Cover Story: Rest of a Salesman

Pawnbroker Will Richshafer, the 'poor man's banker,' gets ready to close shop for the last time

 
Sean Hughes


Rest of A Salesman



Romance to an old-time pawnbroker like William "Will" Richshafer means promoting a piece of ordinary merchandise so much that a customer just has to buy it.

There's still plenty left to sell at Will's Loan & Jewelry Shop at Gilbert and McMillan avenues, Walnut Hills' once-thriving Peebles Corner. What's unclear is whether the 88-year-old Richshafer and his staff of five veteran employees have enough romance left in them to clear the shelves.

Closing day for Will's isn't until Dec. 31 or soon thereafter, but the pawnshop feels lifeless since it stopped giving out loans on Sept. 16. When no new loans are given at a pawnshop, there's little reason for customers to come in. Sentiment for a once thriving business is all that's left.

Will is a character straight out of Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Business cards stacked around the store carry a picture from 1985. His face is unlined and thinner on the cards, but Mr. Will, as he's known to his customers, looks much the same.

He still has a wave of thick white hair that's been compared to Cesar Romero back when people knew who Romero was thanks to the Batman TV show.

His nose is prominent and noble. He sports a lifetime of city knocks on his sagging jowls and creased brow, but his eyes still sparkle with the glint that all good salespeople have.

Will dresses like a business professional in wool slacks, dress shirt and sweater vest. He still knows how to romance the merchandise. The only question is whether his legs will grant him the strength to stand behind the counters and wait on customers.

'Married to the business'
Large "Going Out of Business" signs cover Will's shop windows and hang above its corner doors to entice people to come inside and take advantage of "once-in-a-lifetime" deals. After 53 years owning pawn businesses and 28 years operating at Peebles Corner, Will is selling out.

The ongoing liquidation sale is a quiet exit more than a celebratory wake. Will has given his life to pawning, and at some point in each life there's nothing else to give.

He used to appear on TV commercials during the 1960s, when he'd make a joke about the popular 1964 film The Pawnbroker starring Rod Steiger as a haunted pawnbroker working in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City.

Will isn't a Holocaust survivor like Steiger's downtrodden character, but he is a survivor of poverty. His father died in 1935 at age 48 from a heart attack, forcing his mother Rose to soley support Will, his brother Morris and his sister Sara via an assembly line job at Manischewitz Brothers Matzo Ball factory at Eighth and State in Lower Price Hill.

Will wanted to attend college, perhaps to learn sports announcing, and had the kind of grades from Western Hills High School to do well, but the money was not there for him. He needed to work to help support his family.

"I never had to panhandle, but I know what it's like to be poor," Will says. "I remember, and I think that's helped me understand and work with my customers through the years, many of whom have limited money."

At age 9, Will started working for Max Elkus at his pawnshop on Sixth and Mound for $12 a week. The shop was in a stretch of similar pawnshops just west of the central business district department stores and traditional jewelers and clothing stores.

Will learned the trade under Elkus until World War II service took Will to Oklahoma and finally to Guam. It was in Oklahoma that he met the first love of his life, Mary Louise.

They married in 1945 and returned to Cincinnati. They had two kids, Robert and Carol, and Will returned to pawning with the intention of running his own shop.

Will bought out Elkus' loans in 1952 after the Elkus family went into the men's clothing business with their Gentry Shops. He borrowed money from friends Marvin Diamond, George Collins, Mel Fishman and Myron Allbert, enough to secure a $2,000 loan from the First National Bank.

Pawning was good to Will, and before long he operated three downtown stores: 813 Vine St., 911 Vine St. and Seventh and Central. He played golf with friends at the same country club where he caddied as a young man. He operated a downtown saloon, the Commodore Cafe.

His son and daughter went to college, and he worked hard to give his family the comfort, vacations and perks he never had. His days of want became a distant memory, replaced by trust funds for his children and frequent gifts.

The price he paid was working long hours six days a week. He was an absentee father by necessity, the typical small merchant.

The key to Will's success was the number of loans he continued to accumulate over the years.

"You are married to the business, and your children do not get attention," says Steve Viel, a seven-year veteran at Will's as its co-manager, gemologist and appraiser. "You're either a pawnbroker or a father. You can't be both. But he showered his children with money and gifts, often nice jewelry he took in as pawns."

When Walnut Hills turned
The morning routine at Will's Loan & Jewelry begins around 8 with staffers Fred White and James Coston taking rings, necklaces and watches from their cardboard trays and putting them back in the front display cases at the store's entrance. Luggage is placed on display in the large Gilbert Avenue windows. Cloths are removed from the tops of the inside glass display cases, and jewelry is returned from back storage.

There is time for coffee and breakfast at a corner nook reserved for employees. December mornings are quiet despite the "Going Out of Business" signs plastered everywhere. It's as if Will's clientele has already moved on.

The first of the month is a busy day thanks to the arrival of government support checks, extra money for Will's clientele to buy something. The staff can set their watches by the first wave of customers.

It's still quiet by 10:45 a.m., but no one is surprised.

"The mail run hasn't happened yet," Steve says aloud. "The mail doesn't arrive and they don't have those checks until 11:30."

Lunchtime passes, and only a few customers enter the store, mostly asking for items they no longer have in stock: televisions, DVD players, video game consoles. But Dec. 1 is not as busy as past months because Will's is no longer giving loans. That's half the business. People don't want to buy at a pawnshop unless they can also borrow first.

One day's excitement involves a large window on the Gilbert Avenue side of the building broken during a street fight. A boy talked to somebody's girlfriend on the bus and paid the price by being slammed through a plate glass window by her boyfriend.

"It is the coldest day of the year, and we're having to replace a window," Will says.

Will wraps himself in a woman's sweater borrowed from his longtime staffer, Sarah Merriweather.

There is a cluttered desk near the loan window and counter at the back of the store, and that's where Will situates himself for most of the four hours he now spends at his store.

He arrives at 11 a.m., just in time for lunch. Reads mail. Answers phone messages and gets updates from his niece, Marcy Hassel, who manages the shop for him.

If he's feeling good, he'll get behind the various display cases scattered throughout the store and wait on customers. Will has to practice what he preaches. How can he expect his staff to romance the merchandise if he won't do the same thing?

A picture of his first wife, Mary Louise, sits near his desk along with other family mementos. What stands out are the antique safes adjacent to the desk, including one he bought from a pawnshop years ago. It's the most beautiful safe one can imagine, with black lacquer and beautiful drawings on its cupboard-like doors. It's more jewelry box than vault, a treasure from a bygone era.

An old man breaks the silence and shuffles through the shop's front door. His hair is long, and its gray strands match his scraggly beard.

He wants to buy a ring. He likes rings and comes to buy one at least once a month. He has one rule: The ring can't cost more than $20. His fingers are covered with metal rings from past purchases, and when he finds a new one to his liking he has to struggle to find a spot on his fingers that will fit it.

Another customer looks for a TV, but Will's is out. Illegal street peddlers enter the store trying to sell inexpensive toys only to be thrown out by Steve or another staffer.

If Peebles Corner is where some Walnut Hills residents shop, there's not much there anymore for them. The poor pay more for goods in rundown shopping districts like this, with discount clothing stores and a dollar variety store around the corner from the Kroger supermarket.

Rent-a-Center closed its doors across the street. Across the other way, National City Bank still operates. But there used to be jewelry stores, movie theaters, an ice cream parlor and much more at this major urban intersection.

It's bitter cold even for December, but the drug dealers are vigilant along McMillan Avenue. They huddle in doorways, waiting for their own customers to service.

Nobody bothers them. Area shopkeepers have given up. The police have a minimal presence at best. They never walk the sidewalks, and squad cars seldom pass.

Will reminisces about the days when crosstown streetcars and buses made Peebles Corner one of the busiest spots in Cincinnati and provided a steady supply of middle-class customers. The surrounding blocks have changed, and for decades now lower income families have called this neighborhood home.

"When I first moved here, this used to be a middle-income neighborhood," Will says. "It was diverse, and I liked that because I had black or African-American customers as well as white customers at my downtown stores. We did really well here for the first 15 years. But then the neighborhood turned low income, and low income don't have extra money for things like jewelry. Everything changed."

Will hands back the sweater he borrowed from his staffer before getting ready to leave.

They talk about "Going Out of Business" signs and whether or not they should cover all the windows. The point is to get people into the store and entice them into buying what's left on the shelves. Will is liquidating, and he wants everything gone.

Pawn business 'a good thing'
A 1977 Cincinnati Enquirer article tacked to the wall reported on Will's move from Seventh and Central to Peebles Corner, a large concrete structure with a center tower and adjoining storefronts and office space. The former Paramount Building used to house a movie theater before becoming the home to McDevitt Menswear, a retailer of "better men's clothes."

The McDevitt space was vacant for years before Will moved his main store there. His 813 Vine St. location had already closed to make way for the Main Library Building in 1955, and his 911 Vine St. shop and adjacent tavern would come down to make way for the library's North Building expansion.

Will is hard of hearing these days and leans close to listen to conversation even when his hearing aid is turned up. He points proudly to an old copy of Today's Pawnbroker that recognizes him as the oldest pawnbroker who still works the sales floor. He likes being an old-timer because he's proud of what he's done through the years.

At a recent store meeting, Will asked his longtime staff to stay and help through liquidation and turning the lights off for the last time. Marcy says she'll continue to manage the store through to the end.

Will admitted to making some mistakes about closing up shop, something that's difficult for a veteran boss to do. He says he should have informed his longtime customers about selling their loans to a pawnshop in Middletown. In fact, he says, he should have waited and sold his pawns closer to closing.

Will's eyes aren't as sharp as they once were. It's not enough to know the difference between glass and real diamonds anymore — now there are Cubic Zirconia and Moissanite. Fake Rolex watches closely resemble the real things. He's been fooled lately, paying too much for fake goods, something that never happened before.

Will has moved numerous times throughout his 53-year career. He's bought out other pawnshops, but he's never shut down a store before. It's a new feeling, the idea that in a matter of weeks you'll no longer head to your business in the morning and your working life will come to an end. To some extent so will your very existence for being.

Will speaks lovingly about his two grown children who live in Arizona, and it's clear that he misses them. Neither of them wanted to go into the pawn business and take over the family shop that's been so generous to them over the years.

"I know the stigma against pawnshops and pawnbrokers," Will says gently. "How people consider us a nuisance and a fence for stolen goods. But we record everything for the police and report daily. We're the 'poor man's banker' and the only business that will grant loans to people who would never walk into a bank. This is a place where someone can borrow $25, and that's a good thing.

"Now I don't know why it became a family business for Jewish people. Maybe because we are good negotiators and fair. People come up to me all the time and say, 'Hi, Mr. Will.' One woman came up to me at a buffet restaurant. She remembered coming into my stores with her father. They remember me."

Some customers treat Will's like an expensive safety deposit box, choosing to store their valuables here rather than risk a family member selling them for drugs. It's a key part of the unofficial financial network that's always operated just outside of the mainstream.

Calling oneself the "poor man's banker" means providing small loans quickly to people with bad credit histories, low incomes, high debt-to-income ratios and unstable employment. If someone has something to leave as collateral, they can walk out the door with cash in hand.

Pawnbrokers declined in the 1930s due to the Great Depression and in the years after World War II. But nobody expected the business to fold completely, as they've been around since the dawn of civilization, going as far back as ancient China. Pawnbrokers precede American independence (New York in 1657), and by 1911 there were 1,976 pawnshops in the United States, one for every 47,500 inhabitants.

Popular items used to be articles of clothing until the emphasis shifted toward watches and jewelry. Will has boxes of old clothes sitting at the front of his store waiting to be donated. Nicer furs and leathers still sell, but unclaimed winter coats and furs hang from hooks above cases on a shop wall.

Despite their reputation, pawnshops are licensed by the state, and the city requires that local police receive lists of pledged collateral. State of Ohio laws require that a pawnshop keep the collateral in pawn for 90 days and inform a customer 30 days in advance of his or her item going out of pawn. Interests on the loans are limited to 5 percent. Will's charges a $3 storage fee for every month an item remains in storage.

Pawnshop credit is commonly 10 to 15 times more expensive than a consumer loan from a bank, but Will's customers would never feel comfortable walking into National City Bank. They don't know or care that bank fees are better, and Will thrives on their reluctance, their embarrassment and their need.

A pawnshop loan is simple: The broker makes a fixed-term loan to a consumer, who turns over collateral to the broker. If the customer repays the loan and all the required fees, the broker returns the item. If the customer doesn't repay the loan by the date, the collateral becomes the property of the broker and the debt is extinguished.

Pawnshops are a relic of days gone by, but there are more pawnshops today in sheer numbers and per capita than any other time in history. Perhaps that's because more people are living paycheck to paycheck.

Check-cashing outlets, which charge a fee to cash paychecks and government support checks, sit across the street from Will's, and there are plenty of other locations throughout the city. Large chains like Cash America and Crown Loans have replaced the individually owned pawnshop.

There are other independent pawnshops left in Cincinnati. Reliable Loan is on the corner of Court and Vine streets downtown. Original owners Harry and Milton Spiegel passed away, but their grandson Eugene Spiegel still runs the company today.

But Will's is the largest, and Will Richshafer is the oldest pawnbroker around. If he's something of a dinosaur, the growth of his company, Alrich Inc., shows him to be a successful dinosaur.

Turn out the lights
Marie Louise died nine years ago, and Will remarried seven years ago with Evelyn, the widow of a longtime friend and past business partner.

Will admits that he was lonely and couldn't face living alone. He knew Evelyn and more importantly knew that they'd be compatible. So they married earlier this year, and he moved into her home in Amberly Village.

"She takes such good care of me," he says. "She's so caring."

Will makes the 20-minute drive to Walnut Hills by himself, taking note of the daily change from one world to another — old money and suburban affluence to urban grit and despair.

At 88 — or 88 and one-half to be exact — he no longer remembers the dates he moved or closed his downtown stores, but he does remember his Masonic Lodge verse and recites it beautifully for anyone within earshot.

Will has been in pawning his whole life. Selling the store means selling his reason for living, but what else is he to do?

Shutting down has brought Robert "Bob" Richshafer home to visit and collect personal items from the store's basement. He's a mirror image of his father as a younger man and laughs when asked about the first time he was told about running the family business.

"I think I was four years old," says Bob Richshafer, taking a packing break at his father's desk. "He brought to the shop on Central as a boy. I would polish the silver or clean the cases. I remember I climbed behind some winter coats and nobody could find me. Everyone panicked but I was just sleeping in the coats.

"You know I worked in my dad''s shops for many years and helped manage one. I enjoyed it and the people. But you have to do your own thing."

Meanwhile, Will's staff has also grown weary, beaten down by the neighborhood around them. They're convinced that most of their customers are using the loans to buy drugs. They too are ready to close up and try something else.

A thick layer of dust over everything says Will's second floor office hasn't been used for a long time. A calendar hangs on the wall featuring the date Jan. 1, 1991.

The ceiling hangs low, requiring anyone of normal height to hunch over before sitting down. The view is boss perfect — an eagle's eye vantage point of the sales floor and the loan counter.

A 1950 photograph of Will Richshafer from the Miami Lodge F&M of the Cincinnati Masonic Temple hangs next to a March 1943 photo from his military days stationed in Orient, Okla. A photo of boxers Ezzard Charles and Muhammad Ali hangs nearby, along with photos of Will, Evie and their children. There are golfing photos and certificates for various tournaments played over the years.

Paymaster is a heavy metal machine for writing checks, and it acts like an oversized paperweight, holding down the piles of mail that have grown around this second-floor desk. There are boxes of wallet-size photos ready for future business cards.

A large foldout poster outlines the Walnut Hills Neighborhood Business District Urban Design Plan with details about retail improvements, new multi-family housing and improved parking. It's amazing how nothing positive ever occurred except demolition to make way for the Kroger store.

The store's basement has a dry concrete floor and two large rooms with dim overhead light bulbs. There are long wooden shelves featuring a history of consumer electronics. A huge Quasar VCR made of wood and polished steel waits for an interested customer.

There's a manual for an automatic turntable inside a box filled with the small pink loan slips that reflect all the people and business Will has encountered over the years, thousands and thousands of loans. A nugget bracelet might fetch $50, but it'll cost you $59 to get back after finance charges and storage fee.

The basement is empty except for some personal belongings owned by his son Robert. Everything of value is already up on the sales floor, an assortment of pocketknives, rifles, violins, drum sets and old 16-mm projectors and cameras.

The basement and the sales floor are both beginning to look sparse. It's what liquidation is supposed to do.

The end of the day has Steve, James and Fred huddled near the front door so the alarm can be triggered. Tablecloths are again draped over the cases.

They're closing up earlier these days, 5 p.m. instead of 5:30. James admits that no one wants to be in Peebles Corner after dark. There's tension and fear just outside the door.

Will's has never been held up at gunpoint, but there have been plenty of snatches, fistfuls of rings and watches swiped by young kids who spring away from the older staff.

Will Richshafer came to Peebles Corner a prosperous pawnbroker with the largest inventory in town and plenty to sell. He made the newspaper often as the topic of human-interest columns. His store was a big deal on a prominent street corner.

But he wants to leave quietly, and he wants to leave nothing behind. Soon it'll be time to turn off the lights for good. ©

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