Pawnshops and Perceptions

Last night, I spoke against a new pawnshop that has applied to open in the Town & Country shopping center (McLean/Lillian, in the old Trefon’s).

I’ve learned a lot about the pawn industry lately. It’s not nearly as seedy as I thought. Pawnshops are actually a much better option for people than the payday loans and cash-for-gold shops that have sprung up like noxious weeds. They’re tightly regulated by both the state and city, and work closely with the police to report their daily intakes. They make their money through loans, and in the end, the customer often gets their item back, to re-pawn later if needed. With cash-for-gold stores, items are quickly melted down, never to be seen again.

But sometimes, reality doesn’t matter nearly as much as perception.

Perceptions run deep. They start in childhood and grow as you’re exposed to the world: to your parents, to television and movies, to friends, to teachers. And those perceptions, once baked in, are very tough to change. When cobbled together, perceptions form images of people, communities, or things.

Elgin knows this. Elgin fights perceptions daily, constantly crafting and re-casting Elgin’s image. In the six years I’ve lived here, my marketer’s heart has marveled at all the effort that goes into crafting and re-casting Elgin’s image.

  • We spent $75,000 (!) to redesign our city logo and develop a slogan: “The City in the Suburbs.”
  • We have an Image Commission that gives annual “Image Awards” to recognize “image-enhancing efforts from Elgin residents, businesses and civic organizations.”
  • We build and rebuild websites to lure companies from abroad, filled with pictures of diverse, happy people who have somehow found an Elgin where it’s always sunny.

Image is on the minds and lips of city officials, not to mention residents who contradict outdated perceptions that continue to tarnish our image decades later.

We spent oodles of money on fancy brick pavers and new streetscaping for downtown. We celebrate ECC as a major regional destination. The city tries to lure golfers to the courses it owns, including one right by the proposed pawnshop. Thousands of out-of-towners come to Larkin High School every year for various sports and other extracurricular activities.

Each person who comes into our town makes or affirms their own perceptions of Elgin. Each presents an opportunity to change their minds, to shake their perceptions of the Elgin of old. For the younger people headed to ECC or Larkin, it’s often a first impression. So we talk about how the entry corridors fuel these perceptions.

And yet, when faced with a pawnshop to open at a major interchange and entry point, we allow it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for letting the market decide what types of businesses can open in a given area. But the city puts pawnshops in a separate category for a reason. Until a year ago, there were none in town. The city created a special type of license for pawnshops, and issued only one, to Windy City Jewelry & Loan. Windy City doesn’t use the word “Pawn” in their signage. They don’t overtly advertise that’s what they do. (Interestingly, the city has no such restrictions on payday loans, cash-for-gold shops or similar businesses. By my count, there are at least 20 such businesses scattered around town, including one already in the Town & Country shopping center.)

Rendering of EZPawn's proposed signage

But this new shop will have “EZPAWN” emblazoned 30 inches high by 198 inches wide, on a bright red background. Depending on how they position the sign, it will be one of the first things people see when they exist Route 20 at McLean, or even as they drive past on 20. That includes people going to Larkin, ECC and the Highlands golf course.

The Zoning Board recognized this and asked the petitioners if they could perhaps not use the word “Pawn” on their sides, and instead use the corporate name, EZ-Corp. But EZPawn is the trade name, so of course they’ll use their name on their signage.

The Board ultimately approved the proposal, which now heads to the City Council for final approval.

Whatever you personally believe about pawnshops, the widely held perception is not good. Thanks to my research, my perceptions have certainly changed. (Plus, Google now serves me lots of ads for pawnshops, payday loans, and bankruptcy attorneys.) But if someone already has less-than-ideal image of Elgin, how will that sign change – or affirm – their perceptions?

Am I off base? What do you think?

View the entire petition and Zoning Board details. Full disclosure: in my capacity as president of the South West Area Neighbors, I did write a letter based on input from the neighborhood, and spoke at the hearing. 

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15 responses to “Pawnshops and Perceptions

  1. I have a few years on you in a time when “pawn” perhaps had even seedier undertones. But the businesses has been heavily regulated for some time to clean it up, and TV programs like “Pawn Stars,” for an example, have shed greater light on the industry and how it works.

    Personally, I more greatly fear the impression all the payday loan places leave than I do a pawn store. That said, both types of business cater to people who are down on their luck. I know about that, although I’d rather be shot dead than do business with a payday loan — another term for legalized loan sharking.

    I’d say the pawn shop’s legit. I won’t say the same for the payday loan places.

    • Thanks for the great comments, Ted. I agree with you completely on payday loans etc. That’s part of my problem with the whole thing: the city very tightly regulates pawn shops, who are already regulated by the state. But anyone can open a payday loan or cash-for-gold store, which are much more predatory. The payday loan shops routinely charge 300+% interest, and cops have told me that the cash-for-gold shops often receive stolen goods.

  2. Wonderful writing as always, along with terrific research on the topic. I don’t live in the area, and don’t have anything to add of any substance on the matter (as Ted already has)…just wanted to say I admire you for all you do. No matter which direction this swings in, your neighbors are lucky to have you in their midst, Crysta.

  3. The article is about perception and for that reason alone I despise businesses like this that pop up in my beloved city. The zoning board seems to not care much about the perception of our city these days, just look at the ridiculous signage some businesses have in various parts of town. What perception does it create when I, as a business, can take a cardboard box and spray paint the name of my business and hang it up on top of my building for advertising? When are we going to say no to businesses that create an image that Elgin is full of people “down on their luck” and start favoring businesses and organizations that highlight the successful people that we know work hard and Elgin is full of.

    • Definitely agree. And to your “cardboard box” point – a jewelry store just opened in my neighborhood. Every day, they place their hand-written, cardboard “Cash por Oro!” sign out on the sidewalk. Yep, that’s the image we want.

  4. This is great! Thanks for your input.

  5. Nancy via Facebook said:

    That rendering is about as “sketchy neighborhood” as one can get in a drawing. Doesn’t help that there are no windows on that building, which often implies “adult bookstore.” My perception: Elgin is Vegas circa 1975. D’oh!

  6. Pawn Shops & Cash for Gold places do shape opinions. It is natural to make first assumptions on looks, whether we want to admit it or not. Fortunately television shows like Pawn Stars do shed a different light on the industry and I think the opinion of pawn shops are not as bad as they once were. I think that the proposed signage and facade of EZ Pawn is a little less than desirable, and could be improved to create a better perception from the street, even if the inside remains the same.

    I am all too familiar with a city who spends too much on crafting an “image” to try to get people to have a favorable opinion of it. Not the city I live in, but one close by. They spent an insane amount of money on brick pavers, flower planters (which I personally think are hideous) and other “enhancements”. Problem is, you can’t just slap some paint on a building and plant a few flowers and have the neighborhood change. It won’t fool anyone and is a band-aid approach. The underlying issues need to be addressed. While I think aesthetics are extremely important, they are merely the frosting on the cake and we all know that you need to bake a good cake first before you put on the frosting. Frosting an old piece of bread is not going to fool anyone once they take the first bite.

    • Great point, Beth, and it fits in perfectly with another post I’m working on. (If Finals ever end…) We have big problems that need fixing. Absolutely. But while we’re undertaking the monumental task of fixing those systemic problems, we should take whatever band-aid approaches to avoid making the problem – or perception of the problem – worse. I love your bread analogy. To follow that, I’d say that while frosting an old piece of bread isn’t a fix, you should at least stop someone from sprinkling arsenic on it.

  7. This year I started volunteering with the center for economic progress to help people in the community prepare their taxes at the library. I was truly surprised by how many resident’s don’t have a bank account to deposit their electronically filed tax returns into. If many of our residents don’t have any bank accounts, then chances are fair that they have no emergency cash on hand. Where should these people go in moments of desperation? Leave perceptions aside and ask yourself what is the best option for these people? While the niche a pawn shop fills is not needed in every community, the reality is it IS needed in ours, and these shops fill that niche in a way that is much more economically fair than pay-day loans ever would.

    • You’re right, Chris. Obviously there’s a need for such services. And from what I’ve read, a pawn shop is definitely a better option than a payday loans, as the interest rates are much more reasonable, and at the end of it, you have your item back. My biggest problem with the proposed pawn shop is the very visible, very high profile entry location.

  8. Hey Crysta, this is a great blog. Dan Miller made me aware of this. Earlier tonight I had read an editorial that someone wrote, saying how terrible a pawnshop would be in our part of town. I was bothered on two levels. One, every Christmas when I visit family in Texas, I look forward to visiting the various pawn shops they have. The pawnshops provide a wide variety of goods, and offer a some real bargains. So it strikes me that this is much fuss about nothing. But the other aspect of concern to me, is simply that all of the effort and expense to falsify Elgin’s image is a shame. As noted by Beth, putting frosting on a piece of stale bread, well, its still stale bread. Elgin is a mixed community, and vast tracts, including my neighborhood, are clearly low income. The pretense that we can buff our image up into a gleaming city on a hill is delusional. I attended last Friday’s special council session, and at one time, the discussion was focused on just letting Elgin be Elgin, we are what we are. But in minutes, the discussion was how to improve our image. But above all, for people to find contempt for the image projected by a pawn shop, when our city’s fate is linked to one of the state’s largest gambling casinos is completely irrational. My last comment, Crysta for council in 2013! Chuck

  9. PS: Crysta, for whatever reason, I typed in free form, with the intention of revising my text, and parsing this into paragraphs. But I couldn’t seem to get the text to sit still. It would jump around, and I had to post this as I composed it! Sorry, Chuck

  10. Pingback: Reinventing Elgin: Icing on the Cake? | The Adventures of Elginista

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