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Future Hock - A pawn shop blooms in miami's condo boom

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A pretty woman with fake Dior sunglasses, skintight clothes, and sharply arched, penciled-in eyebrows strode into a pawn shop at NE Second Avenue and Tenth Street. Her name was Joy, she said warily, and she was there to make a deal. Her face looked younger than its 41 years, but her cracked and dry hands showed her age — and then some. She placed a tattered box on the counter, and an expressionless man on the other side opened it, then peered at the blue, wireless Internet router nestled inside. Behind him hung a sign in red and green letters that read: "It Is Not Our Responsibility to Remind Customers About Due Dates and Payments."

"It is broke," he said flatly with a Spanish accent. "I can't take it. Sorry 'bout that."

"Damn, I didn't even notice that. I was a little bit rough with it, I guess." Without missing a beat, Joy continued: "You don't take jewelry, do you?"

Miami Pawn, a squat, one-story, whitewashed stucco structure built in the Forties, is at the crossroads of the new Magic City. It sits in the shadow of four behemoths, high-end condo buildings that are under construction. Each one will be more than 50 stories tall, all glass and steel. These are condos that advertise "sweeping water and city views," "dazzling kitchens with quartz countertops," and "high-end retail possibilities." One of them — Ten Museum Park — describes itself as "an exploration of the hedonistic possibilities of architecture in a futuristic tropical playground of urban sophistication."

The lowest-priced unit in any of those buildings goes for $400,000, and many of the condos will purportedly sell for well over a million dollars. The new high-rises — just a small cluster among the 114 new buildings presently planned or under construction citywide — will sport infinity pools and yoga rooms, crystalline chandeliers, and Zen gardens.

There is no such harmony in the area now. The only hedonism comes from the hookers or drug addicts emerging from the midday heat to pawn their stuff for quick cash.

The ebb and flow of life at NE Second Avenue and Tenth Street consists of dump trucks beeping when they back up and guys in hardhats taking smoke breaks while squawking on Nextels. And then there's Miami Pawn. All day long from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., customers — the infantry of the lower class — shuffle in and out.

TVs are dropped off. Money is doled out. People subsist for another week. It serves as a bank, department store, and meal ticket. How long it will survive in the new Miami is anybody's guess.

Andres Diepa is the manager of Miami Pawn. He's 36 years old and from Barranquilla, Colombia. Andres is tall and thin and freckled, which makes him look like a little boy. In his spare time he goes out, to clubs and stuff. "Live the Miami life," he shrugs, grinning. He rents an apartment in an older high-rise a few blocks away, but dreams of someday living in one of the new, gleaming buildings.

"There's Marquis down there," says Andres from behind the counter, referring to one of the half-built skyscrapers. He points north with his left hand. "Then there's Ten Museum Park. And over there" — Andres shifts hands and points south — "that's 900 something. The one next to that, I'm not sure." As he talks, he reaches to a white button with his left hand and buzzes the front door open.

He explains that he tries to treat all customers with respect and kindness — even if they're trying to scam him on the value of a DVD player or telling him a sad, likely untrue, story about their hungry children. "You try to take care of people in the most professional way you can," he says, before reaching into a display case and removing a shiny, used-but-looks-new Blackberry.

"Is this the one you wanted to see?" he gently asks a hulking black man, a DJ who goes by the name of DJ Killa a.k.a. Magic Mike and works at American Airlines Arena a few blocks away.

DJ Killa takes it in his hand and explains that he's looking for a second phone, adding that he never sells things at pawn shops. "I don't need to," he continues — but he does almost all of his equipment shopping at them. He comes into Miami Pawn once or twice a week to look at turntables and amplifiers. "Equipment is half the price of what it is in the DJ stores or Circuit City," he says.

On the stark, white shelves are a $600 Smith and Wesson revolver and a $145 Mossberg rifle, a $75 Canon underwater camera and an $80 iPod encrusted with bling. Inside the place smells sweet, yet stale, like old cigars.

Miami Pawn has been in this spot for just over twenty years, says Andres. According to county property records, the owners — a Colombian family named Zuleta — bought the 4000-square-foot property in 1986 for $220,000. It's now appraised at $810,000, but with all of the fancy buildings going up nearby, the property might sell for much more.

Since the condo boom began about four years ago, the owners of Miami Pawn have fielded a half-dozen offers to sell. But they don't want to move, says Andres. Business is just too good and will get even better.

The clientele hasn't changed much over the years, although Andres notes that these days, there are more real estate brokers driving up in BMWs. ("I haven't had a Ferrari yet," he says.) Fridays and Mondays are his busiest days — Friday, because people pawn stuff for weekend cash, and Monday, when they come back to get their things out of hock.

Just then an older, thin black man with tired eyes and a blue knit hat uses a cane to steady himself as he pawns a gold ring. His first name is Carl, he says quietly. Andres agrees to give him $20 and the exchange is so fast that it's impossible to glimpse the bauble. Carl's emotion shows only in the downturn of his mouth. "I need to put gas in my car and eat," he says, adding that he's not bothered that the poor are being priced out of the neighborhood. "It's a sign of the times," he says. "What are you gonna do?"

Another customer walks in and pays $30 to get his guitar out of hock. His name is Charlie Murciano, and he's a slight, handsome man in his fifties. He wears a black, baggy T-shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. He's tan and carries a miniature Doberman Pinscher. "Have you ever heard of the band Foxy?" he asks, then howls a few bars of a tune, "Ow! Ow! Owwwww! Get off!" The mini Doberman, who is named Chalupa, licks Charlie's chin. Charlie, apparently, played the flute and the keyboard in Foxy back in the Seventies when the band burned up Fort Lauderdale disco floors.

Charlie loves pawn shops. "There will always be pawn shops," he declares. "Even millionaires who live in South Beach come here to pawn."

Andres echoes this rosy point of view. The way he sees it, more condo dwellers means more customers. "The bank won't lend you ten or twenty grand on short notice," he says, shrugging. "Even the rich people sometimes run out of cash."

But Joy, the woman with the broken router, thinks Miami Pawn's days are numbered. "Rich people, they throw away stuff like this," she sweeps her hand over the glass case. She says she is a writer, but declines to say what kind of writing she does — whatever it is, it's not lucrative and she needs money fast. She rummages through a tattered floral bag and spreads 30 years of tiny electronic devices on the counter.

Only a black iPod gets a look. The guys offer $90.

"I have someone who will buy that iPod for $150," she says. She motions to a friend, a hard-looking woman in a pink dress who is standing nearby, transfixed by a portable DVD player. "Come on, Tina." The two, both wearing flat and dirty flip-flops, shuffle out and light cigarettes.

Four construction guys in white hardhats stare at the women as they smoke. It's another day at the crossroads of the Magic City.
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