The Oscar in the Pawn Shop: The Mission as a Diamond in the Rough
Mission Jewelry, a shop located on 19th and Mission Street under an obnoxious bright green banner, is full of stories. The store is cramped, the aisles narrow and crammed with curios that range from diamond rings, to handcuffs, to dusty children’s toys that look up at shoppers dolefully through painted plastic eyes. Overhead hang a multitude of musical instruments, chiefly guitars of all shapes and sizes. Tiny ones made for children hang next to gleaming electric ones that are parti-colored and sparkly and those hang next to a roughed up acoustic guitar with Willie Nelson’s signature scrawled on it in permanent marker.
There are such a huge variety of little treasures in this hoard that it is not an enormous stretch of the imagination to believe the shop once housed and Academy award.
Pawnbroker, Scott Schlesinger, is eager to tell that story and the countless others that lie hidden in the shop’s artifacts. Schlesinger, from his spot behind the glass counter says with pretend non-chalance “we’ve had some very interesting things pawned over the years,” then he almost mumbles “like an academy award.” Upon seeing the excited gleam in the listener’s eye, Schlesinger can’t help but smile back before launching into his story.
The Oscar in question belonged to author, William Saroyan, who won the statuette in 1944 for his original story, The Human Comedy. According to Schlesinger, some time in the late 80’s, a few years after Saroyan’s death, a family friend brought the Oscar to the shop.
Schlesinger assumed that the Oscar was being brought into the shop because
“the people taking care of him (Saroyan) were owed money.” “ They brought it in and took a loan against it,” says Schlesinger who is careful to add, “ they didn’t even try to sell it, they just wanted a loan.” After writing a loan on the Oscar the people never came back to claim it.
Schlesinger and the other employees at the time dealt with the situation with the sense of humor necessary to comprehend that someone could leave such precious memorabilia in a grungy pawnshop in the Mission. “We put it in the window and put a little note on it that said ‘would original owner please redeem.”
This handwritten sign caught the attention of journalist and other media and was written and talked about all over town. Eventually “everyone in the world” came from all over to look at the little pawnshop that housed the big award. Finally the shop owners, relatives of Schlesinger, donated the Oscar to a museum in the author’s hometown of Salinas. Schlesinger chuckles slightly at the retelling of this story saying that it’s stories like that that reaffirm his belief that everyone “ from the rich to the poor, from the famous to the infamous” has been in this pawnshop.
Schlesinger himself has been at Mission Jewelry since its opening in 1972. He says he’s worked there for forty years, barring a hiatus when he went out after high school to pursue other jobs in other states including one he calls “the offer you can’t refuse” , a detail he never revisits even when pressed. As someone who has been in the same shop in the same neighborhood for so long, Schlesinger has an acute impression of how the Mission has changed over time.
The self-described “grocer’s son” says that he’s been able to see the affects of gentrification on this neighborhood. “The corner grocery stores we used to go to are disappearing,” he says shaking his head. Still Schlesinger and Mission Jewelry have managed to undercut big companies and carve out a niche in the Mission.
That niche is music. After realizing that though the Mission was home to many artists and aspiring artists there was no music store nearby Schlesinger started stocking the shop with instruments and accessories. The community thus far seems to appreciate it. One Yelp.com reviewer had this to say about how Mission Jewelry stacks up against its competition, “Would I prefer to have a full-service instrument store closer to the hood? I would, but a lot of those holes get filled here at this place. Not only is it one of the few independent, family-owned pawn shops left in SF, but over the years I’ve gotten some great bargains on vintage equipment here.” His review goes on to employ the nickname “Retard Center” to describe the big name competitor to the tiny music store.
“It’s sad that music is being cut out of schools,” Schlesinger remarks, returning to the interview after a brief intermission wherein he had to help a customer fix an amp so that it wouldn’t blare loudly through the whole store. “That’s why I love it when people come here to buy their first instrument.” He says he’s had more than one instance “where the mom will come in and buy a little starter guitar and years later she’ll come and tell me her son plays in a band, or teaches music, or plays for the church,” he grins “It’s great, man.”
One such newcomer is Victor Anaya who comes to the store at least once a month to buy strings for his guitar. The push for music intensified for Anaya two months ago in response to “a broken heart” which inspired him to play guitar “straight for two months.” Anaya calls the music he’s been making “the only thing that fulfills me.” As soon as Anaya walks into the shop he is greeted by Schlesinger and the other employees, one of whom claps him on the back and asks how he’s been enjoying a film camera he recently purchased from the store. “I love the store, it’s so crowded,” Anaya says, hefting his guitar case farther up his shoulder to make room for an employee to squeeze behind him.
As crammed as it is with objects the shop is also crammed with sound. In a corner, Amin Wisner bangs out Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” on a white electric guitar. The sound reverberates loudly through the store and Schlesinger is sent over to the corner by his boss to ask Wiser to tone it down. Wisner, who was testing out the guitar he hopes to buy for his birthday leaves the shop in a bad mood. The self proclaimed multimedia artist and resident of the Outer Mission says that though he loves the shop’s huge selection of instruments,” That was an asshole move.”
Still, Wisner also appreciates the store’s thrust against gentrification. In regards to the shop’s big competition Wisner says slyly “ I only ever steal from Guitar Center. I can’t stand when ultimate capitalism takes over mom and pop stores like this where everyone gets a piece of the pie.” The gentrification of the Mission, has “a couple angles” according to Wisner, a recent transplant to the neighborhood after living downtown for several years. On the one hand gentrification can bring “a lot of opportunities for not for profits, and it clears up some of the drug stuff.” “At the same time,” he adds, “It’s sometimes way too hard for an artist to get by in. Plus there’s a whole new attitude that comes with these kind of things.”
The shop stays resolute, even on slow afternoons where Schlesinger says, “there’s more inspiration than sales here.” Among the stores other hidden treasures is a prosthetic arm and leg towards the back of the shop. Schlesinger explains that these artifacts came to the shop separately. The arm belonged to a customer who would “take it off every time he came in to make a deal.” According to Schlesinger, one day the man left without it. Schlesinger and his staff spent days trying to track the man down only to see him on the street a few days later with a replacement arm. Schlesinger says that years later the man’s wife returned to the shop and gave them a prosthetic leg, “ she wanted us to be able to say we cost someone an arm and a leg,” Schlesinger chuckles.
Squinting through a loupe at a somewhat tarnished silvery platter, Schlesinger explains that often times customers find unexpectedly valuable things in the shop. “Once it was a real Cartier ring in there, we almost missed it,” he says “ there are things of real value here.”
The same could be said of the Mission itself. The neighborhood bears a lot of similarities to the tiny pawnshop. Both are crammed with many different things, murals, dogs, burritos, and haute cuisine. Everybody comes there, children, musicians, mothers, the occasional sex worker; all of them leave their mark on the neighborhood. Though like the shop the Mission can look somewhat shabby on the outside, inside it houses people who create and live and thrive.
There are things of real value here.