What'll You Give Me for This Dior Fur?

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What'll You Give Me for This Dior Fur?

Behind an oversized pair of dark sunglasses, a tall, middle-aged woman tentatively enters a shop through a sliding door. Seconds later a young clerk, girded in a gold-chain belt, dashes out to welcome the woman. "This way!" he says with a warm smile before guiding the woman to a discreet room in the back of the shop. Outside the enclosure a sign says "Counseling Room."

Counseling for what? "The client's desperate needs," says Song Sang-rae, the owner of a pawnshop called Goldrain Corporation in Dogok-dong, south of the river. "That's why I made a point of naming this company 'Goldrain.'" Mr. Song explains that the name comes from a Korean proverb, which describes the first rain to fall after a long and ruinous drought "sweet rain." The name represents the "efficient service" the company provides for their clients' needs.

According to people in the pawn business, large, modern and principled pawnshops like Mr. Song's are cropping up all over Korea, especially since the economy dropped off a few months ago. In Seoul alone, there are about 10 major shops that opened this year.

Pawning something to get some quick cash at these shops is simple, and similar to the procedures used by pawnbrokers or hockshop proprietors in the West. A customer either sells the item to the shop or pawns it for a loan. In the latter case, the broker takes down the customer's name on a form and checks for proof of identification, adds the serial number of the pawned item and files it away. "It's quick and simple," says Goldrain's Web site. The customer receives the loaned amount less a 3.5 percent processing fee, then must pay the full amount back within a specific period, usually a few months, or the broker will sell the item.

The image of pawnshops is becoming a little less seedy not only in Korea but also in Japan. There, shops called sichiya have been increasing in popularity and attracting fashionable youngsters since the 1980s. Pawnshops in America are cleaning up their acts as well: a pawnshop chain, Cash America International, is even listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

The typical items pawned at the modern Korean pawnshops are expensive brand-name goods like Rolex watches, golf club sets and mink coats. Chae Kyung, a sales manager at a shop called CashCash Brand Mall in Daechi-dong, also in south of the river, says that her store attracts a lot of young women who prefer her shop over the Galleria Department Store or boutiques on Apgujeong's upscale Rodeo Street.

"They come here when their stuff goes out of fashion," she says. The women exchange their old Louis Vuitton handbags for the latest designs, usually paying a little extra for the upgrade. "Others sell unwanted gifts they get for something that better suits their style." Ms. Chae boasts that her shop sells big-name products at up to 90 percent cheaper than department store prices.

In times past, a visit to a pawn shop was a telltale sign of grinding poverty. They were used mostly by the down-and-out working classes or the unemployed as a last resort to get money to obtain the most basic needs. Though in the '70s the shops became hangouts for youngsters who would swap their watch or a coat for some quick amusement cash, pawnshops were still never a place for a dignified person to be seen. Though such prejudices still exist today, entrepreneurs like Mr. Song are striving to clean up the industry and help it grow.

Changing the terminology would be a good start, says Mr. Song. He prefers to call his business a "pawn bank" to give it an uptown, corporate sound. He also gave himself the title of CEO, which is prominently displayed on his business card, and deals with what he calls "elite clients." They keep the company's image modern and reputable. "It's not like we get clients in here who have to sell their wedding rings to buy a bag of rice." His target market is corporate executives and stock investors who are wealthy but find themselves in cash emergencies from time to time. "For them, we provide some temporary relief," he says.

Describing other clients, Mr. Song says he sees many wives of corporate executives who seek help after losing a bundle in the stock market. They often want to resolve the crisis before their husbands can discover it. Discretion is the better part of his service. "We would carry our clients' secrets to our graves," he says adamantly. "That's our company motto." Likewise, Ms. Chae at Cashcash says company policy there is that the staff contact customers only via cellular phones.

Back in Goldrain's display room, a fancy glass case contains various brand-name perfumes and small accessories like keyholders and wallets, all attractively displayed. Everything looks like it's fresh from the factory. Mr. Song explains, though, that these goods are only for display. The "real stuff," he says, is back at a storage facility, separate from the Dogok-dong shop.

But despite the spruced up surroundings and upscale clientele, there remain the stereotypical, desperate, down-on-their-luck customers. Over the six months she's worked at CashCash, Ms. Chae says, she has seen some moments that exposed that despair still exists in modern Korea. "We see a lot of middle-aged couples who bring garbage bags full of jewelry and household items." She can only guess that they are families whose businesses went bust. After a short pause, she continues, "Come to think of it, it's interesting. Whatever their reasons, nobody pawning things here looks very happy."

by Park Soo-mee

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