The fuel gauge on her Chrysler convertible aimed dead left, so Betty Jean Edwards lifted the gold cross from her neck and tugged another ring off her 65-year-old hand.
She slid them under the thick tinted window inside Marge and Jerry's Loan Co. in Oakland, gathered the $20 bill and folded her pink receipt in with the stack that lines her wallet. Then she headed past the jewelry display, the shaggy gorilla and the Ouija board and out the door, off to fetch a third of a tank.
"It takes $47 to fill it up," said Edwards, of San Leandro. "I've had a lot of jewelry over the years and now I got to bring it out. Nothing else I can do."
Amid the brewing cloud of recession and bitterly high gas prices, Edwards is far from alone. The bustle at pawnshops, jewelry and coin buyers suggests many East Bay residents are foraging deep into drawers and attics for keepsakes, family heirlooms, even gold teeth, to hock or pawn for a short-term loan to stretch the miles or make rent.
"They're selling everything they got for gas," said Michael Wright of gold dealer Fort Knox of Alameda.
"We're getting this broad range of people recognizing that the broken chain in their drawer has value," said Jennifer Grossi of Pleasant Hill Coin and Jewelry Exchange. "We're busier than we've ever been," added T.J. Grossi, her husband.
The refrain echoes across the East Bay, where pawnbrokers and gold dealers say business has risen 20 percent to 30 percent lately. Coin and jewelry dealers say the economy and higher gold prices have people mining their jewelry boxes or reaching for their gold custom teeth — their grills — for meltdown cash.
"I had a couple last week, they sold me estate jewelry so they could put a down payment on a (Toyota) Prius," said Nick Tsakoyias of Clayton Jewelry and Loan. "I have people who sell their scrap (gold) just to buy gas. They need diapers, they need food. I feel bad for them."
Tsakoyias called it cyclical. When the economy flags, the pawn business rallies. But something is different this time, said Bob Goldstone of Danville, a board member with the Collateral Loan & Secondhand Dealers Association, the industry group for pawnbrokers in California.
"I've never seen anything like this before. This is above and beyond," said Goldstone, retired from an Oakland pawnshop after a 48-year career. "These brokers are loaning money out continuously all day long."
Goldstone said pawnbrokers have turned around a seedy image, and more people feel comfortable buying, selling or loaning with them. Another reason: The nation's mass of "unbanked" or "underbanked" people, including immigrants, with no bank accounts or little access to affordable credit. The U.S. Treasury Department estimates that about 10 million households lack a bank or credit union account. As many as 50 million other people have an account but use other financial service providers, like check cashers, at often much higher costs.
"Where else can you get money instantly?" said Goldstone. "How many people don't have bank accounts? Where else can you go?"
About 13,000 pawnshops pepper the nation. Most are independent, but earnings have surged 39 percent to 56 percent higher than last year for the second quarter at the nation's three publicly traded pawn companies, Cash America International, EZCORP and First Cash Financial Services, the companies reported.
Tsakoyias and others spoke of the public service they provide, in some cases offering a last resort for those with rotten credit. They also cite the risks they take in buying what could turn out to be stolen items that police retrieve. In California, pawnshops face stiff regulation. With each transaction they demand a driver's license and fingerprint, file a form with local police and must keep the items for four months and 10 days. State law caps the interest rate on loans at rates that, adding fees, can add up to about 4 percent per month for the four months.
According to the National Pawnbrokers Association, the average pawn loan runs $75, and about 80 percent of customers repay the loan and reclaim their items. But often these days, pawnbrokers say, borrowers are paying only the interest and rolling over the loan.
"They're a little short for rent," said owner Jerry Gevertz of Marge and Jerry's, on a corner of MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. "Someone came in today facing eviction."
The interest can get pricey. Interest on a $70 loan for four months at Marge and Jerry's, for instance, runs $15.
Betty Jean Edwards said she didn't mind getting just $20 for her cross and ring. That just means it'll cost less to get them back, she said.
"I was on 'E,' " she said. "You don't have no other choice. You have to take that."
Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.