Thursday, April 3, 2008

Pawn Shop Gets Pwned

originally published in the Hartford Advocate May 3, 2007

Pawn Shop Gets Pwned

West Hartford maintains its rich-town reputation

By Jennifer Abel

There’s really no polite way to tell somebody, "We don’t want your kind around here," though town governments who say such things often dull the sting by using bland bureaucratic phrases like, "Application denied."

Seth Boynick, a commercial real estate broker and town native, had his application to open a pawn shop on Park Road in West Hartford unanimously voted down by the town council last month, despite a complete lack of statutes or zoning codes forbidding such businesses. Not that Boynick should take this personally.

"[The rejection] was really more about the type of business, not about the applicant," said Art Spada, West Hartford’s deputy mayor. "Seth’s a good guy."

Most people would love to make a living off of their hobbies, and Boynick’s no exception. That’s why he wanted to open a pawn shop: as a self-described "inveterate collector" of antiques, ranging from old tools to fountain pens and cigarette lighters, he "became a denizen of pawn shops" about 12 years ago, when he discovered them to be full of such items.

Pawn shops are best known as places where people can get short-term loans by leaving something valuable as collateral. If the loan isn’t paid after a certain time, then the collateral becomes the pawnbroker’s property and is sold for a profit.

But Boynick says this describes only part of the business. "A pawnshop [can be] a lender, but it’s also a secondhand shop," he says. Up to 50 percent of items in a pawnshop are sold outright, he added, not used as collateral for loans. Think of a low-tech version of eBay, letting people make money off the junk in their attics.

Boynick envisioned his store as being mostly an antique den and secondhand shop, with a small percentage of his business coming from actual pawned items. He also planned to move his real estate office into the building.

However, pawnshops have an unsavory reputation; fairly or not, they’re viewed as places where criminals can fence stolen property, and addicts finance a fix. To prevent this from happening, pawn shops are strictly regulated; Boynick would have been required to check IDs, keep a registry of sellers and do other things to ensure that even if a criminal did sell stolen property, he would be quickly caught.

Not good enough for West Hartford. Chief of Police James Strillacci wrote the chiefs of police in other towns to get their opinions of allowing a pawn shop to open. Cops in other towns apparently had nothing good to say about the business. "The chiefs’ advice was, ‘If you don’t have them, don’t let them in,’" Strillacci said.

Boynick points out that this argument could be used to keep out several businesses. "Sometimes the gas stations at Bishop’s Corner won’t have cigarettes because somebody sold to a minor … liquor stores and pizza places are often robbed."

Strillacci, for his part, admits the town has never before denied an application on the basis of increased police protection. "I don’t think anybody applied for a pawn shop [license] before. … We don’t normally reject businesses [for this reason]."

So why make an exception in Boynick’s case? The criminality concerns sound like a red herring; given how heavily pawn shops are regulated, Boynick’s proposed shop would only be a haven for criminals if Boynick were dishonest enough to let it. And the council itself has nothing but good to say about him, so surely they needn’t worry that Boynick would turn out to be corrupt?

"Seth’s not the questionable component," Spada said when asked. "Even if Seth follows the letter of the law … having some mechanism for people to get cash [in exchange for property] opens it up to a criminal element."

As for Strillacci, he has a surprisingly low opinion of the effectiveness of the laws he’s sworn to uphold: "You’re not naïve enough to think the law won’t be broken." Perhaps, but surely West Hartford’s finest could handle it?

What really annoys Boynick, even more than the implication he wants to open a den of thieves, is his perception that the council decided against him before he even made his application. When he first began the process of trying to open his shop, "the regulations seemed to allow a pawn shop. [The] zoning [board] agreed."

But pawn shops, due to their reputation, hold a unique position in zoning codes. For most businesses, getting an application is almost a rubber-stamp process, but pawn shops have to win a popularity contest: They can’t come to West Hartford unless the council votes to let them in.
Boynick got a runaround. "Zoning said talk to the police. … Police said talk to town hall. They said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ but they never did."

Boynick presented his case at two Department of Public Safety meetings before going before the town council. In all instances, his meetings were cancelled and rescheduled at the last minute.
"They were being a little cavalier with a taxpaying citizen’s time," Boynick recalled.

At the second meeting of the Department of Public Safety, according to Boynick, Town Manager James Francis, annoyed by the lack of hard evidence to justify keeping Boynick out, asked, "Is there something we can use against him?"

Francis, who did not return calls seeking comment, didn’t verify this.

And it’s quite possible that Boynick’s memory isn’t entirely accurate in that regard. After all, the town didn’t need anything to "use against" Boynick to reject his application; the unanimous council vote against him was enough.