping beers and using a cooler as a table; waiting for their wives in the lobby of a hair salon — and nothing would change, not the timbre of their days or their conversations over cans of Coke and bag lunches. Their work at Steel City strikes less as a job than a hobby, a habit, a favor to no one in particular.

Photo by Devon Christopher Adams

ONCE, THIS WAS THE PLACE TO BE. Steel country — home to Andrew Carnegie’s first mill, in fact. The industrial nexus of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers. Jobs, families, and children. Streets with movie theaters, pharmacies, and restaurants. Schools with trophy-winning football teams. America’s first supermarket, an A&P, opened here. Carnegie’s first library, too.

The short and dirty narrative of its decline, oft repeated in national and local media: In the 1920s, more than 20,000 people called Braddock home. Industry bloomed; soot stuck to aging stony buildings. In the 1970s, steel crashed and took livelihoods with it in an economic free fall. In 2009, a full fifth of the population earned less than $10,000 annually. Today, fewer than 2,200 residents remain, and Braddock’s median income has dropped to less than half the state average.

To the extent that there are newcomers in Braddock, they seem drawn by a sense of possibility or duty; gentrifiers, yes, but also those who feel the pull of an aging mother. Some are lured by promises of cheap land and a marketing campaign underwritten by Levi’s and driven by the town’s big and brash mayor, John Fetterman. He’s a newcomer too, arriving in 2001 as a volunteer for AmeriCorps, which he joined after finishing grad school at Harvard. “Everyone in the country is asking, ‘Where’s the bottom?’” he told the New York Times in 2009. “I think we’ve found it.”

The decaying remnants of the Carrie Steel Furnace facility, about a mile upriver from downtown Braddock

Photo by Devon Christopher Adams

Fetterman is ambitious in the way most settlers are: full of zeal and raw hope, with a lot to learn about the tricky dynamics of a place in flux. If he waves hello to the librarian but not the barber as he drives his old pickup truck down the main drag, Braddock is close enough that word will get around and slights will magnify. There’s a cautious acceptance of outsiders here — why shut down potential? — but also a distrust — what do you want from us?

None of the guys in Steel City live in Braddock, nor are they from the borough originally. They arrived after the steel boom, but before the town really fell to pieces, before it lost its hospital, a major employer (regional healthcare giant UPMC shut it down in 2010, taking 600 jobs with it), and before all that remained was a bar, another secondhand shop, and a smattering of hair salons and clubs. A Kickstarter-funded restaurant is expected to open soon. Whether it will go the way of the community farm and Steel City and stick around, or the way of the donut shop and the Subway, it’s hard to tell.

Nobody stays for long in a place like this, unless they stay for good

“I quit one day,” Norm confides. This was back before he took over the business. “Then the alarm went off.”

The burglar alarm. Steel City has been broken into more times than the guys can count. Once — before the city knocked down so many buildings, creating vacant lots that less suggest opportunity than emptiness — someone broke in by digging into the basement, burrowing through a shared wall to steal a cache of guns. The perpetrator was never caught.

Ray tells another story of the tenant upstairs, in the room they used to rent out as an apartment, who ripped through the room’s floorboards, knocked out a ceiling tile, and squeezed down herself — or had her child crawl down — and stole money from the register. She skipped town the next day. The ceiling tile was never replaced.

That’s not counting the many broken windows, the attempts to pry the security bars off the doors. Many of the storefronts in Braddock are closed off with plywood, scheduled for demolition. Despite all that, it’s inaccurate to say the town is empty. On warm summer days, a woman grills chicken and serves homemade macaroni and cheese to crowds outside Miltons Top Notch Hair Salon. Men fish at the brown river near the railroad tracks; the library holds fundraisers to refurbish its theater and job seminars to help the unemployed. People leak from buildings that looked abandoned, forming a tiny community willing to celebrate even potential renovation.

Sights in and around Braddock: abandoned storefronts and neighborhoods, the nation’s first Carnegie library, a rusting bridge to a foundry, and a colorful attempt at redevelopment

Photos by Jenny Tabrum; Ken Schultz; Katie Chao and Ben Muessing; Holly Northrup; Michael Goodin, clockwise from upper left:

“I ALWAYS WANTED A FIREPLACE — I’d just toss the junk in there,” Norm says. “I’ve tried to sell or liquidate. But my only hope is my own no-good son-in-law.” Though his daughters are still in college and unmarried, he seems to be truly holding out for this possibility.

Why stay open? Why keep coming in to work?

Norm’s best answer: “You never know what’s gonna walk in.”

“Buy the item, not the story.” That’s Norm’s motto. Take what’s in front of you, not what it was or could be. And do what you can with it. What little cash Steel City does bring in depends on their shrewdness, on Norm and Ray and Dennis’s ability to resist the story.

Once, a man came in with a rubber replica vagina, claiming it had only been used once. “We don’t buy that sort of thing here,” the guys told him. (Though they do buy videos that might accompany such a device.) That’s Dennis’s favorite story.

More commonly, though, people drop in with a TV, insisting that their big boxy machine is worth more than the dozen other TVs in the shop. The TVs are always on, usually mutely flashing daytime shows like Jerry Springer or Judge Judy, never any pawn store reality shows, which the guys say are “bogus.”

The people bringing in TVs say they’ve just upgraded to a new flat screen, so they want to ditch this one. Sounds reasonable — so do many of the stories coming into Steel City. More often than not, though, the TV’s been stolen, sometimes from a family member or roommate. Days later, the true owner comes knocking, demanding their merch. Usually, Norm calls the police and gives the thing back.

Norm: “If you ask, ‘Why are you selling?’— ”

“—you’ll hear a lie,” Ray finishes. Every time.

“It’s interpretive.”

Ray: “If it’s suspicious, you ask more questions … a guy selling a girl’s ring, for instance.”

“You get stories,” Norm continues. “‘I got it from my grandmother.’ It’s always from a grandparent.” The customer claims she just wanted to get rid of it, or it was inherited. Often that’s not the case.

“If they tell the truth they’d say: ‘I killed my grandmother.’” Ray says. “They kill a lady and steal the jewelry and take it straight to a pawn shop.”

Theft and selling scams are partly why Pennsylvania enacted ID laws regarding buying and selling at secondhand stores — in theory, it keeps the bad guys out. But so long as the seller has an ID and the right item, the guys will buy from anyone.

They don’t ask for the story anymore.

Steel City Pawnbrokers in Braddock, PA

Photo by Marcus Santos

ON ONE OF THEIR BUSIER AFTERNOONS DURING THE DEPTHS OF THE RECESSION, a couple of preteen kids come in, one sporting a mohawk. “It’s my birthday, what can I get for free?”

Norm and Dennis answer in tandem. Norm: “Where’s your driver’s license?” Dennis: “You can get a handshake.”

The kid rejects Dennis’s offer and wanders around the ancient videogames hoping for a good deal.

“At GameStop, Scarface costs $3.99.”

“That’s the place to buy it then,” Norm responds, without missing a beat.

Boys seem drawn to the shop, sometimes to look at the electronics or guitars, but almost always to admire the guns, the rows and rows of firearms and knives just behind Norm and Ray. Minors aren’t permitted to touch the weapons.

Today, the kids linger a moment too long and Norm tells them he’s about to close, even though it’s only 1:30. They take the hint and leave without a fuss.

Dennis’s attention is now on to the weaponry. He walks between Ray and Norm and picks up what he says is an AK-47.

“Doesn’t it give you a woody?” He laughs.

“If a kid needs to take a gun to school, that’s the kind he wants,” Norm offers, nodding.

A guy wearing black polka-dot pajama pants walks in, reeking of stale smoke and looking for a scale. Dennis puts down the gun and helps him. Thirty dollars cash and he’s out the door.

“WHEN IT’S SLOW, YOU WANT TO COMMIT SUICIDE,” Ray says. It’s been a sluggish day, and the guys are waxing philosophical about the business.

“It used to be a mom-and-pop thing, now it’s corporate,” Norm says. Locally owned pawn shops are succumbing to their own big box competitors. Chain stores like Pawn America spring up in suburbs all around the country. TV shows like Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn, even Storage Wars, have popularized the notion that everyday schmucks can find goldmines in storage units. With buy-and-sell becoming more popular, pawn jobs have changed.

“Customers are more informed than they used to be,” Norm says, rubbing his bald head. And that makes their job trickier. “You’re an authority on everything, expert on nothing.”

“You can find anything out in the Internet,” he says. Craigslist and eBay have drastically cut into their business, though Norm concedes that the Internet has its upsides. “It’s harder to get something good, but when you do…” His words trail off as the bounty takes shape in his imagination.

“My father-in-law would run around buying new goods to sell,” Norm explains. “A good buy is better than a good sell.” But they don’t do much around-town seeking anymore — enough people stop in already, and there’s just not enough money in it, given the time and gas that searching requires. Plus, Ray adds, “You still gotta sell what you got.”

When an item and a story come in, they have a default response: It’s in OK shape. Everything’s always got scratches. Saxophones, gold rings, power tools. No matter what, the guys can find a defect.

Working at the pawn shop seems less like a job than a hobby or a habit — a favor to no one in particular

Talking the seller down in price is half of the equation, but you also have to consider who might buy it later. In a place like Braddock, stuff has to get fixed. That means hammers and ladders and saws sell, which is why they have so many tools (and why tools bring in so much of their business). “It’s a mistake to say it isn’t sellable if you wouldn’t buy it,” Norm says. He wouldn’t have use for a ladder, he says, but the handymen making a few bucks around town do.

Beyond tools, Norm was shocked when child-sized drum sets, purchased on a whim, became bestsellers for a while in the nineties. Another time he had something sitting there for literally years. “No idea what it was ... got a couple hundred bucks for it.” A box of 200 black and neon sunglasses sat around for so long that they came back in style again. You can never tell.

The truly big bucks are in unexpected “sleeper” items — something valuable that nobody catches at first: Your aunt’s thimble collection that happened to originate in the nineteenth century, or the guitar with a hidden signature — the hiding-in-plain-sight, Antiques Roadshow discoveries.

Not that they’d catch such a thing. Steel City has what can only be described as “stuff” piled all over the basement and the old apartment upstairs. Portraits not even hipsters would ever hang on their walls. A broken 1920s-style cash register. Countless buckets of half-used and dried-out paint. Two-by-fours. Spider webs. More bins of miscellaneous electrical cords.

Every once in a while somebody — always a man, usually a tinkerer — will start hanging around the shop and shoot the breeze with the guys. The newcomer will offer to clean things up a bit, fix some of the broken items, identify a few cords. He’ll probably refuse any money for it. Then he’ll be gone, just as strangely as he came, never heard from again. Nobody stays for long in a place like this, unless they stay for good.

Photo by Hrychowian

EACH GUY HAS HIS OWN SOFT SPOT. Dennis can’t turn down an uncommon instrument. Recently, someone brought in “the coolest thing they’ve ever had”: a Suzuki Omnichord. Despite being incredibly obscure and prohibitively expensive, he bought it for a couple hundred dollars. Its shape is similar to a guitar body, but without strings, tuning pegs, or frets; instead, it has buttons arranged in three rows — major, minor, and 7th chord. Other buttons trigger electronic beats. The overall sound tends toward a church organ crossed with the entire decade of the 1980s. It will almost certainly never sell, and Dennis is fine with that.

Norm, on the other hand, is partial to pinball games. His basement at home is loaded with them, filled to my-wife-will-kill-me-if-I-bought-another capacity. But at the shop, he’s got just one machine, a game from the 1960s called “Touchdown.” It stands in the front display window, just out of the sunlight, where it has waited for years to be sold. The sides and front are white with blue and green triangular stripes intersecting. The paint is scratched near the coin slot, exposing the wood underneath, where dozens of fingers once dug around for change — a dime for one play, a quarter for three.

When the machine is off, the flipper buttons produce an impotent nothing, and you’re left wondering if the game functions at all, if it should have a “broken” masking-tape sticker gumming up its glass like so many other items. Norm plugs it in and the lights start flashing, the bells inside jingle to life. It worked the whole time, just needed a dusting and a little jolt.

Its jangles and thumps fill the entire shop, and it’s hard not to note that this seemingly dead thing still has a little life left. That it just needs a person who cares to flip the switch, to give it a shot. That despite its worn-out looks and cracking façade, it’s still worth something — at least to somebody, even if they aren’t perfect either.

A 20-something man walks into Steel City with a dented trumpet.

“How much can I get for this?”

* * *

Robyn K. Coggins is an editor and writer based in Pittsburgh who loves the Internet, science, and pondering possibilities. She’s a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, where this story first took shape. Follow her on Twitter @RoJoOhNo and see more of her work at robynkcoggins.com.

Cover image coutesy of Flickr/Joseph A

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