HELENA - The pawn business has certain seasons, said Gary Pulver, owner of Northside Pawn in Billings.
November and December are busy months as people try to bring in more cash to cover Christmas. Then, January and February are brisk as folks recover from the holidays and return to buy their stuff out of hock.
But this year, things are different. Pawnshops from around the state report that pawn activity has changed in recent months, coinciding with the national economic crisis. It started last summer, many pawn owners say, when high gas prices drove people to pawn a handful of DVDs to fill up their tank. But it has continued, even as gas prices went down. Now, say some, the concern isn't just about gasoline or the typical winter concerns of higher utility bills. People are starting to talk about covering their mortgages.
"People are bringing in anything and everything they've got," said Eric Morrow, a broker at Northwest Title and Pawn in Billings.
The business' title loan business, in which a customer can obtain a loan using a car title as collateral, "has about doubled," he said.
That may hint at deeper economic problems. Title loans, Morrow said, offer about twice as much money as a traditional pawn loan and more money than people get for movies.
"We have definitely seen an increase in pawns in the last six months, yes," Pulver said.
A broker at Dave's Pawn in Helena put it simply: "To tell you the truth, harder times are a little better for pawnshops. We've got more people coming in trying to get money for gas, for food."
In Butte, where many pawn owners say the scrappy local economy typically keeps them in inventory, at least one pawn owner said the sustained economic downturn is actually hurting business.
Some people in Butte traditionally rely on pawnshops as a part of their monthly budget, said Bruce Hemphill, owner of Bruce and Bob's Good Guy Pawn. They pawn stuff to get through to payday, then buy it back when they have money.
But now, fewer people come back. "Now, they don't have the money to come back after payday," Hemphill said. "We have a lot of inventory on the shelves."
And people are less likely to come in buying it, he said.
Two Montana cities seem to be bucking the trend. Several pawnshop owners in the college towns of Bozeman and Missoula say they haven't noticed any change even as national economic news grows gloomier.
If anything, they say, people are buying more.
"Our sales have been so good and our inventory so low, we had to start buying TV ads" to encourage people to pawn things, said Kevin Pfau, owner of Liquid Assets Corp., a Missoula pawnshop.
People seem to be pawning scrap gold, he said, like broken necklaces. But that seems to be driven more by the cost of gold more than any need for cash, Pfau said.
Pfau racked that up to a good, local economy and low unemployment rate, although Montana as a whole also has a low unemployment rate.
Brokers in Bozeman told a similar story. Sales are a bit down, but nothing like the global pawning increases in other Montana communities.
"Bozeman is pretty fortunate," said Shawn Salveson, manager of the Pawn Depot in Bozeman. "We have a pretty stable economy."