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      Trading memories for cash at pawn shops

      At All That Glitters Jewelry and Loans, aesthetic and sentimental values get checked at the door. Here, patrons line up to pawn their memories for money.

      "Once upon a time, I didn't know people who would hock their things," said Sheli Johnson, 56, who is married to a construction worker and has been out of work since breaking her pelvis five years ago.

      Now she's one of the growing number of Americans looking to sell a ring or loan a bracelet, just to get by. In recent weeks, jewelry buyers and gold brokers across the nation have seen a sharp increase in customers - of all economic backgrounds - trading in their possessions for cash.

      Cash for Gold USA, an Internet site that offers customers a chance to mail in pieces of gold - anything from class rings to dental fillings - in exchange for a check, has seen business quadruple in recent months thanks to high gold prices, said Steve Schneider, a company spokesman. Business spiked even more with the financial meltdown.

      "Right now people are very worried," Schneider said. "The aesthetic value is now being outweighed by the precious metal value."

      In Midtown Manhattan, Gene Furman, the owner of Empire Gold Buyers, has seen a roughly 25 percent increase in walk-in traffic since major investment banks and other financial institutions ran into their own financial difficulties. The company schedules about 50 to 60 buying appointments a day, and not just with the familiar faces. Furman said he sees all sorts - even the one-time Wall Street powerful - looking for any way to get some cash on hand.

      "You name it, they sell it," Furman said. "People have to pay their mortgages. People have to pay their bills."

      Texas-based pawnshop operators Ezcorp Inc. and Cash America International Inc. have both seen their profits skyrocket in the past few months. Ezcorp saw a 60 percent increase for their third-quarter earnings and Cash America saw a second-quarter profit jump of 52 percent.

      The high price of gold has helped attract untraditional customers, said Yolanda Walker, a spokeswoman for Cash America.

      "A lot of people are getting smart, they're cleaning out their jewelry boxes, even their family heirlooms," she said. "We saw some first-time customers who had never been into a pawnshop."

      Back in Portland, LaRog Brothers, a local jewelry shop with two stores, just started buying pieces. People who used to come into the store looking to buy that perfect necklace are now looking to sell it.

      "Our customers have been asking a lot lately if we bought gold" said Rick Rogoway, one of the owners. "We never used to hear that, really."

      Another Portland jewelry buyer said the market has never been so good - or so depressing.

      "Little old ladies are coming in with Whitman sample boxes empty of candy and filled with odds and ends and trinkets," said Dan WenDell, owner of Diamond and Jewelry

      Like a bartender or a shrink, WenDell listens to story after story.

      It used to be, WenDell said, that people would bring in their rings for an upgrade, something flashier, something trendy. Now they just want the cash.

      "I used to be in the jewelry business," he said. "I am in the recycling business now."

      As Johnson waited her turn at All That Glitters, her daughter-in-law slowly lifted the lid of a gray jewelry box, as though it held a secret neither woman wanted to share.

      Inside were three rings.

      One was full of diamonds. "It was my wedding ring," Johnson said.

      Another was crowned with a red gem. "A friend of mine gave me this."

      The last was a simple diamond ring. "My husband got it for me."

      Johnson said the cash would help make ends meet until her husband's next paycheck came in.

      Other customers had similar stories. A construction worker was pawning his wife's diamond earrings because jobs had dried up. A woman, who was selling some rings her husband had left behind when he died, said her Social Security check doesn't stretch as far as it used to.

      In All That Glitters, there's more than just jewelry. There are DVDs - just four for $10 - rifles, power saws and drills. But all that's a small fraction of the business that the store does, said Steve Souza, the general manager. Most of the business is built on the sorts of keepsakes that Johnson is looking to pawn. Jewelry makes up about 70 to 80 percent of the business, he said.

      "You feel bad for people, and we try to say we're here to try to help you as best as we can," he said. "We have some small-business people who come in here and need to make payroll. Everything from 'I need a tank of gas' to 'I need to take my daughter to the emergency room for medical and we don't have any funds."'

      The high price of gasoline is why Jeff Silverstein of Ridgefield, Wash., sold his wedding ring to All That Glitters.

      "I'm still married," he said. "There were just other things we needed more."

      His wife sold hers, too, and the couple bought a pair of $10 bands. They're simple, he said. They're enough.

      Johnson wasn't ready to sell her rings for good, not just yet. "It has to get better," she said.

      "What do you want for them?" the man behind the counter asked.

      She wasn't sure, she said. She'd only done this once before, a long time ago.

      You tell me what you need, he said.

      How about $200, she said. "That way I'll have money tomorrow."

      The man filled out a form. Johnson signed it. He handed her a bright pink carbon copy. Keep it, he told her. She would need it to get her memories back.