We are America’s oldest pawn shop, established in 1890 in Lynchburg, VA.
L. Oppleman Pawn was founded in Lynchburg, VA by Jacob and Lena Oppleman and named after Lena Oppleman in 1890. Their son, Ike Oppleman, took over operations during the 1920’s.
A young man named Aaron Somers began working at the pawnshop in the 1930’s and fell in love with the business. After Ike’s passing, Aaron acquired L. Oppleman and continued the legacy, choosing to maintain the prestigious name of L. Oppleman as a staple business in Lynchburg, VA. His son, David Somers began working at the store in 1974, and took over operations after Aaron’s passing in the mid 1980’s. His son, Ryan Somers, now operates L. Oppleman as a pawnbroker and GIA-certified gemologist.
L. Oppleman calls itself “America’s Oldest Pawn Shop,” a claim almost impossible to prove. The story goes back to 2001, according to Darrell Laurant of The News & Advance. Harold Dambrot of the Four Aces Pawnshop in New York searched for the nation’s oldest pawn shop before the 2001 national convention of National Pawnbrokers Association and concluded that L. Oppleman was the clear choice.
For 129 years and counting.
David Somers, who has been running L. Oppleman for more than two decades, prefers to say it’s the oldest pawn shop operating under the same name. Pawn shops change hands a lot, (although, as we’ll see in a moment, L. Oppleman is a notable exception), and often the name changes with ownership. So perhaps there’s a pawn shop out there that’s older but has changed names over the years.
Somers took over Oppleman from his father, Aaron Somers, who began working in the pawn shop in the 1930’s and kept the name after he acquired it after Ike Oppleman died. Ike had taken over the operation from his father, Jacob, who founded the company and named it after his wife and co-owner, Lena.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s four bosses in 120 years, or as many as General Motors has had since 2000.
David sat down with me to talk about how L. Oppleman has handled the challenge of a tough economy, the advent of eBay, and perpetual space shortages to house a whole lot of Lynchburg’s stuff.
Q: Who are your customers?
It’s interesting. I have a very high-end customer that comes in here. It took a long time to build that up, in jewelry. That’s really a trust relationship. You need a lot of knowledge about the product. We have a high-end clientele, and we get a lot of blue collar. Both of them are looking for value –one because it’s basically where they can afford to buy things, the other they’re just looking for better value on higher end
We’re still missing that middle segment, which is your broadest area of people. I haven’t heard it in a long time, but I’ve had a middle class person come in here and go, ‘Oh my god, I’m in a pawn shop,” and walk out the door.
We’re breaking through that barrier. And shows like [History Channel’s] Pawn Stars are helping to show another image of the pawn shop.
Q: Are you a counter-cyclical business? Do you do well when everyone else is struggling?
Probably one of my favorite quotes is this is the type of business that does really good in good economic times but better in bad economic times. It’s kind of recession-proof.
Our percentage of forfeitures is not increasing. Right now, we have a pick-up rate of about 65 percent [65 percent of the people who pawn an item return to pick it up and pay off the loan], which is pretty typical.
Q: Does your pick-up vary?
In good times, our pick up rate is 80-85%
The pawn shop is probably a better economic indicator than anything. I can tell you before you hear it on the news what’s coming. If I’m having a 50% pick-up, I can almost guarantee you it’s a depression.
Q: How else has the economy affected business?
Even though it’s the still same 35 percent [the percentage of people who don’t return to redeem their pawned merchandise], it’s four times the amount of inventory coming out on the floor, because we’re doing four times the amount of loans in this economy.
The problem I’m having now is how to get rid of all this inventory. We’ve come up with a couple of neat concepts.
We’re giving our customers the interest back on the initial loan in a gift card, and they can use that to by merchandise from us. It’s helping our customers out; it’s helping me get rid of inventory. They always spend a little more money with the gift card, so it helps increase my sales. It gives people a break who need it.
The other thing we’re doing is Internet sales. That’s becoming a bigger part of our business.
Q: I would have thought the Internet, particularly eBay, would hurt your business. I thought you’d lose some customers – instead of taking their item to the pawn shop, they’d just sell it on eBay, no?
There’s two reasons that concept’s wrong. Number one: That person needs their money now. To go on eBay, they’re dealing with a week at soonest.
And on eBay, you won’t get it back. The people that come to a pawn shop, they want the property back. They just need the cash.
Actually, eBay has been a real help to our business.
It is a great way for us to sell a lot of the product that isn’t picked up.
I’ll give you an example. I had a customer that came in here with an autoclave. I didn’t even know what an autoclave was, do you? It’s a machine that sterilizes instruments. Tatoo shops use them. I’m thinking: Not only don’t I know what it is, I don’t know what it’s worth. And who am I going to sell it to?
I can go to eBay, look up autoclave, and bam, I see what it is, how much it’s selling for, and I automatically know what it’s going to bring me. So eBay is a pretty good indicator of what something’s worth. Not only that, but I have a market of over a million people looking at my item.
The toughest thing to sell on eBay is jewelry. That’s a hard item. You need to deal with it a long time and have a clientele set up, or have a niche item. We’ve tried it, and it’s hard to get value for it, there’s so much of it out there.
But electronics, cameras, tools – it’s really a quick way to move that type of product. I think you really get fair value for it. I don’t care what a blue book says it’s worth – it’s worth what someone is willing to pay you for it.
Q: Besides your growing eBay business, what has been the biggest change over the last three or four years?
We’ve gotten into tax returns. One thing I’ve learned being in this business: You always have to change with the times. It’s been growing 15-20% a year.
Q: Why would someone go to you for tax returns, compared with an H&R Block?
I’ve already captured that type of individual. The people who want that instant loan, they’re already my clientele. Why not deal with the person you’ve been dealing with all year? They’re right here. I don’t have to market for them. We just started passing cards out to our own customers.
It’s interesting: We owned the franchise Express Tax. Express Tax sold out to H & R Block. We were giving Express Tax 20 percent of what we made, for using their name and being set up with Express Tax. H&R Block bought it and said, “You know, we want 30 percent. I said, “You know what? You guys kind of have it backwards. I’m bringing the clientele to you. You’re not bringing them to me.” So I gave up the franchise, changed one letter so we’re not violating any agreement, and we grew 30 percent in one year.