Customer connection

Ralph Waller, left, and his nephew Mike Waller, right, look over their inventory of handguns inside their store, Main Street Pawn in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Sitting in their chairs behind the gun counter at Main Street Pawn, Mike Waller and his uncle Ralph, self-described “West Virginian hucksters,” tell the story about how they started their pawn shop 21 years ago.

“He [Ralph] calls me up and asks, ‘Are tired you of working’ and I say ‘Yes,’ so he says, ‘Let’s open a pawn shop,'” Mike Waller says, with a laugh.

At the time, Ralph Waller, from McDowell County, West Virginia, was president of Diamond Cab in Washington D.C. and Mike Waller was doing collections for the company. The pair decided to get into the pawn business because it could accumulate inventory over time and Mike was already knowledgeable about guns and guitars, owning a large collection of both.

Selling musical instruments, especially guitars, firearms, jewelry, tools and electronics, Main Street Pawn is worlds away from History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”

“Too many people have been watching the TV,” Ralph Waller said. “It used to be we would tell people, ‘This is what we’ll give you,’ and they’d take it, but now they want to haggle with you.”

Mike Waller strums on a Chet Atkins Gibson guitar inside his pawn shop on East Main Street in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

Ralph Waller added, “We’re not going to pay $50,000 for a painting and I don’t have any experts to call.”

Over the years, the shop has tweaked and changed its focus. Jewelry, which used to be a huge commodity, is not very prevalent anymore. The shop was originally a Martin guitar dealer, but it couldn’t keep up with the company’s demands and has since cut back on instruments due to Internet competition.

It also used to sell Sig Sauer firearms, but now it just sells used guns, because “Wal-Mart buys them by the trainload and sells them cheaper than we can buy them,” Ralph Waller said.

Ralph Waller said the key to staying in business over the years is maintaining a connection with customers — the majority of them are repeat, especially folks pawning their items.

“The last thing you want to do is take their property because they might not have anything else to pawn,” Ralph Waller said. “A guy might need $50 to get to work, so he’ll bring in something worth $100. After five days, we’ll call him up and ask him if he wants to pick it up.”

John Lambert, left, and Blaine Keller, right, regular visitors to Main Street Pawn in Front Royal, play a hand of cards inside the store recently. Rich Cooley/Daily

Mike Waller added, “I think we’re the only pawn shop who does that.”

If 70 percent of the pawns are picked up, then the shop is doing well, Ralph Waller said.

“When you get into that 50 percent range on pick ups, you got to really look things over before you lend out the money,” Ralph Waller said. “You don’t want to get stuck with a bunch of inventory you can’t sell.”

Ralph Waller said while the shop does not make a huge profit, it serves a function, particularly during a recession.

“People need money, so we’re a place to get a quick loan during a tough time,” Ralph Waller said. “Our sales go up, too, because people will get that money in their pocket, then they might look around the shop and see something they want to buy.”

During Christmas, the shop sees an uptick in loans due to the shopping season, but when tax returns come in, it turns into a “mad house,” Ralph Waller said.

While the Wallers fill out a report of all property purchased by the shop or pawned at the shop and send it to the Front Royal Police Department to check if it’s stolen, the shop does get “hot” items from time to time. Mike Waller’s first pawn was a stolen flute.

However, Ralph Waller said the best way to avoid getting stolen property is to “ask questions.”

“In 20 years, we might have had 10 guns stolen,” Ralph said. “You start asking them questions and they won’t know nothing about their gun, then it just unravels and you back off and just don’t take it.”

Sue Waller, Ralph’s wife, added, “You just get this feeling and you know it’s not a good idea, so you don’t buy it from them.”

The Wallers have seen everything, from magnetic fake gold to glass diamonds to bum checks. Sue Waller said she remembered a woman who pawned her deceased daughter’s rings for the first four years of business, before eventually selling them to the shop.

“She came in one day with a man and we were still selling one of the rings,” Sue said. “The man pointed right at the ring in the case and said, ‘Where’d you get that ring? That’s my late wife’s ring,'” Sue Waller said.

Ralph Waller chimed, “I told him, ‘Right from that woman standing right next you.’ She didn’t have no dead daughter, she just stole it from him.”

One of the oddest items ever sold to the shop was human teeth with gold fillings, Sue Waller said.

“They were a well-dressed couple and they came in asking if we would buy the teeth because they had to take them out, but they couldn’t afford putting new ones in,” Sue Waller said.

Ralph Waller added, “Gold’s gold, so I just cracked them open and took the fillings.”

Within the next couple years, the Wallers will sell the pawn shop and they will go do what they really enjoy: fishing.

Main Street Pawn is located at 304 East Main Street in Front Royal and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com