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The Rod Steiger of 10th and Sansom?

June 17, 2010 By:
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In the loop: Tod Gordon and daughter Rebecca at work
Pawn to king.

Check.

Unusual chess move, perhaps, but de rigeur and the right move for anyone familiar with the 150-year-history of Carver W. Reed, the company that may just be king of the pawn shops in Center City.

The check? That's the payoff -- payment to customers for those items loaned out to the pawnbroker.

Somewhere, Rod Steiger is smiling -- if not adding up the goods to be pawned.

"Oooh, Rod Steiger," and Tod Gordon twists an imaginary knife in his heart.

He has heard it before, customers and friends citing the star of the film "The Pawnbroker," the powerful 1964 drama about a Holocaust survivor who buries his heart and his memories in a shop he owns in East Harlem, where the symbolic three balls of the business weigh less heavily than the chains of anger that forever link Sol Nazerman (Steiger) to his concentration-camp past. "People expect to see a Rod Steiger," Gordon mockingly grouses.

But instead, what they find is an avuncular and avidly friendly 55-year-old Jewish businessman -- not with a brutal backstory, but a history of a nice, fourth-generation, family-run company, situated as it has been at the corner of 10th and Sansom for most of its existence, just a diamond's drop from Jeweler's Row.

Appropriate since, as Gordon relates, people pawn their jewelry here, the only items he accepts.

It is all a gem of a Father's Day story, with Tod tied to it by his own grandfather, Harry, who purchased the business from Reed himself in the '40s.

Now, customers are as likely to get buzzed in by Tod's daughter, Rebecca, a recent college graduate with whom the paternally pleasant pawnbroker works side by side.

Seeking a seedy experience like those showcased in Hollywood scenarios of old? Try Netflix; what you get here, avows Gordon, is a business that fits in with the neighborhood.

"We look like a jewelry boutique," he says.

Shop 'til they drop? As loans go out on the jewelry, Gordon is fast to state, most items on loan revert to their owners. Going for broke is not necessarily a forever state of being.

"Some 95 percent of the items we accept are reclaimed," says Gordon.

What's the Jewish claim on the business' heritage?

"I've never thought of it" as a Jewish business, he muses.

But others have. Money-lending as a disreputable calling goes back centuries, with Shylock portrayed as a greedy merchant of venom by Shakespeare.

Indeed, in last year's In Hock: Pawning in America From Independence Through the Great Depression, Wendy Wolosin wrote: "Works of popular culture had largely succeeded in creating a coherent, seemingly logical stereotype: the pawnbroker had become implicitly the Jewish pawnbroker -- the Jew broker -- and as Jews and pawnbrokers became increasingly stigmatized, the stereotypes reinforced each other."

But stereotypes they were, and families like the Gordons have served as living, breathing antidotes to such fallacies.

"It's not like someone says, 'I want to be a pawnbroker' for my career," contends Gordon. "You learn from generations before you."

And the Gordons have learned to make prospective customers comfortable. "At first, people can seem ill at ease coming in," he concedes.

But it's pull up to the counter and share a glass -- well, diamonds, that is -- or two.

"Later, they come back, calling out, 'Tod!'" he kibitzes, in irreverent reference to the shout-outs to Norm on the TV series "Cheers."

He adds: "Almost all my business is repeat business."

And he repeats a mantra that is meaningful, especially to a businessman with excellent street cred -- whether it be Sansom Street or elsewhere: "Everything we do is regulated" by laws meant to protect the customer.

A Family Affair
Gordon protects his legacy by having brought his daughter into the business. Her dual background in psychology and business in college helps quite a bit, both claim.

Stories about pawnbrokers can break the heart: Tales of customers in need of quick cash, losing cherished heirlooms forever.

"Customers have nine months to renew their contract," explains Gordon, and even in cases where they don't, he stresses that he's not eager to cash in on someone else's heartache.

"I've had items here for five to 10 years," he claims.

No one has ever pawned the crown jewels, but there have been cases of extraordinary items. And while Rebecca affectionately kibitzes with her father, calling him the best of the best, he says that she is making the business even better, showing off her Internet and Web-design prowess and their new Facebook page.

Business face-offs with her father? No jewelers' rows here; just understanding and communication with the man who gave her the best advice in life, she says: "He always told me, 'Do what makes you happy.' "

And that, she says, is working with her dad: "It's a blessing."

"He's always right -- no matter how many times I try to prove him wrong," she laughs.

If Tod's ever had to wrestle with the direction his business has taken him, well, Gordon's been trained for that as well: He founded and formerly owned and operated Extreme Championship Wrestling.

Appropriately, this man with a variety of interests was also a past president of the local Variety Club -- giving back an important trait as he learned early on being raised in a Jewish home -- as well as the State Pawnbrokers Association, dual facets of a fascinating career.

As another customer waits to be let in, Gordon concedes the special buzz he gets from life is from being dad to Rebecca and his two other children, noting that he was created for this role.

After all, he reveals of that special date in 1955, "I was born on Father's Day." 

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