Art by Rosemary Vasquez-Brown
When my brother hocked my violin for the third or fourth time, along with mum’s gold necklace, she asked me: “Are you actually going to practise if we get it back?”
I was eight years old and had taken up the instrument with the singular aim of joining Irish pop sensation The Corrs. While I reasoned I would eventually replace Jim, the redundant Corr brother, I wasn’t sure how I’d negotiate an international touring schedule from Sydney’s inner-west while I finished school. I rarely practised.
“No,” I answered honestly. So we bought her necklace back and left the violin at the pawn shop.
It was usually the same shop on King Street with a yellow MONEY LENT sign out front. It was quiet inside, dimly lit.
Mum would rummage around in her handbag among whiteboard markers and crumpled unmarked exams, past lidless lipsticks often breaded with tobacco that had escaped from broken cigarettes and, eventually, pull out the pink docket and smooth it on the counter triumphantly before the store owner.
“The pawn shop people would react differently depending on how they were feeling,” she remembers. “I didn’t always buy them back. I never got the gold watch back or that beautiful necklace your dad gave me.”
I’d always believed the store’s owner was a malevolent merchant, feeding himself and his entire family with the profits he reaped from my pinched Gameboy. A visit to the store inevitably heralded a sleepless week worrying about whether my brother was in a gutter somewhere—a situation that I felt this man had wilfully initiated, magicking my grandmother’s nicked ring into drugs or grog.
I was a tiny, tired sleuth who had memorised the clues in our house that would ultimately steer us towards the shop—an open drawer, a longneck clumsily hidden behind a curtain, the sour scent of pot smoke, an intangible sense of shame. Once we ended up there, I’d quietly browse the glass cabinets, trailing the furious lead detective as she argued with the shopkeeper, who I quite frankly found to be an unreliable witness. Years later, when I saw class actions had been filed against Cash Converters for their exploitative interest rates, I felt vindicated.
“[Your brother] was known to them in Newtown because he was always flogging stuff and he went to the same one,” Mum says. “He was nicer than the average drug addict.”
In July last year, someone posted a picture of the shop in the Facebook group Newtown 2042, announcing it was closing for good the following Tuesday: “It has been a family business for over 100 years and looks exactly like it does in the pic.”
“I got my first guitar in that [shop] in 1977,” one person commented.
“I went in labour there!” one woman wrote.
“Such lovely people! What a shame to see it go,” another said.
“Soon to be another fucking frozen yoghurt shop.”
“Beautiful people! Time to retire and enjoy retirement! Go travel the world guys! Best of luck!”
My mate Millie’s family has run a constellation of hock shops dotted around Blacktown for the past twenty-five years.
She opens the roller door and flicks on the fluorescent lights in the windows for a day of Sunday trading. In the front window sit electric keyboards, amps, Star Wars collectables, a May Gibbs 1995 coin set replete with commemorative gumnut baby medallion, a $99 Versace handbag labelled FAKE and some hefty chainsaws.
A woman comes into the shop with a sixties Black Bakelite Rotary Dial Telephone, a pair of Oakley sunglasses in a case with the tag, and a retro wooden train set. She is en route to pick up her friend who just got kicked out of rehab and has nowhere to go.
“I’m so counting on this money for a packet of cigarettes and some petrol,” she says gratefully.
We all talk about the rising price of cigarettes.
“Whenever I get all of my stuff out of hock my mates are like ‘oh my god congratulations’.”
I’m sitting behind the counter when a toddler wearing pink pyjamas waddles in confidently towards a cabinet of figurines.
“Every time she gets pocket money, she wants to spend it here,” her mother tells me.
The girl decides on a purple kazoo. Her mother hoists her up to the counter where she proudly unfurls her chubby fist and lets a $2 coin drop into the manager’s hand. She looks at each of us one by one to make sure we’ve all witnessed the magical transaction.
“Pocket money works,” the mum says. “How many three-year-olds do you know who make their bed and put their clothes in the wash?”
A man comes in with an Xbox. Millie tests it out on a screen next to the cash register. He says he’s been waking up at 2am in the morning to play the multi- player shooter game Fortnite with competitors overseas.
“It’s so addictive,” he says rolling his eyes. “And then I’ve gotta get up and go to work.” He leaves with $80.
A young man walks in holding a ratchet. His hood is up and he is staring at the floor so I also turn my gaze downward towards his boots which are caked in mud. Dirt is smudged across his left cheek like warpaint but he looks defeated.
He puts the ratchet on the counter and mumbles that he would like $40 or $50 for it. Millie is warm but firm.
“I don’t think you’ll get anything close to that mate,” she says.
He insists it was $90 new.
Millie Googles the model and politely shows him the screen. It is $38 new at Bunnings. I busy myself with some receipts.
“Do you have any other tools?” she offers. He returns from his car with tin snippers. He leaves with $20 all up. iPhones, jewellery and power tools are the most common items people sell or loan against.
“We tell people not to loan for more than they need because they’re paying interest so you can put in a $10,000 ring and just get fifty bucks if that is all you need,” Millie says.
There’s a stainless-steel baseball bat behind the counter just in case. I watch the CCTV footage of a fight that had spilled into the shop a few weeks earlier. There’s punching and shoving, and eventually one of the men picks up a chainsaw from the shelf and threatens the other man with it. Millie says one of the men came in sheepishly afterwards to sell something and she had to say: “Mate, you know I can’t serve you.”
I wondered where he went with his stuff and whether someone eventually said yes.
I thought about what my brother would have done if the shopkeeper had turned him away. He would always find a way to get fucked up. In anything-anonymous meetings when someone describes how creative they were in finding a way to relapse, there is knowing laughter, a collective grimace.
“Why are there so many?” I ask, pointing to a stack of brand-new boxed violins.
“Some of the stuff we buy new in bulk to sell, like those, and phone charger cords and guitar strings,” Millie’s brother, the store manager, tells me.
I wonder if my violin would even be worth selling these days.
In the back of the store are all the goods currently loaned against in hold or bought items that haven’t made it onto the shelves. There are a dozen air conditioner units—“because it’s winter,” Millie explains—as well as a signed Cheech and Chong poster and a wheelchair.
On one of the shelves sit stolen items in plastic bags with police event numbers attached.
Millie says it isn’t in her best interests to take stolen goods because the store loses money once the police return them to their rightful owner.
“Sometimes you can ask all the questions in the world and if people have a good story and can lie it won’t matter.”
This happened a few weeks ago when Millie loaned against some antique trumpets which had been stolen.
“I should have just asked her to play a few notes,” she says bitterly.
This is an excerpt of a piece that was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. To read the full version and find many other brilliant works of writing and art, get your copy here!
Gina Rushton is a journalist at BuzzFeed News where she writes about issues that affect Australian women. She was previously a reporter for The Australian.
Rosemary Vasquez-Brown is a Sydney-based illustrator/animator/anything that lets her draw everyday.