Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Finally solved a music mystery from the wonder years of my Arlington boyhood.

The setting was National Pawnbrokers, the forbidding but enduring local business that has operated conspicuously at the Lyon Village intersection since 1963, when I was on the cusp of teenagedom.

Few 10-year-olds comprehend how a pawn shop makes money, how it differs from a bank, etc. (Not that we knew about banks, either.) But this mattered little at the time. That’s because what captivated me was the pawnshop’s window displays: Curvy electric guitars, sparkling drum sets and macho-man amplifiers – all the vitamins and minerals a Beatles-crazed kid in the ‘60s would normally need to take.

I drooled over the objects at an age when trendy equipment trumped both talent and discipline in rehearsal habits. And though my bandmates and I grew familiar with professional brands such as Fender, Gibson and Mosrite, we were satisfied with the bird-in-hand discount brands our parents favored, such as E.W. Kent and Sears Silvertone.

And besides, who were we to gainsay the music experts at the pawn shop?

Flash forward to 2012. I finally raised the gumption to walk into National Pawnbrokers and determine once and for all whether this article of faith was true.
Actually, I’d exercised this adult prerogative before, having purchased sentimentally, three years ago, a Vox mini-amplifier evoking the Fab Four.

Today, the shop’s merchandise and loan window cashiers look orderly and prosperous. Signs tout gold, watches, jewelry, diamonds, firearms and tools. There’s a framed 1977 clipping from The Washington Star profiling the business launched in 1939 by the Chelec family in Rosslyn (which until the 1950s was practically the pawnshop/storefront loan capital of the Eastern seaboard).

There’s an interview with longtime manager Joseph Horowitz, who helped move National Pawnbrokers to its present site. The owners got a raw deal on the move, 10 cents on the dollar, I’m told by current manager Paul Cohen. He pulls out an early ‘60s photo showing the apartments across the street. In the foreground is a vacant lot that is now home to the Pawnbrokers and the Tarbouch Mediterranean grill.

“The music guy” at the modern store is Rico Amero, a working musician and a former sound engineer for the county. He shows me his range of Carvin, Marshall and Traynor amps, guitar straps and stands, and non-rock instruments such as clarinets. A few are new, such as the blue Percussion Plus drum kit.

Most are traded in, sold or hocked by people who need a loan, Amero says. He repairs some, “but if they’re not in good shape, they won’t make it into the store,” he says, except occasional vintage items.

Customers include kids and teens – one began coming in at age 12 – and Amero is proud to think he helped him get in the Berklee College of Music. But most customers “come here to get a good deal,” he says. National Pawnbrokers deals with professional musicians, for prices that can top $2,000, he says. Fearing doing a disservice, he’s not a huge fan of selling entry-level instruments.

That was me back in 1964.

So I asked manager Cohen the $64 question. He was hired 35 years ago “because he could reach the guitar,” he says. Back in the day, the salesmen “didn’t play instruments. All they did then was make money.”

Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com