'Poor man's bank' on last legs in our more affluent society
At the height of their popularity in the 1960s, there were 50 pawnbrokers in Belfast; now there are just two. Ivan Little recalls an era when the 'poor man's bank' was a lifeline for families on the breadline.
Mention the pawn industry to most people in Belfast nowadays and chances are that they'll mishear you and think you're talking about a very different commercial enterprise altogether.
And though an American TV series called Pawn Stars about a Las Vegas broker has raised the profile of the money-lending business there, in Belfast pawn shops are largely forgotten relics of a little-remembered era.
Yet, in the days before benevolence and benefits, pawn shops, which offered hard-up families quick sources of money to see them through tough times, were two-a-penny in a city where poverty could be found around virtually every corner.
The thinking behind the business, which dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece and Rome, hasn't really changed that much.
Pawnbrokers still offer their customers a loan for a fixed period of time in exchange for goods that can be reclaimed with a ticket once the money, plus interest, is paid back.
If the clients don't return for their property, the pawnbroker puts it up for sale and recovers the debt.
At one stage in the Fifties and Sixties, there were more than 50 pawn shops across Belfast, before credit and credit unions arrived to help out people in need.
But as time marched on and state handouts became the norm, it soon became clear that many of the pawnbrokers were themselves living on borrowed time.
And today there are only two old-style pawnshops still trading in Belfast - though money shops and cash-converter firms, which are part of nationwide chains, also advertise pawnbroking services.
Yet, even in a more supposedly affluent environment, the G & J Geddis pawnbrokers are doing surprisingly brisk business, with equally surprising types of customers coming through their doors to swap their possessions for money - mainly on short-term loans.
Robert Geddis runs the shop on York Road, while his brother Jim is behind the counter of the other one on the Albertbridge Road, which, like its counterpart across town, is a well-known landmark on a busy thoroughfare.
The siblings followed their father George, and uncle James into the pawnbroker business, which had been in their blood since the 1920s.
Robert was only 10 years old when, as a schoolboy, he first helped his father in the shop on the York Road, which opened in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In the Fifties, the second Geddis shop followed in east Belfast close to where a number of other pawnbrokers were flourishing.
"But it's a bit like a dying trade today," says Robert (58). "At its height, you would have had pawn shops everywhere, from North Queen Street to the New Lodge, the Shankill, Grosvenor Road, Templemore Avenue - everywhere."
The York Road shop came through the war virtually unscathed - even though many businesses and houses around it were devastated in the Blitz, as Hitler's bombers targeted the nearby docks.
"Apparently, a skylight in the roof was broken. But the shop was busy during the war. Money was tight," says Roberts.
After the war, there was no let-up in demand for financial help.
"I remember it was the same right through to the Sixties. People were getting their wages on a Friday and pawning their stuff on the Monday, because the money going out from the households was greater than what had come in," says Robert.
"The people would then collect whatever they had pawned with us after the men got their next pay packet. And so the circle went on."
The pawnbrokers were known throughout Belfast as the "poor man's bank" and were a crucial lifeline for desperate housewives to put food on the table for their families.
Robert says regular customers also called the pawnbrokers by another name.
"They used to say that they were going to see their 'uncle' to help them out."
In those days, people would pawn virtually anything to bring in much-needed cash from the shops, with their distinctive three gold balls suspended from a bar. That symbol was first used by Italians merchants in Lombardy to draw attention to their services.
In Belfast, suits and shoes were the most popular items for people to offer as collateral for loans.
"A suit might have got them £3, or a fiver, but that would have bought a lot back then," says Robert.
"When people came back to reclaim what they had pawned, they might have paid a few shillings in interest for the week."
Clothes, however, are old hat nowadays. Jewellery, gold and watches are the currency of pawn transactions today.
"We wouldn't take clothes now, because if people didn't come back to redeem them, no one would be interested in buying a secondhand suit, for example," says Robert.
"Fifteen years ago we used to take what were then high-end goods, like camcorders, but there's no value in them now, because they're so cheap to buy.
"Nobody today is poor in the same way that they were in years gone by. My father used to say that, even in the Thirties, it wasn't unusual to see youngsters on the streets in the ice and snow in their bare feet."
But while the Belfast of the 21st century is unrecognisable from those days, Robert, who does a little bit of farming as a sideline, says many people are still suffering hardship.
"The standard of living definitely got better, with the likes of the DHSS and the DLA. But the move away from employers paying wages - and the state handing over benefits - on a weekly basis has had an impact on some people who can't manage their finances well.
"If some folk receive their money every fortnight, for example, it can be gone in a week," he says.
Which obviously might send more and more customers into Robert's pawn shop. But he doesn't take any pleasure from other people's misfortunes.
"We want to help people - especially the ones who want a small, short-term loan and who will almost certainly return to claim what they own. If they're ever stuck again, they will know where we are," he says. "That's the repetitive business we seek. We don't want to have to sell on the goods that people can't afford to redeem, but if we still have them after six months, that's what happens, though thankfully in only a relatively small number of cases,"adds Robert, who knows virtually all of the people who use his services by name, which means that strangers trying to pass on stolen goods stand out like proverbial sore thumbs.
"The people we see on a regular basis include the woman who will, perhaps, bring the same ring back to us to pawn time and time again to help to tide her over between pension payments, or something like that."
More than 95% of Robert's customers reclaim what they have pawned within a month, he says, adding that interest fees are small, unlike the more notorious payday loan companies, which several years ago were charging extortionate rates to their clients for the money they were borrowing.
"They didn't do pawnbroking any good at all," says Robert. "But people quickly caught on that they might have to pay us £6 for a £100 loan, whereas the other firms were charging £30 for the same amount to borrow.
"And, of course, they were sending out debt collectors, but pawnbroking doesn't work that way."
The emergence of the payday loan companies and the subsequent crackdown on them from the Government has meant more headaches for Robert and other pawnbrokers.
Officials from the independent Financial Conduct Authority were tasked three years ago with the job of punishing bad lending behaviour, but the extra paperwork drove many reputable pawnbrokers out of business.
"I think they used a sledgehammer to crack a nut," adds Robert. "It's brought a lot more work we don't need. It's nearly as complicated to get a mortgage, or £50,000 for a new car, as it is to get a loan from the pawnbroker for a loaf of bread. And that's not right."
Another upshot of the new regulations is that cash-strapped people are turning to illegal moneylenders in Britain and Northern Ireland, where, in the lawlessness of the Troubles, they were never hard to find - though borrowers faced the threat of violence if they couldn't repay their loans. Pawnbrokers, like Robert, have to be men for all seasons, as the changing calendar dictates the peaks and troughs of his lending.
"Easter, the summer holidays and the start of the school year in September always see more people running short of money and coming in to pawn their goods," he says.
At the time of the recession, in 2008, Robert and pawnbrokers across the UK saw a huge upturn in the number of people turning to them for assistance.
And, indeed, pawnbroking was one of the few areas to benefit from an austerity Britain, where banks were unwilling to give people overdrafts.
Robert's shop isn't all about lending money, however.
It's also a general clothing outfitter's, selling "a little bit of everything and not too much of anything".
It's also licensed to cash cheques for people in the province, where 30% of the population don't have bank accounts.
But even apparently wealthier people, who have several chequing accounts, avail of the pawnbroker's services.
And that includes members of the legal profession.
Robert won't divulge the names of any of his clients, but stories abound of the exploits of the late snooker ace Alex Higgins, who apparently wasn't exactly a stranger to pawnbrokers in his native Belfast when he needed the money for a drink or a bet.
The Hurricane also used the services of the Cash Converters shop in the centre of Belfast, where he was forever pawning a gold medal he won at the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters in 1989.
If he won big at the bookies, he went back and reclaimed his medal from Cash Converters, but it usually found its way back into the vaults again before too long.
However, Alex died in 2010 before he could retrieve it one last time and the firm employed solicitors to ensure that the medal was restored to the snooker player's family.
Years earlier, in 1952, Belfast war hero James Magennis was forced to pawn his Victoria Cross to raise money for his family after he fell on hard times, but the pawnbroker agreed to give it back to him.
A plethora of remarkable anecdotes from pawnbrokers also do the rounds.
One of the more bizarre stories is of a Belfast paramilitary who tried to pawn a revolver and, on another occasion, it's said that a plainclothes policeman in need of money to fund a night on the town offered to pawn his personal-issue weapon, promising to come back to collect it in the morning. There's also the story of an inebriated Scottish football fan, who was trying to raise enough money to get the ferry home after a three-day bender following his team's game against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in the 1980s.
Realising he had nothing of value to pawn, the Scot whipped off his trousers and offered them as collateral to the broker.
But the pawnbroker said no and sent the fan on his way with his pride restored, but his pockets still empty...