Buy, sell, loan, pawn: The world behind the doors of Dan’s Pawnshop

By Elizabeth Walters

EDMONTON — Bells hang from the front door. Old records fill the entrance on the right side. The wall on the left is covered in multicoloured guitars, one an unexpected bright azure. Further into the aisle there are hand-held video games and PlayStations in a locked cabinet. At the end there is a counter where Dan Tarrabain usually stands when a customer arrives.

The wall behind him is covered in knickknacks, cards, handmade drawings, newspaper clippings and old photos. Further into the shop a couch faces a big screen TV where Tarrabain sometimes plays music or watches movies. Today a video of Adele plays in the background. Her morose tones fill the already stuffed room. A bear rug stares down from the ceiling above that, but it hardly seems out of place with all of the other things around. Watches, chainsaws, bicycles, lamps, movies and tools fill the room in every direction.

Dan's Pawnshop

The bear on the ceiling of Dan's Pawnshop. Photo by Elizabeth Walters.

The inside of Dan’s Pawnshop at 153rd Street and Stony Plain Road may look cluttered and confusing, but it is maintained. Tarrabain sweeps the room and picks up abandoned litter outside the shop.

Pawnshops are often cited as a source for seediness along Stony Plain Road, but for Tarrabain, they are an essential part of the local economy and nothing to be ashamed of.

“There’s apartments all around, and those are the types of people that need pawnshops. Put one in Riverbend, those people don’t need pawnshops, they go to Best Buy, Visions, Future Shop, you know, they have garage sales. But here, Johnny needs to pawn his Xbox for $80, for lunch money or bus tickets, so he’ll bring his Xbox down here,” Tarrabain says. “It’s just kind of a poorer area. You know, people need pawnshops here.”

Tarrabain’s father named the pawnshop after him when he was just a kid.

“I said, ‘What are you gonna call it?’ He said, ‘Well, how about Dan’s?’ I said, ‘Well, let’s call it Tracy’s,’ after my sister. ‘No I’m gonna call it Dan’s Pawnshop,’ and that was 34 years ago,” he adds thoughtfully. “He named it after me when I was nine years old.”

Tarrabain’s dad got into the pawning business because he wasn’t making money as a barber in the 1970s

“When people started to wear their hair longer in the ‘70s, there wasn’t a requirement for barbers any more, so he took half of his barber school and made a pawnshop,” Tarrabain said.

Dan’s Pawnshop was originally across the street from the courthouse on 97th Street.

When Tarrabain was younger, this is where he spent most of his time after school hanging out.

“I’d ride my bike downtown to my dad’s pawnshop and I’d hang around with the guys and got to know the business and he gave me a key to the door when I was like 14 years old, 12 years old,” Tarrabain smiles.

“So you know Friday night, I was 12 years old, 14 years old, I had a key to my dad’s pawnshop and the alarm code and I would go there with my buddies and I would turn on the tunes.”

“Then when I was around 17, my dad said to me, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I’d like to do what you do, Dad. I want a pawnshop.”

It would still be a few years before Tarrabain would start working in the pawn business though. “You know, I was a dishwasher, a waiter, bus boy, bartender, I framed houses and then when I was 21 years old, I got my own pawnshop on Whyte Avenue.”

Dan’s Pawnshop was on Whyte Avenue for five and half years, but eventually Tarrabain got sick of renting and wanted to buy a space. Eventually buying a building on 124th Street and 107th Avenue. The shop spent 12 years at that location.

“Then the area got pretty fancy, it started to get art galleries and fancy coffee shops, and fancy bakery pastries.”

When Tarrabain first settled in that location “you could get a three-bedroom apartment for $550 back then. There were a lot of families that needed a pawnshop,” he says.

“It honestly got too fancy of an area for me, too artsy fartsy.”

He moved to Stony Plain Road seven years ago.

“I’m helping a lot of people too, there’s a lot of good people in this neighbourhood. I got a Valentines Day card from one customer. ‘Hope you’re my friend forever and ever.’ ” Tarrabain picks up the pink and red card.

Tarrabain’s dad owns the building complex. He worked in the pawnshop until he was 76 years old.

Tarrabain feels pawnshops help families get through the week. He needs the pawnshop too. He’s a family man, and the shop is his livelihood.

Dan from Dan's Pawnshop

Dan Tarrabain from Dan's Pawnshop. Photo by Elizabeth Walters.

“I’ve been going on with my wife 20 years, and we’ve been married 10, and we have a nine-year-old son.” Tarrabain’s wife’s name is Terry and their son is Aydan.

Tarrabain met Terry in the pawnshop. “She was a friend of one of my friends, and she came into my pawnshop, and I really liked her,” he adds. “It took me six months to ask her on a date.”

‘I can’t really complain about my business because I have a business,” Tarrabain adds. “You can always want more, but you got a be happy with what you have.”

He pretends to write his name on a $20 bill. “Some people say they don’t like pawnshops, but if I was to write Dan’s, you should see how many businesses get my money in this neighbourhood,”

Jamie Post, a blogger and volunteer for the Stony Plain Road Business Revitalization Zone, has a different opinion of pawnshops. “I think it would be hard to describe it as positive,” he says. “I’m quite a subscriber to the belief that an influx of predatory businesses such as pawnshops, such as payday loan shops, are an indicator of the decline of a neighbourhood.”

Post says these “predatory businesses” tend to cluster in areas such as Stony Plain Road or 118th Avenue, and create a negative impression.

“They obviously serve a purpose to some extent and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any large-scale business area that didn’t have them,” Post says. “I think the issue becomes when you got a large concentration within a very tight geographic area.”
When you’re obviously trying to recruit more family-friendly businesses to the area, they may be more leery about locating to what’s in that type of concentration.”

Many pawnshops belong to the Stony Plain Road and Area Business Association, “and we try to work with them,” says executive director Diane Kereluk.

“I don’t think it’s only the poor that use cash shops and pawnshops, I think that there’s a lot of different situations where it may require people to resort to quick cash services, and I think that whatever means that they have to utilize those services in times of desperation, that’s what they’ll do,” Kereluk says.

“I’m of the belief that diversity is healthy. Too much of anything is not a good thing, but a little bit of everything poses a healthy community, because then it has room for everybody.”

A sign below the counter says that “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”

In the pawn business there are a lot of rules. When a new item comes in, Tarrabain puts the serial number into a database so police can check for stolen goods. Then the item must be held for 45 days. A customer has 30 days to pick up the item on loan and pay back with 25 per cent interest for its return. If the customer chooses to leave the item, he or she can keep the money and it is considered pawned.

In comparison, payday loan charges 23 per cent interest, but if the money is not paid in full on or before the scheduled due date, the customer can also be charged with a $25 fee.

If an item is reported stolen, Tarrabain must hand it over to the police without compensation.

“Lots of people just sell stuff, you know, you ask them, ‘Are you coming back for it? ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Sometimes you know damn well they’re not coming back for it,” Tarrabain adds. “That’s what I’m here for: buy sell, trade, pawn.”

An older tanned, blond police officer comes in to look for a stolen Stihl chainsaw. Tarrabain pulls out a bright orange, black and white one, but neither the police officer nor Tarrabain can find the serial number.

The police officer explains that some of the serial numbers are pretty tricky to find, but he can go look up where the serial number should be and come back to find it. He also tells Tarrabain that starting next week he will have to come in and start doing random inspections of the 30-day holds.

“The heat is on,” Tarrabain jokes.

Tarrabain lets the police officer know he is closed on Mondays.

“My son, he made me for Christmas, he gave me new business hours. ‘Dad, I want you to close Mondays and come pick me up at 3:30.’ ”

The police officer listens, laughs with Tarrabain and tells him to have a good day as he leaves.

“I think it depends on who you’re talking to, I do know that a pawnshop owner does have a strict regiment and there is a certain element of risk when they do accept goods because if those goods are proven to be stolen then it’s the pawnshop owner that’s out of pocket so they have a pretty high criteria from the police services to maintain that the goods are legit,” Kereluk says.

Nine-year-old Aydan is in Grade 4 and wants to be a teacher when he grows up. He visits his dad at work, but doesn’t stick around too long because Tarrabain doesn’t want him exposed to some of the more aggressive characters who wander in. Aydan has the day off of school and waits for his grandpa to pick him up at the pawnshop.

Tarrabain calls his son Little Buddy and makes him a grilled cheese sandwich as Aydan watches a show about life in the ocean. Tarrabain sweeps the shop.

Dan with his son Aydan in the Pawnshop

Aydan Tarrabain eating a grilled cheese sandwich with his father in the Pawnshop. Photo by Elizabeth Walters.

“What do I like least about it? Some of the scary people, that are drunk or on drugs, and they demand money from you, and if you don’t give it to them, then they go irate and start smashing things. You know, calling you names and boot slamming your door open. But if you give them money, they’ll be back the next day.”

“I’m just here to try and make a living and go home to my family, I didn’t come here to fight,” Tarrabain says.

“So that’s the thing, you know, but that’s a small percentage, maybe five out of 100 are bad customers.”

One bad customer who had an impact on Tarrabain was Trevor Grimolfson, 38, who died in Tarrabain’s shop after being tasered by police on Oct. 29, 2008.

“He was high on drugs. He just wouldn’t leave the store. The autopsy revealed he was high on ecstasy and ketamine. He assaulted my dad. He slapped him to the ground and punched out my window, and then he came to attack me. So you know, I just got to safety and he started smashing up my store and the police came to arrest him and he wouldn’t respond to their demands of being arrested and he went berserk in here,” Tarrabain points to the ground. “Next thing you know they tasered him and he died right there on the floor actually, his heart stopped from excited delirium, I guess.”

Tarrabain feels at home in the neighbourhood, but not after dark.

“In the summer time I don’t mind staying until six, when it’s light out, but in the winter…” Tarrabain adds. “I don’t like much being here by myself.”

“I like my job, I look forward to coming here every day, because every day’s different, it’s never the same.”

Tarrabain has two dogs that hang out in the back of the pawnshop. This is also what he likes about owning the pawnshop. “What do I like most about it, the freedom, I can come in, in the morning and I can watch Adele, read the newspaper, I can have a coffee.”

“This is Rocky, Rocky the Rocket,” Tarrabain points at a thin German Pinscher. “This ones Ben, he likes girls,” the Cane Corso wags his tail as he ambles over. “He’s very sheepish.”

The door rings with bells when a customer enters the shop.

A young woman comes in and attempts to sell a beer fridge and a TV stand then argues because she wants $100 for the fridge and $50 for the TV stand.

“Those are the kind of people, they don’t have a clue.” Tarrabain says. “You got a $125 fridge brand new and she wants $100 for it.” Tarrabain can usually only get half price for the items he sells.

Tarrabain will give out more money for loans when someone has a record of picking up loaned stuff.

“Everything in here, they’re all coming back for it. I make my living off of people not coming back. They promise you the world, you know, and then you see them, ‘How come you didn’t pick up your guitar like you said?’ ‘Well I had to pay my rent,’ or ‘I had to pay my cable or I was gonna get cut off,’ ‘I had to pay my cellphone bill,’ that’s more important to them. I say ‘Yeah, but when you didn’t come back and pay, how am I gonna pay my rent? And my cellphone bill? You didn’t care about me, so why should I care about you?’

“There’s some funny people in the neighbourhood, they’re just happy to make three dollars or five dollars, you know, they’re kinda comical because the next guy comes in and he’s all serious, he wants $500, and he storms out of here, and the other guy was happy, he just found something in the garbage, and he made five dollars for it, and I sell it for seven dollars and we have a good laugh about it.”

A woman comes back to pick up a guitar that she loaned to Tarrabain so that she would have enough money for her son’s birthday, She leaves a white cowboy hat that was a part of the original deal.

“So then she comes in just for the guitar, and then she’s gonna stick me with the cowboy hat,” he says. “I don’t want a white cowboy hat. Black cowboy hat, we’ll talk.”

“She’s got her guitar back. I made $30 bucks, and she got her birthday party, but you know, she obviously didn’t have a credit card, no money in the bank, so without that $120 on her guitar, there wouldn’t have been a birthday party. So that’s what I like about the pawn business.”

“I had one guy come in here, and he says, ‘Tarrabain I’ve got a deal for you. I’ve got 500 cowboy hats for sale, four dollars each, but they’re all pink.” Tarrabain laughs. He didn’t take the deal.