Lose Your Camera? Check Here.

Part of Pawn Shop Row

Early on in my wanderings through downtown San Jose, I stumbled upon Pawn Shop Row (my term, feel free to use it). The general area is around Calle 12 between Avenues 1 and 3, at least I think it is. Naturally there are no street signs. I just know how to get there from my apartment. Learning to do without street signs is part of the residency process.

Back then, and even now, I am amazed at the number of pawn shops (empenos) in the area, and more amazed at the sheer quantity and type of goods they have for sale.

A little note about the video. All of the video was taken in a period of about a half hour. I didn’t not even attempt to photograph everything, as this would have taken many hours and I would probably have gotten beaten up or something.

The point is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now, I suppose it is theoretically possible that all of that merchandise is from Ticos who ran a little short of money, and pawned their cameras or cell phones. It’s also possible that the dark side of the moon has 13 Denny’s Restaurants open 24 hours for long haul space truckers.

More likely, most of what you see in the video is stolen (gasp) and a high percentage of that from Gringos, just like me. I have lost 2 cameras to theft here in my 6 years, and one to the Pacific Ocean, which gave it back but the camera never worked again. These shops are essentially unregulated and the police seldom bother them.

So if in reading this post you take away the idea that you really need to be on your guard here with your ‘stuff’ in Costa Rica, I feel I have done a public service. But for the curious among us, I want to dig a little deeper.

I have talked to a few Ticos and Ticas about these places, and done what reading I could find, and here’s what I came up with. The pawn shops make loans and buy stuff outright, at perhaps 5% to 10% of the value of item. The sales price is considerably higher, perhaps 120% plus. Not a bad profit… if you sell the item. What amazes me more than anything, is the sheer quantity.

If I thought I could have gotten a straight answer, I would have asked the pawnbrokers, for example, how many cameras they sell per week, and how many they buy. To build up an inventory like that, it’s reasonable to assume they buy more than they sell. Selling more than you buy is only allowed on Wall St. No matter how cheap you buy something, you don’t make any profit until you sell. I just can’t see anybody in his right mind paying $150 for an obsolete digital camera that could be replaced by a better one for around $100 (in the USA, at least).

One suggestion was that the shops do a lot of lay away (apartado) sales… like you give them 10% down and make payments every two weeks. If they can pull this one off an average of one time per item, even if the person who ‘bought’ it never makes a 2nd payment, they come out ahead, since they paid 5% for it. It’s still hard to understand why they would need 20 cameras per tiny shop to pull that scam off.

I guess the big mystery to me is why they don’t lower the sales prices to something that might actually move some of the goods. That outdated camera might only be worth $40, but that’s $40 the broker doesn’t have while it sits among dozens of others.

After all, isn’t there a fresh supply of cameras coming in all the time? Like the thieves are going to stop being thieves and become doctors? The poor people who pawn their wedding rings are all going to win the lottery?

I don’t think I will ever know how these shops work, what the thinking is behind them. Perhaps, if there’s a heaven and if I somehow am allowed in, I could get an answer. They might have to send a messenger down below for the answer, though.

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  1. They should just start leaving ransom notes instead of pawning the items off. Seems like a waste to let it go for that.

  2. Love this article. I wondered where all the stuff stolen went and here it is!

  3. aplusboy says:

    I think the price of all things in small stores in SJ are negotiable. I’ve bought a few items Mercado Central for much lower than the listed price. Did you try to haggle?

    I’ve seen basically the same thing with pricing for used computers in run down parts of town in the US. Old Pentium III computers w/ a 15″ CRT monitor and a 20GB hard drive going for $275. I’ve actually seen people buy them.

    BTW, nicely made video.

  4. No. Cal. Refugee says:

    Thanks, aplusboy. I didn’t try to negotiate but I think they might go down to half price. They would still make quite a profit. And yeah, there seems to be no shortage of fools in this world.

  5. Sunnyboy says:

    Have you ever tried to have a ‘garage sale’ in Costa Rica ? You can practically sell anything and everything including used and worn out sandals. So this doesn’t really surprise me. Not sure though, if these shops are fronts for something more sinister….

  6. 1) What is the Casa de Empeño buying all those TV remotes?
    2) I agree that the prices are WAY too excessive. If they were clever businessmen, they would sell all those stolen goods at half the price….that way they can compete with Verdugo and Gollo.