Laugh if you like, but Los Angeles is the sort of town where conspicuous displays of wealth are considered compulsory. In bankruptcy proceedings, valid arguments can be made that a new Mercedes and a house in Beverly Hills are essential business assets, without which it would be impossible to keep the Mercedes and the house in Beverly Hills. This is survival of the fittest taken to a materialistic extreme. The city is a dreamer's paradise where people and businesses hemorrhage cash until blood runs in the streets.
The fact is, being wealthy doesn't come cheap, and sooner or later just about everyone needs a little help to make ends meet. Whether you need $100 to pay a phone bill, mad money for the cash-only Httel du Cap, a quick bailout without a credit check or friendly terms with which to upgrade last year's Cartier Pasha chronograph to this year's Patek Philippe, you can stop by South Beverly Wilshire Jewelry and Loan in Beverly Hills and ask for Yossi Dina.
You'll instantly know who he is. An intense, dark-skinned man in his mid-40s who could double for Yul Brynner, Dina is an impatient charmer. In a fast-forward combination of Hebrew and heavily accented English, he cuts through pleasantries with a rapid-fire "How much you want for it?" or "How much you give me for it?" before asking, "You want to come to yoga with me?" or "When are you and your boyfriend getting married?"
Despite the fancy name, there is one word missing from the marquee of South Beverly Wilshire Jewelry and Loan: pawn. But if you're thinking old cameras, electric guitars and Timex watches, think again. This is the pawn of classic, fully restored E Type Jaguars, 1929 Georges Braque oil paintings, czarist Russian tiaras, 14th century Chinese jade, vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre watches and the contents of an aging movie star's wine cellar.
"I don't take electricity or garbage," says Dina. "I take good collateral. Usually I take jewelry." He'll also take an original Tiffany lamp, a first-edition book or a letter from Greta Garbo -- anything that's highly collectible or has a quantifiable resale value. At the moment he's even holding an Oscar for best picture -- but won't reveal its owner. That sort of boasting could ruin a business that, at least in part, is based on discreetly helping people when they need discreet help the most.
Clients stream into Jewelry and Loan all day long, loaded with valuable merchandise and a need for fast cash. They bring their grandmother's silver, paintings they've owned for 30 years, rugs from the old country, jewelry from their exes and $18,000 watches they bought last week. At the moment, says Dina, he's seeing a lot of Russian immigrants with "great stuff, but no cash and no credit." He even has a client (who will remain nameless), a famous actor who makes $8 million to $10 million a picture, who pawned his motorcycle for $10,000.
"I don't know why. He needed money immediately. He got cash no questions asked. He picked up [the motorcycle] the next day. I am like a cash machine. I'm sure he has the money. He probably could not get home. It's not logical. I can never understand people. But you don't have to -- it's nice, it's more magical."
Dealing with people at their highs and lows has given Dina a certain expertise on human nature. "I sell a lot of engagement rings. I can tell immediately if I am going to buy the ring back or not." His customers are often people in some sort of trouble. "Usually a pawnshop in America will take advantage of that," says Dina. "Somebody come with a piece worth $100,000, they give them $1,000. They want them to lose it. I am not like that."
Dina says he tries to offer top dollar and hold on to a piece even after he has been forced by law to foreclose on it (if the interest is not paid in four months). Dina knows that people pawn things they want to try to keep, and if a customer pawns something and then loses it, he will not remain a customer. "I take a big risk. I love that. I work with a feeling in my stomach. Usually I don't make mistakes. Sometimes, I give more money than something is worth because the watch belonged to [a customer's] father, and I am sure he will come back."
Sometimes, though, Dina finds himself in the role of harbinger of bad news. He was once forced to tell a woman who came in to appraise a five-carat diamond ring -- the one thing of value she'd gotten during her 30-year marriage -- that her rock was a fake.
Still, this is not a charity, it's a business -- and an extremely profitable one. Usually, loans equal 80 percent of the wholesale value of a piece. For a loan of $2,500, the law demands that the pawnbroker charge 2.3 percent interest per month, or $57.50. If you pick up pawned collateral after four months, you owe the pawnbroker $2,500 plus $230 in interest. (There is usually a three-month minimum on a "ticket" or a loan of this size.)
If you can't come up with the principal, you can renew your loan for an additional four months and so on -- for as long as it takes you to come up with the money. After a year, when the interest has risen to $690, or 27.6 percent of the total loan amount, you'll need $3,190 to redeem your collateral. If the loan is greater than $2,500, the pawnbroker can charge whatever interest he wants, typically 3 to 4 percent per month (depending on the quality and liquidity of the collateral) with a one-month minimum.
Dina insists that his interest is low compared with that of other pawnshops, but even the typical interest rate of 4 percent a month adds up to an annual rate of 48 percent, or $1,440 on a $3,000 loan, making the 23 percent APR on a credit card look cheap.
Despite the exorbitant rates, the advantage of a pawn loan is its immediacy. With the right collateral, you can be out the door in less than five minutes with $1 million in your pocket -- having only filled out a ticket. The gamble a customer takes is whether he will be able to make the interest payments and redeem his collateral within four months. The pawnbroker does not risk anything, as the principal is already paid in full (with the collateral) even if the customer never comes back.
Dina's Beverly Hills location gives him access to an extraordinary array of high-quality merchandise. In the process of helping the rich quickly liquefy their assets, Dina has gained a reputation as perhaps the best pawnbroker in America. "I deal with stuff that's worth millions of dollars, and usually I do something that other people don't do: I pawn art. A lot of pawnshops don't take art. People are afraid because there are a lot of fakes; they don't take chances."
Often his investment in the merchandise is so low that he is able to offer his retail customers fabulous deals. And it is thrilling to turn it over. "It's exciting to sell a 22-carat D flawless [diamond]. It's not a lot of money you make; you make a little bit of money because it is an expensive piece. Jewelry is a luxury. Jewelry is not something you have to buy. To take from somebody so much money for a stone, I think it's genius."
Dina is a street-smart survivor who knows and loves his business. "At first it makes you feel good to work with people, but I love the excitement, I love the good pieces coming. You know, if you come to the store, it's like a movie. I like all this. You make decision to give $100,000 or $500,000 in like two seconds."
Dina is the middle son in a family of nine. His parents were Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Old Jaffa, Israel, where he was given the middle name Haim, which means life, because of his many close brushes with death. His father, a baker, who Dina says had the power to heal with his hands, died at 41, just weeks before Dina's bar mitzvah. To ease the family's burden, Dina left home to live in a kibbutz before joining the Israeli army. There he was placed in an elite squad of commando parachutists in time for the 1973 war. That he stays in touch with his squadron almost 30 years later speaks to the intensity of that experience.
After the war, the government sent him to work in Paris for two years, but he refuses to specify what the work entailed. After Paris, he returned to Israel and discovered that there was a six-month wait to get into law school. He decided to visit his brother in New York, and wound up working in Harlem handing out fliers for couch cleaning. "There was no fear because I didn't know what America was all about. I saw one time some people put a car on fire and I was cheering for that because I didn't know that was a bad thing to do, you know?"
Later, Dina, his brother and a handful of friends signed up to drive a car to Los Angeles, taking turns sleeping in the vehicle as they made their way across America. After he arrived in California, speaking very little English, a group of Scientologists got Dina a job selling $5 and $10 pieces of jewelry door-to-door in office buildings and beauty parlors. He says that Lana Turner was one of his early customers.
Soon, he had saved $2,000, bought his own company and hired three people to do the legwork for him. After being held up at gunpoint, however, he moved into the pawn business -- he'd found his calling. That was 15 years ago. Today, Dina lives in a beach house in Malibu that at various times belonged to Al Jolson, Bobby Vinton and Roy Orbison's widow.
He bought the house with the monumental profits from a $4,000 loan secured with a good-looking painting by an artist he'd never heard of. That's all he'll say about it, except that he had no idea the painting was worth so much money and he was not the first person the owner tried to sell it to. In his exuberance, he'd love to tell the entire story, but he knows he can't. "I bought some good pieces, but I never know the value. You get some letter or some clothes from a very famous actor, you get it for yourself, you own the piece and you find out it's worth 100 times more than what you gave." But he can't be an expert in everything and the risk is that it could be worth 100 times less than what he paid for it.
Despite his gift for deal making, Dina's aware that there are some things whose value defies reason. "My older brother has a watch that belonged to my father. The watch is not worth 10 bucks. It's plated, it's a nothing watch. I gave my brother $25,000 for my father's watch." Ask him if he still has the watch, and he says no. He gave his older brother the money because he needed help and then gave the watch to his younger brother because he was only 7 years old when their father died and he didn't get a chance to know him.
"For some people money is God. For other people money means nothing, just survival," says Dina. "I don't care for money. Money means nothing to me. I feel sorry for people who work for money. They'll never be happy. When you work for something you love, it's like food, it's like drugs. You sleep good at night, you do the right thing. I'm at peace with myself." He adds, "Money is like woman: You love it, you hate it and you cannot live without."