(NYTIMES) - After she lost her job, Ms Angela Rivers found herself in need of some quick cash. Instead of heading to her bank, she delved into her Brooklyn closet. An avid shoe and handbag collector, she took out her cherished chocolate brown Birkin and went across the river to Manhattan, where she had an appointment in the chaotic diamond district at a pawnshop called New York Loan Co.
On West 47th Street, New York Loan Co visitors edge past fast-talking gold hawkers, jewellery hustlers, murmurs of Yiddish slang and ever-present police to enter the gleaming 35-storey International Gem Tower, where the pawnshop is on the third floor. There, Ms Rivers planned to use her handbag for a loan.
"As soon as I walked into the beautiful building, I knew there was going to be no hanky-panky," said Ms Rivers, who was initially skeptical about her visit.
In the marble lobby, visitors are fingerprinted and pass through an X-ray scanner before ascending in a highly secured elevator. "I walked into that office, and I thought, this is the real deal," she said. "The level of sophistication was totally different from what I expected."
Inside the pawnshop, glittering vintage and new diamonds and other baubles from the likes of Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are tastefully encased in glass. Andy Warhol drawings hang alongside conceptual works by Gabriele de Santis and a series of John Baldessari photographs.
Mr Jordan Tabach-Bank, chief executive of New York Loan Co, picked the location because of its grand setting and high level of security. A few floors up from his pawnshop is the Gemological Institute of America, where gems are rated and future gemologists learn the trade, which explains the Fort Knox level of security.
Pawnshops, of course, are not simply for selling goods for a quick buck. They also allow customers to use their valuables, including something like Ms Rivers' Birkin, which is valued at several thousand dollars, as collateral in exchange for an on-the-spot loan. When a client pays back the loan, with interest, the valuables are returned. If the loan is not repaid, the pawnshop owns the goods and can sell them.
Mr Tabach-Bank is a third-generation pawnbroker. He modelled his New York outpost after his Beverly Loan Co in Beverly Hills, California, which has been family owned and operated since 1938. His grandfather dealt mostly in fine jewellery, his mother computerised the business, and he has an entrepreneurial streak.
"I've expanded the business to two locations and we also do a ton of art now and we do flatware, we do wine - and handbags," Mr Tabach-Bank said in his California shop, a few blocks away from Rodeo Drive. He is finalising plans for a third location, in Chicago.
He finds that his New York clients are more likely to be businesspeople than those in Beverly Hills. "We get a lot of women in the financial community as well as men who bring in their wife's or significant other's handbags," he said. In California, the pawnshop draws in the Hollywood set with actors, producers and screenwriters looking for fast cash.
"We get socialites and a lot more divorcees in Beverly Hills than New York for some reason," he said.
He said it's not uncommon for people to take their Birkins, or other valuables, in and out of the pawnshop, using them like a credit card, whether it is for an investment opportunity, for paying off business fees or simply because they are hard up for cash. "We pride ourselves on acting quickly," he said.
"People often call and ask: 'What percentage can you pay on the retail of an Hermes handbag?'"
Condition is everything, he said. Does it come with a box? Does it have the dust bag? Does it have the clochette and the key?
"That's very important," he said. "And what colour is it? Some people like the staples - the beiges, the browns, the blacks. And then here in Beverly Hills yellow, chartreuse, purple - they do very well."
Mr Tabach-Bank, whose sister, Lauren, works at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, will loan against pristine Chanels as well but prefers Birkins and Kellys (the Birkin's little sister named for Grace Kelly). They are worth roughly US$4,000 (S$5,400) to as much as six figures for hard-to-find models, and have a high resale value. (According to a 2016 research study by baghunter.com, an online marketplace for high-end handbags, Birkins have gone up in value by 500 per cent in the last 35 years - a figure that outpaced the price of gold.)
Considering their covetable, and rare, status, it is not surprising that there has been a spike in high-quality counterfeit bags.
"I bought a fake, and if you haven't bought a fake, you haven't been dealing in enough bags as far as I'm concerned," Mr Tabach-Bank said. Now he is extra cautious. He examines the stitching and he identifies specific stamps and can often tell a real from a fake simply from the weight of the bag, which he emphasised is heavier than it looks.
Ms Rivers did not risk buying a fake. She picked up her Birkin at an Hermes shop in Paris as a gift to herself for her 50th birthday. And it is a gift she is not letting go of.
"That bag was my pride and joy," she said. "In the next couple weeks I absolutely plan to retrieve it."