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August 31st, 2011 MATTHEW SINGER | News Stories
 

Heavy Metals

Hard times and record prices have Portlanders mining their drawers for silver and gold.

news3_silverliningpawn_3743 GOLD TO GREEN - IMAGE: Mike Perrault
Renee Buckley and Sherri Dominic, a pair of self-described suburban housewives, shook down their jewelry boxes before coming to Silver Lining Jewelry and Loan. They spilled out their trinkets—including an old wedding ring from 40 years ago—before the owner. 

It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Monday, and the line of people behind them stretches to the door of the shop, located at the corner of Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 22nd Avenue. It will remain long the rest of the day.

“I needed money,” Buckley says. “We lost a business two years ago, and things have been a little tight lately, so to go see my son who lives out of state, I chose this.”

This is Buckley’s first time visiting a pawn shop, and Dominic’s third since May. What brought them here—and the scores of others who come each week—is a combination of hard times and soaring prices for silver and gold.

Precious metals have always been the backbone of the pawnbroker business, especially during hard times.

But this rush is different.

The price of gold hit $1,900 per ounce in August, and silver $43 per ounce. In one year, that’s a 42 percent increase for gold. And silver has more than doubled.

“It’s a really strange market we’re in now,” says Josh Oller, who has run Silver Lining alongside his father, Earl, for 13 years.

Oller says the crush to sell silver and gold started in 2007, when the economy first took a dive. As prices have climbed, he says, more people aged 55 and older have looked to liquidate their scrap. “They’re making 10 times--plus on their money of what they bought it for originally,” he says. 

Many customers Oller sees have never been in a pawn shop before; many keep returning. 

Next door to Silver Lining at the Jewelry Buyer, Kasey, a 23-year-old hairdresser who declines to give her last name, plunks down a handful of gold bracelets, rings and necklaces in front of owner Randy Swerdlick. She and her fiancé have been cleaning out his late grandmother’s estate. In three trips to Swerdlick’s shop, she’s walked away with an average of $1,200 each time.

“It’s crazy, but I don’t even have to work right now, just on the money we’ve brought in,” she says.

It’s a boom time for regulars as well. Rick Walton has used Silver Lining like a bank for years. He pulls from his pocket a small gold-plated Victorian belt buckle, which he bought when he saw gold prices beginning to soar. He brings it and other gold items in when he needs help paying a bill. He calls it “creative finance.”

“If I was serious about it, I could raise $3,000 or $4,000 in a few hours,” he says.

The metals market remains volatile, however. Last week, December gold futures hit $1,917, then dropped to $1,705 in the course of three days.

“It’s just brutal,” says David Griffiths, owner of A Cut Above Pawn in Beaverton. “If we’re paying $1,800 an ounce for something, and now it’s $1,700, guess what? We just lost money. Any pawn shop with any degree of intelligence is going to buy at $1,500 or $1,400.”

Full-page newspaper ads and late-night TV commercials from companies seeking to buy gold have increased interest in cashing in on precious metals. Some companies ask customers to send in their gold to them and wait for a check to come back.

“Any time you see something that’s too good to be true—and we’re in a position that these prices are too good to be true—everybody and their mom wants in on this,” Oller says.

According to the Better Business Bureau, mail-in evaluation companies such as Cash 4 Gold and My Gold Envelope have racked up numerous complaints. Fly-by-night, gold-buying companies set up one-day events at motels, often outside city limits.

That allows them to avoid Portland’s tight controls on pawnbrokers. While pawnbrokers in Oregon are regulated by the state Division of Finance and Corporate Securities, in Portland all businesses dealing in secondhand merchandise that is often the target of theft (such as jewelry) must also have a city permit and keep careful records.

Before coming to Silver Lining, Sandra Sanchez had only one experience selling gold—to a sketchy operation that hosted what she describes as a “Tupperware party” for jewelry buying. She thought she had gotten a fair deal then.

After bringing Oller a clutch of rings and necklaces from ex-boyfriends, she walked away with $800—and now she’s convinced the previous buyer ripped her off.

“This is way better,” she says. “You never know what you got.” 

 
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