WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — You could call them a saving grace.
One type of business was deemed essential at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that helped families living paycheck to paycheck –- pawnshops.
"This is actually our history," Andrew Charbonneau said as he showed off an Edison cylinder phonograph at his shop, Palm Beach Pawn King in North Palm Beach.
Typically searching for precious antiques, Charbonneau said this year, treasure hunting took a backseat in the pawnshop industry.
"I think we're all in a situation we're not used to, so everybody is doing what we call [to survive]," said Charbonneau, who also owns two other pawnshops, American Gun and Pawn in West Palm Beach and Andrew's Coin and Jewelry in Delray Beach.
Across his three shops, Charbonneau saw firsthand what the lockdown in March did to local families.
"We had a lot of nervous individuals that have never pawned before in their life, and they were in a situation where they had nowhere to go, no other avenues to obtain cash," he said.
Some bank branches were temporarily closed, hours reduced in others, but those in the pawning business were open.
"The essential aspect of what we do was very important for the community because the bank will not lend you on your cellphone, won't lend you on your computer," said Charbonneau.
The COVID-19 pandemic put thousands of people in Palm Beach County out of work.
According to statistics from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, the city hit hardest was Boynton Beach. In just 30 days, the unemployment rate increased from 4.7 in March to 17.5 in April.
"They would come in and say, 'I lost my job because of the pandemic,'" said Bobby Gloyd, an employee at G & C Pawn Shop in Boynton Beach.
Unemployment rates from the state show Delray Beach had the second-highest increase in unemployment within Palm Beach County, going from 4.2 unemployment rate in March to 15.4 in April. Riviera Beach was the third, jumping from a 5.5 unemployment rate in March to 15.1 the next month.
Gloyd said that people pawn the items that hold the most value to pay their mortgages and rent.
"Gold is always good. It's easier to sell and also has a lot of value," said Gloyd.
"Family heirlooms, anything jewelry related that has emotionally passed down value, meaning sentimental value. We did see a lot of that. It wasn't so much about selling. They were still nervous about losing it because they didn't know if they'd ever be able to pick it back up," said Charbonneau.
When those stimulus and unemployment checks did start coming through, pawnshops say business shifted to sales. They were selling laptops, gaming systems, anything that could help people get through quarantine.
"Everybody was looking for laptops, I guess when the kids were being homeschooled," said Gloyd.
"PS4 was one of the big things. If I had 500 of them, [they] would have sold within a week, at the time period," added Charbonneau.
Musical instruments, tools for home improvements were all among the hot commodities. And then there were items people couldn't find at retail stores.
"Bike sales were very, very high. I would say that was a 75 percent-plus increase. Work out equipment again; we're not used to selling that. It usually sits on the shelves, so there was a lot of increases in fields that I would never project in the future will be the same,” said Charbonneau.
Most pawnshop owners said people not only came back for their pawned items when they got their stimulus checks, but they also bought more.
"iPad air: a lot of people were looking for that," said Charbonneau.
"The newest thing is like sneakers. ... They've been probably easier to sell than tools. It's nuts," added Gloyd.
With 2020 coming to an end, pawnshop owners like Charbonneau, who have been in the business for 40 plus years, say they could have never predicted business trends this year. And, with a third wave of COVID-19 in motion, they don't expect to know what the holiday season will be like.
"There is no way anyone can predict how this Christmas season is going to unfold," said Charbonneau.