First pawnbroker in a century opens beside London's elite banks

No sooner have the leaders departed the G20 meetings in London than proof has surfaced about just how bad the crisis is getting there. Something just appeared amongst the fine banking institutions and stock-trading houses of London City, where last week demonstrators were hurling computers through windows.

A new pawnbroker's, thought to be the first in a century, opened its doors on Bishopsgate, near the Bank of England, last month. The British newspapers, always quick with a sharp angle, announced the opening with a headline reading "Fat cats hock their diamonds."

The storefront once housed a recruitment consultant. Now, black-suited bankers use the premises to hock their fine jewelry, Rolexes, and diamonds from behind protective glass. The average loan is about ten times what suburban pawn shops give, but then again, the stakes are higher for Europe's former high rollers.

The re-emergence of usury is no fluke. H&T, a big British pawnbroking chain, has reported record profits as people struggle to make it to pay day.

The English are nothing if not backward-looking, and the head of the National Pawnbrokers Association took a grounded view of the development. The banks of London have always been about lending, he said. Only usually, things like paintings are used as collateral for loans. These days, it's bling.

Interestingly, last week I went to a few collectible bookstores in London's West End, where antique volumes are bought and sold. Those shopkeepers report that they're not receiving any more books than usual from collectors, and their inventory is more or less what it always was. So at least in London's case, it appears that the cash-strapped luxury item sellers are appearing mostly at the bottom of the scale, where things have always been tight, and the top of the market, where the high lifestyle is difficult to maintain. The people in the middle ground, though -- those who might enjoy rare books -- are so far holding onto their valuables.
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