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VOL. 40 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 7, 2016

Reluctant Berry finds good life in loan (not pawn) business

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Honors and awards on the wall behind him, Herb Berry stands in front of a jewelry display case.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“Go ahead. Make my day.” I’m not a gun guy. Covered too much death during my career. Still, I couldn’t resist thinking about Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan, who recites that matter-of-fact “lecture” while pointing his .44 Magnum at a punk pondering a mortal miscue.

Sure, I’m surrounded by fine jewelry and ready-for-action guitars – some autographed by Steve Winwood, George Jones and Johnny Cash, others on a colorful wall of second-hand sound. Then there are the power tools and even a saddle.

But I keep staring at the gleaming gun, the model Dirty Harry Callahan made famous on film. It’s locked safely away in a glass case, surrounded by revolvers, semi-automatics, pistols of every stripe you can imagine …. Guns people brought here to Berry’s Jewelry & Loan.

“Everything we sell in here is about half the price of what you would have to pay for it to get it new,” says Herb Berry, who can’t help but be tickled by my interest in the massive handgun like Callahan carried when straightening out the streets of San Francisco.

Herb points to a turquoise .38 special. “There is a growing market of people – including women – who want personal protection. We had a pink one, too.”

Herb points to an innocent-looking leather purse, a stylish one I’m told, that has a secret, zippered pocket – a holster really – on the front side. Easy to reach quickly when you find yourself in times of trouble.

“This way women can get to their gun quickly. Women like these purses. If they are walking alone at night from a shopping mall or a store, they don’t have to worry. It’s there. They’re protected,” Herb says.

Feeling lucky, I drove up to Berry’s Jewelry & Loan in the heart of historic downtown Madison on this blustery day in pursuit of another column, with hopes to meet some more good people.

The idea to do a pawn shop column struck me when I watched the first presidential debate, during which contenders projected canned campaign rhetoric and profound amounts of gobbledy-gook. Neither really answered directly (or at least clearly) questions about the economy, which affects all of us. If they did, it had to have been while I was having more intelligent conversation with my dog, Roxy, out in the back yard.

I thought a pawn shop might be a good place to go check on how the economy is affecting the folks down here at street level, those who have brought in their treasures – thousands upon thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, loose diamonds and gems are for sale here … as are TVs, power tools.

Hell, there’s even that previously mentioned Western saddle ready to be placed on someone’s prized steed. Of course, much/most of it came in here as collateral by folks seeking 10 to 20 percent loans from Herb.

That there is so much musical gear demonstrates there are many musicians, just down the pike in East Nashville hipster heaven, who need money between gigs. Their instruments first are carefully stashed away in the 5,000-square-foot, climate-controlled storage warehouse for 90 days.

Like all the pawned merchandise, if a guitar is not retrieved before that many days expire, it is cleaned up and brought out to hang – Herb hopes just briefly – on the showroom wall, where guitars gently weep and wait for Nashville Cats whose tip jars were filled up the night before.

“We make sure the guitars are good as new,” says Herb, who adds they straighten the necks and adjust the strings if necessary. “Nothing more frustrating for a guitar player than trying to play when the strings are too far from the neck,” explains this affable fellow, who admits to personal joy rather than good chops when playing a guitar.

He stops and points to an unusual musical instrument, something likely brought here by a collector or perhaps a collector’s survivors.

“Mother Maybelle Carter used to play one of these. It’s a vio-uke. I don’t think many people would know what this is,” Herb says, explaining the small and many-stringed contraption is played with a bow. “I think this is more of a conversation piece than anything else.”

For $99.95, this can be yours. “Plus you get the bow and the box it came in,” notes Herb.

A few hundred bucks buys most of the rest of the musical stock, at least that which is displayed. “We have guitars, mandolins, banjos, violins … or fiddles is what they call them. But mostly guitars,” he says.

For every down-on-his/her-luck musician there is at least one other neon-Nashville dreamer who may bring one of these guitars back to life in a honky-tonk or java joint.

“A lot of musicians come in here looking to buy, but mostly what they want are the American-made guitars: Fender, Gibson, Martin. They sound better.”

Those musicians also are some of the best customers for the first-rate jewelry filling several display cases.

“I’ve had some famous country music people in here shopping for jewelry,” explains Herb. “But I’m not going to name names.”

The robust 66-year-old who owns one of Nashville’s most-historic businesses – sort of – doesn’t violate the trust or privacy of folks who come here to exchange valuables for short-term cash injections.

For longer-term financial need, customers will not just pawn the stuff for loans. Instead, they’ll sell their instruments, jewelry, power-saws and sanders, whatever they don’t need or can afford no more – for a fair price. In other words, if your vio-uke is gathering dust, well, sell it to Herb.

The .44 Magnum, center, in the handgun display case is ready for the next Dirty Harry Callahan wanna-be to pick up at a price more affordable than a new gun of the same model.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“Most of what we sell here is jewelry,” says Herb, who has led me back from a wall filled with long rifles, shotguns, semi-automatics.

Who needs to own a semi-automatic rifle? It’s sure not for deer-hunting. Herb tells me that most of them are purchased for target practice, a hobby which he says is, as the social media folks say, “trending upward.”

The glistening jewelry comes from many sources. Herb and his Gemological Institute of America-accredited staff have the machinery, patience, artistry and dexterity to make some of these pieces.

Much of the other jewelry likely is here because of death and those oh-so-popular estate sales.

It’s not just death that brings jewelry here. Broken hearts do as well. “We do a lot of bridal sets,” says Herb, pointing to his “premier” jewelry section, where engagement and wedding ring combinations – for thousands of dollars – are displayed.

These gold and platinum pieces with top-quality diamonds no longer were a girl’s best friend.

As they used to say back when politics made sense: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Bad luck and hard times, have people using their jewels as collateral for grocery money or perhaps Jordans for the kids. As noted above, customers have 90 days to pay off the loans and retrieve their gems before Herb and his staff work on them, make them showroom perfect, second-hand tarnish just a memory as gold bands glisten.

As I said, I’m not here to sell anything. My old stuff goes to the solid waste disposal yard off Trinity Lane rather than into display cases, but I really just wanted to see how, well, the other half at least tried to live before surrendering their baubles out of heartbreak or perhaps to pay cable bills.

That I chose this particular jewelry and loan business is strictly Google luck. Searching for a pawn shop to write about, in terms of the economy, I did a computer search.

I chose Berry’s Jewelry & Loan Company from all that popped up on the screen for a couple of reasons. I hadn’t visited historic downtown Madison lately, and I wanted to see how the work of the image-reshapers was going.

Then, as the backdrop for this investigation, I chose a pawnshop that has been a Gallatin Road landmark for 42 years, from the time that Madison was in its prior glory days to now, when the old town is being reclaimed, brick by old brick. This shop actually has even richer history than four decades in Madison. It really is the offspring of the well-known downtown Nashville hock spot that Herb’s father opened just before the Japanese bombs rained on Pearl Harbor.

The wall of second-hand sound: Nashville Cats’ dashed dreams hang on one wall of Berry’s Jewelry & Loan.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“My father started this business downtown on Deaderick Street in 1941. Then in 1942 he was drafted into the Army. He spent four years there, much of it in Guadalcanal,” Herb explains.

“Since he had been in the retail business, they took advantage of his retail knowledge and had him run the PX.”

Even though he was working out of the PX, Corporal Sol Berry doubtless saw plenty of horror he tried to forget.

“There was action all around him…. He came home with a trunk full of pictures. Guadalcanal was a very active spot. I don’t think he was ever on the front lines,” Herb says.

We agree that WWII veterans – old Sol included – “probably had a lot of violent memories of people getting killed. They just didn’t want to talk about it.”

(World War II veterans – and I’m fortunate to have known many, including my dad, Em – for the most part are silent about the things they saw, did, the terror they lived. After saving the world, they just wanted to return to normalcy, marry, buy houses, raise families … not relive trauma.)

In Sol’s case, returning to normalcy meant going back to work at Berry’s Loan Company, the pawn shop on Deaderick that his wife, Eileen, had kept going while the world was at war.

“She worked in the store during the war and did a very fine job of it,” says Herb. “She actually saved some money for my dad and uncle, who was his partner. She did a good job. Then my sister was born in ’47, I was born in 1950 and my brother in ’54, so she became a homemaker.”

In 1970, when the state began eating up Deaderick Street for government office buildings and the like, the loan company moved to Fourth Avenue North, between the Arcade and what was then Third National Bank.

Sol had signed the lease on the new location shortly before he dropped dead of a heart attack.

“I loved him a lot,” Herb adds. “He died at a young age. 55. I was 19 at the time. I was traveling with my friends out West. We were in Nevada when a state trooper stopped my car to tell me my dad had died. I flew home and my friends drove my car back.

“My Uncle Lester (Sol’s partner) died a year before my dad. Both heart attacks. I don’t know if it’s genetic, but I have mine (his heart) checked regularly,” Herb says.

“It was a difficult year when my father passed away. The year before my uncle passed away. The year before that my grandfather passed away. Actually three pretty bad years.”

We talk as we walk through the pawn shop – “actually, we don’t call it a pawn shop any more” because of derogatory reputations and movie misrepresentations. “Besides it began as Berry’s Loan when it opened downtown.”

Looking for a bargain on a used Rolex?

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The cases filled with the premier jewelry also display premier price tags. But there are bargains to be had.

“See this late-model Rolex (watch),” Herb says, pointing down through the glass. “What we do on a used Rolex is we give it the full service and a one-year warranty. This watch, brand-new, would be $12,500.”

The sale price is now $7,899.95. “That’s quite a bargain,” notes Herb, as I look at my $31 Timex to see how much time I have left before the rush-hour traffic turns the It city into our own little Atlanta or even Los Angeles. (An aside: a college friend from Orange County, California, visited me recently and vowed our traffic is actually worse than L.A …. and we don’t even have a beach.)

Customers come and go. Many are looking at the guns or diamonds. Others – like a gasoline-smelling fellow who sets what likely is a still-warm weed-trimmer on the counter – are here to secure loans.

In one section of the store, all sorts of power tools fill the shelves, evidence perhaps of construction workers falling on hard times … perhaps all the space for condo towers to ruin the skyline has been taken … Nah…

“Every construction worker needs a pneumatic nail gun,” says Herb, rescuing one of the cordless tools of mass construction.

“Everybody probably needs that circular saw with the 8-inch blade as well.” Coming out of storage soon is an 18-incher. “That’s an unusual item,” Herb says, adding “the cordless drills are for everybody.”

Herb tells me a little more about his life. He first opened for business in a smaller downtown Madison building 42 years ago, before eventually settling into the building that had been the Madison Antique Mall. Herb’s mother and then other relatives kept the Fourth Avenue store downtown open until about five years ago.

Probably should be noted that Herb, the loan guy – I want to call him Herb, The Pawnbroker, except it conjures images of Rod Steiger portraying Sol Nazerman in the bright and cheery mid-60s movie of that name – was planning on being Dr. Herb at the time his dad died.

“I was a UT premed major. Well, actually, I was a psychology major with a premed curriculum.”

It really wasn’t a future as a pawnbroker (there, I did it) that had him giving up those aspirations. “It just didn’t work out,” says Herb, who probably puts the psychology degree he was awarded in 1972 to good use while running this shop.

While he was putting some time into the family business and trying different professions to see what fit, he moved back to Knoxville for awhile.

“About that time I started seeing my wife of 41 years, Lyn, and I needed a way to make a living. That had a good bit to do with it probably.

“We started dating pretty seriously. I decided I wanted to have my own business. I came out to Madison and found a space that was affordable.”

It truly was his destiny, a future fueled by his youth in the pawn business. “I grew up looking at diamonds and jewelry and watches from the time I was a young guy,” he says.

By the way, the couple has two grown children, Michael and Brittany, both in the healthcare industry, and three grandsons, all under age 6.

Madison was a great location, at least partly because it was home to many country musicians back then, folks who like real bling with their rhinestones. And, of course, there always have been guitars up on the wall.

My late, great friend Uncle Josh Graves, the Dobro wizard who played for Flatt & Scruggs and the world, invited me a few times to have some beans at his house not far from this shop at 404 South Gallatin Road.

While customers come and go during my afternoon in Madison, the soundtrack is provided by the frequent and agreeable guitar picking of retired Metro Police Sgt. Don Dixon, who honed his own musical skills back when he was with the Blue Lites, a rock cover band comprised of Metro cops, that played at various functions around town, including at the old Swine Ball.

“I enjoy playing,” says the friendly retired sergeant, his hand always ready to move from fretboard to holster as he protects Herb, his staff and the valuable stock in trade.

As I pack up my gear and prepare to step out into the autumn breeze, content with my time in Madison, my mind wanders back to the .44 Magnum, the one like Dirty Harry Callahan used to dispatch bad guys.

That’s when I shake Herb’s hand. He made my day.

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