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Pawn shops in Toronto

Posted by Robyn Urback / January 23, 2011

Pawn Shops TorontoToronto pawn shops litter Church St. In fact, Church Street between Queen and Shuter is one of the most concentrated strips of buying and selling in Toronto. Besides a couple of nail salons and the odd novelty store, the street is all pawn shops. Usually I'd pass nonchalantly by these shops (quickly, if it was at night) not thinking twice about their origin, but last week I decided to tackle the block and see if I could find out how it became the downtown epicenter of pawning.

Pawn Shops TorontoPen in hand, I left the familiar pavement of Queen St. East and entered my first pawnshop on Church. It was everything I'd imagined it would be: glass countertops, gold jewelry, wall-to-ceiling antiques, and tube TVs all tuned into Ellen. Yes, a hoarder's paradise, complete with daytime television. I approached the counter where a man in a Mr. Rogers' style sweater was talking to a customer holding a watch. "You want to keep it? Keep it!" The customer fumbled with the watch. "No? So sell!" I could see I would need furious concentration to understand the complexities of the pawn negotiation. "You take it home, let me know what you decide."

Pawn Shops TorontoThe customer walked out, and it was all me. "Yes, can I help you?" he asked. I put on my best, 'please don't reject me outright' smile, and asked if I could talk to him about his business. "My business?" he said. "I don't work here!" I heard a chuckle behind me from a tech dissecting a piece of audio equipment. Since the pawning Mr. Rogers was grinning, I decided I'd play along. "Really?" I asked. "Now I suspect that's not true."

Pawn Shops Toronto"Ah, you're a suspicious girl!" Before I could assure this jovial trickster of my good nature, a horde of teenage-looking boys piled in. I was immediately abandoned. "Yes, boys. What do you have for me?" I got the impression they were regular sellers. One of the boys reached into his knapsack and pulled out an iTouch. I fumbled with some keychains in a vain attempt to pretend I wasn't eavesdropping. "What is this, an iPhone?" "No," replied one of the boys. An iPod."

"Uh huh. Where'd you get that?" Some mumbling. "Does it have a charger? Why doesn't it say iPhone?" As the boys tried to break down the difference between an iPhone and an iTouch, I looked helplessly at the Big Mouth Billy Bass on the wall. At least he'd talk back to me. Five minutes later, with only some progress on the iPhone/iTouch distinction lesson, I decided to move on.

Pawn Shops TorontoThe next shop was a little more organized, and a lot more open. Open in terms of space, that is. Behind the counter at the back end of the shop were several desks where a few women sat, typing away. One got up as I approached the cash. I decided to low-ball this one. "Hi," I told her. "I'm writing an article about the neighborhood and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the history of this building." The building--not the business. A little less intrusive, right?

"Oh," she said. You'll have to talk to the owner."

"OK," I replied. "Is the owner here?"

"Uh, let me check." The woman moved back and whispered in the ear of another woman sitting at a desk. They both stared at me in the way you're not supposed to when talking about someone on the subway. She returned to the counter.

"No, they're not here."

I pretended I didn't just see her just conspicuously negotiate with a colleague mere feet from me a moment ago. "OK, well can I ask you a few questions, then? How long has this shop been here?

"Thirty years. OK, thanks"

"And how--" She cut me off.

"Really, you should talk to the owner. OK thanks."

"Can I just as you..." I trailed off as she vigorously shook her head.

Pawn Shops TorontoAnd on to the next. This shop was narrow, empty, with a man and a woman sitting silently facing each other behind the counter. They apologetically rejected my invitation to chat, and sent me on my way. The next shop required a buzz for entry, so I pressed the button and waited in the cold. Finally, a man in a too-tight white undershirt appeared from the back room and let me in. He was stone-faced as I explained that I wasn't actually interested in buying a gold-plated broach. "No." He replied. "Just no."

And it went on like that. Not since my first week with braces back in middle school have I faced such vehement rejection. Needless to say, it left me with some suspicions about the ongoings between Queen and Shuter, and overall disappointment about my fruitless historical quest. Though while I got few answers about the origin of pawn row, I now know--finally--where to find a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Pawn Shops TorontoPhotos by Dennis Marciniak



Cam / January 23, 2011 at 07:59 am
Interesting article Robyn. When I saw the title I was looking forward to reading about this curious stretch of weirdness on Church street. While the cold reception you received wasn't at all out of character for the delightful bouquet of characters that call these shops their workplace, I expected a bit more. 

I've been in these shops a number of times looking for old camera lenses and have often ran into walls of coldness and uninterested gazes that you did. So with that in mind, I kinda feel let down. Your article didn't inform or enlighten me to anything more that what the average person's experience would be in these shops. Which, truthfully based on what was written would have put me off entering the doors of these little curio shops. 

While I applaud you for leaving your comfort zone, a little more investigative work would have been awesome. I realize you're paid the same for a well researched article as you would be for an article that you put in the minimum amount of work, and that's understandable. However if you're pursuing journalism or any professional writing as a career you've just done yourself a rather huge disservice by not doing some foot work to make a solid article. 

Based on this article alone, I must say your actual writing style is quite enjoyable, maybe just a little more effort on bulking up the content could be a new goal? Best of luck on your future articles. 
Aaron / January 23, 2011 at 08:16 am
Maybe she could have pulled ownership records on the property tax roll?
Interviewed the boys trying to sell the stolen iPod?
Polled customers entering as to what their needs and/or mood was today?

What is this a choose your own adventure?
Jeremy Wilson replying to a comment from Aaron / January 23, 2011 at 09:30 am
How about looking up the area in the Toronto archives? Or dropping into the reference library and reading some books?

You know, research.
jameson / January 23, 2011 at 10:13 am
Cam replying to a comment from Aaron / January 23, 2011 at 10:18 am
Oh a choose your own adventure would have been cool, or maybe scratch and sniff?

I was just saying a little research to give the article some meat would have been nice.

Maybe some digging into why is there is one whole block in Toronto's downtown where one whole side of the street is nothing but pawnbrokers? Calling a head and making an appointment with the shop owners for an interview, and appeal to their pride and ask them about their business? People who own their own businesses love to talk about them because they are proud of it, not thei minimum wage earning staff.

I was just offering constructive criticism. Sorry if I came off as an ass.
Mr. S. / January 23, 2011 at 10:23 am
Research? It's not that type of article. She took me into a world I would never enter, and introduced me to characters and situations I would not experience. I enjoyed it.
mark / January 23, 2011 at 10:27 am
There's quite a difference between the pawn shops on that stretch. Some are pretty sketchy and some are full of some crazy characters. And there's also 'upscale' ones, with McTamney's probably the best representative. It's been there for about 140 years! They buy and sell high quality jewelery and are very fair, honest and knowledgeable about what they buy and sell.

It's actually pretty fun to spend an hour or two looking around these shops. Just think of something you're interested in buying as a pre-text and go to each one.
sean / January 23, 2011 at 10:34 am
There is no such thing as an "iTouch" please correct this.
There is the "iPhone" and then there is the "iPod touch"
dg / January 23, 2011 at 10:37 am
I love how some people act like a website actually owes them something. Get a life.
Tuzanor / January 23, 2011 at 11:07 am
TVO has a neat documentary on a pawn shop in Edmonton. http://www.tvo.org/TVO/WebObjects/TVO.woa?videoid?72716674001
Shannon / January 23, 2011 at 11:21 am
enjoyable read............

this wasn't an article about the history of pawn shops on church, more like a first hand experience. That doesn't require research. If you guys think you can do better, contact Derek and see if you can be writer for him. until then loosen up :D
Michael / January 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm
First mistake - a guy should have written this article. It may sound sexist, but pawn shops are pretty much the domain of guys and the people who work at them won't generally talk much to women unless they have some jewelry to sell. They probably thought the author was a cop or something.
brycycle replying to a comment from Tuzanor / January 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm
great suggestion - thanks.
Stella / January 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm
This feels like one of those, "you kinda had to be there" sort of stories. Uninteresting to read.
JP replying to a comment from dg / January 23, 2011 at 01:20 pm
DG + 1.

You all read this website for free. The nitpicking is obnoxious.
Seshan replying to a comment from sean / January 23, 2011 at 01:37 pm
@sean Yeah that bugs me too, but if that's what THEY said, she shouldn't correct it.
Matt / January 23, 2011 at 02:23 pm
I bought a beautiful amethyst ring at McTameny's over 30 years ago. I was in the store recently and it hasn't changed a bit.
Hmm replying to a comment from Mr. S. / January 23, 2011 at 03:32 pm
World? What world? Very little came alive in this article. Cam is right--reporting on how you run into brick walls time after time shows some guts but doesn't make for an intersting article. From what I got from the article i'ts a seedy bunch but I still don't know anything about these places. It's a good first effort.
Hmm replying to a comment from dg / January 23, 2011 at 03:58 pm
Thank you for showing me the light. I will never criticize Fox News online again...

...because that is what you are implying when you conflate criticism of an informational article online with being "owed something." Quite the leap there.
Molly Williams replying to a comment from sean / January 23, 2011 at 05:33 pm
Sorry but this is a poorly written article. The lack of editing, spell check, the fact that you called it an 'itouch' (that doesn't even exist...the boys were right, it is an iPod), and the fact that there was no story at all. Why bother?
JR replying to a comment from JP / January 23, 2011 at 05:41 pm
Virtually all news sites are free - a slightly critical POV is OK once in a while ...
JJ / January 23, 2011 at 06:21 pm
This feels like an article that should've either been expanded on or discarded due to lack of information. Much more research, history, and actual interviews are needed. Also, why not name the shops you went into? I would certainly like to know which shops to avoid.

Agree with the above commenters that McTamney's is an excellent shop with a long history. Did you try calling them for an actual interview?
piero / January 23, 2011 at 06:28 pm
Go back undercover with a hidden camera! There's spy shop equipment up at Yonge & Davisville. :)
Feldwebel Wolfenstool / January 23, 2011 at 07:28 pm
Bought my first bass on Church Street, way back. A Gibson EB-0.
Darren / January 23, 2011 at 10:14 pm
Your encounter at the "a little more organized, and a lot more open" shop takes me back to when I did cold sales walk ins.
S / January 24, 2011 at 01:54 am
dnr / January 25, 2011 at 12:39 am
Did you know that every pawnshop owner on Church street is a Mason. They are all from different orders. You can't work in that biz on that street unless you are a Mason. I had a friend who apprenticed as a diamond cutter back in the 90's. He told me about this and he also became a Mason himself.
pawn shopper / January 6, 2012 at 05:09 pm
Hi Robyn,

That's a typical problem with the pawn shops "around the corner", I'm afraid... That's why many people simply avoid them. Try some online pawnshops and let us know how it went ;) They're even on the news now.

Good luck!
PWN / June 28, 2012 at 03:26 pm
DNR, what you said is incorrect. I would urge you and anyone else to follow up on that statement.

I frequently walk by to visit the bigger shops, like McTamneys. My family has been going to this neighborhood for quite some time. Lately I've been around there looking for guitars and sound equiptment. What I've seen in the article and here in the comments leads me to believe that most of you have either never stepped foot into one of these shops, or did so with great bias. The neighborhood may not be the prettiest, and not everyone can handle folks with mental disabilities and/or addictions, but if you have ever been in a tight bind like I have then you might also know how invaluable these places can be, and given my somewhat embarrassing situation I was treated with a great deal of respect.
Sarah / July 11, 2012 at 01:40 pm
I recently had a laptop stolen from my car while parked at corner of Spadina & Front West St. It was stolen in day light since I have a photo of the car that I took from the CN tower and you can see the broken window...! I have a hunch the parking lot attendant stole the laptop and pawned it. I don't care as much about the laptop as I do about all the flash drives that were in the case. If anyone frequents pawnshops and finds a black laptop bag with flashdrives, I will pay cash reward! I had about 5 flashdrives, some with clear identifications I can send. Thankfully I made it back to the US with no other problems!
jack / July 31, 2012 at 07:37 pm
any one recomend a shop ?? i am looking for a roofing nail gun (COIL)AND A 3"-2"NAIL GUN and a compressor ,and various other tools ,ie drywall guns sand poles and the like..
Slava / August 9, 2012 at 06:22 pm
There is another place in Toronto where pawn businesses had found a nesting-site within recent memory. It is St Clair District. The most novel one is Money Vendor PAwn Shop at 1032 St Clair
kelly / November 29, 2012 at 03:30 pm
new site USA & CANADA FREE , join us CANADA.....http://knbclassifieds.com/
Rosaire / February 24, 2013 at 05:18 pm
Planning a trip to your city. Thought I might check-out the shops to satisfy a curiosity; You helped me decide to plan something fun instead. Thanks
Howard / July 5, 2013 at 06:58 pm
I am the owner of Williams Pawnbrokers, one of the places that you described. We have been featured on Pawnathon Canada and pride ourselves as one of the legitimate Pawnbrokers. Many of the stores you went to are Second Hand stores and rarely do any real pawning. Come in again when I am present and I'll be pleased to speak to you. By the way, when you approached my staff, I wasn't there, but was told that someone had been in. If you are going to talk about Pawnshops you must recognize that there is a difference and find out what the difference is between a Pawnbroker and a Buy and Sell Place.
Jim / August 29, 2013 at 11:45 am
Contact info would be good--address, phone #s,e-mail, etc
brad / September 2, 2013 at 01:06 pm
Is there any pawn shop open so I could pawn my laptop
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