The phone calls started in late March. Customers were worried that Carver W. Reed & Co. might have been deemed a “nonessential” business and forced to close during the pandemic.
“We’re still here,” company owner Tod Gordon reassured them. “The last pandemic couldn’t shut us down, and neither will this one.”
The “last pandemic” was the deadly Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, which decimated Philadelphia but not Carver W. Reed’s business of providing “collateral loans” — money lent on pawned items — to those who need a buck in a hurry. The company, founded in 1860, has since survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, anti-war protests, and many social, economic, and political upheavals.
COVID-19 has been no match for the company’s staying power.
It has, however, wrecked plans for the 160th anniversary party that Gordon had been hoping to host last spring at the shop — a genteel, dignified place at the corner of 10th and Sansom Streets. The store lends cash against jewelry only (fine diamond and gold, at 25% to 50% of its resale value) for a monthly 3% fee. It also sells new and used pieces. Its windows glitter with baubles, and its courteous clerks sit behind old-school, barred tellers' windows, against a backdrop of massive, ancient safes.
The anniversary party was repeatedly rescheduled. But here it is, mid-October, and Gordon is still too anxious about the virus to plan even a limited gathering.
“A lot of people are hurting. I don’t think we should celebrate anything this year. But it’s disappointing,” said the usually ebullient Gordon, 65, whose son, Charles, and daughter, Rebecca, also work at the business he runs with his wife, Adrienne. “I wanted to thank my customers for helping us hit this big milestone birthday.”
Actually, said longtime patron Miller Jones, the best way Gordon shows customer appreciation is by just being there. Jones and his wife, Nancy, said it’s worth their time to make the four-hour round trip to the shop from their home in Haskell, N.J.
Jones, now retired, used to be in the paving business. When his customers were slow with their checks, he’d pawn jewelry with Gordon so he could make payroll. When he was once again flush with cash, he’d pay back the shop and retrieve his goods until the next time he needed to borrow against them.
“There’s no headaches,” he said. “You can’t get that kind of immediate payment with a traditional bank. When you’re in business, you don’t have time to mess around.”
These days, he and his wife pawn jewelry to finance little trips or household improvements. He just trusts the place.
“I knew Tod’s dad, and now I know Tod’s kids,” he said. “That means a lot.”
Another regular customer — a professional, older Main Line woman who asked to be kept nameless here — first came to Carver W. Reed 35 years ago, when she needed money to cover a college tuition bill. She’d tried another pawn shop but was put off by the sketchy characters inside and the humiliating way she was treated just because she was in a financial jam.
“At Carver, everyone was wearing suits and ties and were so kind,” said the woman, who was waited on that long-ago day by Gordon’s dad. These days she comes to the shop when she wants “mad money” for splurges like New York weekends that she doesn’t want to put it on a credit card. She has also sold outdated bling to Gordon, for cash. During the gold boom of 2009, she recalled, one of her pieces fetched $2,200 — far above its worth just a few years before.
“That was a nice windfall,” she said.
The pawn industry lost some of its bread-and-butter customers in that boom. Once regular patrons' gold was gone, they had nothing left to borrow against. Some shops went under as a result. Gordon stayed solvent but still mourns those whose repeat business once brought him more than a healthy bottom line.
“I know these people, I know their kids and grandkids — their families have been coming here for years. Customers become like friends,” he said. That’s why, he’ll “bend over backwards” to help a struggling customer retrieve their pawned pieces, extending the company’s grace period for payback.
“Other shops, once someone misses a monthly payment or two, they pull back the loan and sell the item,” he said. “I’d rather have a customer who keeps coming back to make loans than make a one-time big profit selling what they lost.”
That was the ethos cultivated in 1860 by Carver W. Reed’s namesake founder, who opened his shop on Market Street, across from City Hall. It moved to 10th and Sansom in 1888, and has been there ever since. The original Carver Reed sold the business to Tod’s grandfather (who kept the name) and passed it to Tod’s father, who passed it to him.
“You treat people with dignity and give them respectful, professional service,” said Gordon. “That’s what keeps customers coming back.”
He hoped to see some of them at Carver W. Reed’s 160th anniversary party, which he also hoped would make up for the lackluster 150th one back on May 10, 2010.
On that day, the champagne was poured and everyone was patiently awaiting the arrival of TV cameras and of then-City Councilman Jack Kelly, who would issue a proclamation in recognition of the milestone birthday of the business.
But soon, sirens blared and traffic stalled: Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware and son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, had suffered a stroke and been rushed to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, right across the street from Carver W. Reed. Delaware and Pennsylvania State Police and Philadelphia police cars choked the intersection, and TV newspeople descended onto the sidewalk outside of Gordon’s shop — and aimed their cameras at the hospital.
Gordon’s party was a bust.
“What are you going to do?” Gordon said with a laugh. “I’m just grateful we’ve been able to stay open. Some businesses haven’t been as lucky. Maybe we’ll try again in 2021.”
By then, Carver W. Reed, of course, will be another year older. But in the era of COVID-19, maybe 161 is the new 160.