One of Tacoma’s most recognizable pawn shops has closed. What’s next for Hilltop? | Opinion

Matt Driscoll

In recent years, it just hadn’t been the same.

Kenton Dale and Jodi Baarstad-Chiarovano — the former co-owners of Hilltop Loans, perhaps the most recognizable pawn shop in a city with a long history of them — still loved the business and loved the clientele. But the work had become draining.

In 2016, Baarstad-Chiarovano’s husband and Dale’s best friend and business partner, Rand Chiarovano — long known as “the Mayor of Hilltop” — died suddenly, knocking the wind out of the pawn shop. Then Sound Transit Tacoma Link light rail construction tore up Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where the shop sits at the corner of South 11th. Throw in a global pandemic and what Baarstad-Chiarovano described as a stark increase in disorder and drug use in the neighborhood, and you get what passersby see today: a vacant storefront.

Last September, Baarstad-Chiarovano and Dale unceremoniously closed Hilltop Loans, ending a run that lasted decades and several previous owners. In December, the two business partners then sold the well-known property the pawn shop calls home, the Courtney Building, for $2.8 million according to local tax records, setting the stage for something new.

On Hilltop — a place where the pace of change has been rapid and the fear of continued gentrification and displacement is ever-present — the loss of Hilltop Loans hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Earlier this week, local political cartoonist, gadfly and Tinkertopia co-owner R.R. Anderson tweeted about it with concerned (and snarky) curiosity. David Combs, who built a successful screen-printing business with his brother on Hilltop and now serves as president of the Hilltop Business Association, told The News Tribune that even he wasn’t quite sure what happened.

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When we spoke, all Combs knew for certain is that Hilltop Loans — a business that had been a pillar in the neighborhood, offering reasonably priced used goods and small loans to those with few other banking options in a historically marginalized community — was gone, and had been for a while.

“You’re late, Matt,” Combs told me by phone. “It’s one of those things that are really unfortunate. You don’t want to go around blaming things if you don’t have the whole story yet, but you can’t help but feel the effects, especially with the timing. Was it the construction? Was it any of the other things Hilltop is facing?”

“We’re losing one of the staples in our community. What goes in there next is really unknown. We hope that it’s something that directly benefits the community,” Combs added.

The good news? That’s exactly what Dale and Baarstad-Chiarovano wanted, too.

After nearly 20 years in the pawn shop business, they decided it was time for a change.

If all goes as planned, for Hilltop, the difference will be minimal.

What comes next?

According to Baarstad-Chiarovano, Hilltop Loans wasn’t on the market when Craig McCall, the Nevada-based owner of a small chain of pawn shops, including two other locations in Tacoma, approached her about a potential sale.

McCall was interested in buying the building so he could open one of his US Pawn locations, she said, and pledged not to displace the residents who live in the nine apartment units above the store or the other businesses that call the Courtney Building home, including the beloved bar, Peterson Bros. 1111.

McCall’s pitch was persuasive, Baarstad-Chiarovano said. Ultimately, it proved too good to pass up. The sale of the Courtney Building was finalized Dec. 8.

“He said, ‘What would it take for you to sell me this building?’ I said, ‘I want my restaurants to be safe, I want my building to stay intact, and I want my tenants upstairs, many of them elderly, to be able to afford their apartment,” Baarstad-Chiarovano recalled. “He said, ‘Done, done, done and done.’ And I trusted him.”

From his home in Nevada, McCall confirmed his intentions. With a history that dates back roughly 30 years in the business, he said he believes in pawn shops and what they have to offer.

In addition to the standard buying and selling of items, pawn shops have historically offered small, short-term loans at high-interest rates to customers who use things like watches or electric guitars as collateral. If a customer pays back the loan and the interest after a specified period of time, the item is returned. If the loan isn’t repaid, a pawnbroker is free to sell it. It’s not a business model for a perfect world, but it is a model for the world we have, one that has helped countless people in a pinch over the years. It’s also one that can be operated ethically, with genuine concern for the people who rely on it.

On Monday, McCall, who bought the Courtney Building along with a partner, said he has no plans to displace current tenants, extensively redevelop the property or shake up the foundation of Hilltop Loans’ business, which has long relied on treating people fairly.

He might own pawn stores, but McCall said isn’t in the business of ripping people off, he said

“There’s certainly still a need for the service in the area. People need a place where they can purchase used items at a discount that have a warranty, and particularly with inflation the way it is, a place to get $20 if they need diapers or baby formula. Having a location where the services will be provided in a professional manner is important,” McCall said.

“We’re community-minded, and (Dale and Baarstad-Chiarovano) are community-minded, too,” McCall continued. “They know that there are longtime customers that they’ve had who will miss the service, and so they were kind of glad that somebody was willing to cash them out and also still provide the service to the neighborhood and community.”

‘The only bank on Hilltop’

How did Hilltop Loans become such an important fixture in Hilltop? Just ask Combs.

The former City Council candidate recalled starting his screen printing business and the help Hilltop Loans provided along the way. On several occasions, Combs purchased tools he needed from the pawn shop, he said. At least once, he pawned jewelry to help make ends meet.

“To have someone like (Dale) running a business like that, who’s also deep in the community, it just brought more to the neighborhood,” Combs said. “When you lose something like that, it’s very visible.”

Mario Lorenz, the former manager of the Hilltop Business Association, agreed with Combs’ assessment. Hilltop Loans wasn’t just a trusted pawn shop, he said, its owners were also active and engaged in Hilltop’s transformation over the years, he said.

“We always looked at Hilltop Loans as the only bank on Hilltop,” Lorenz said. “It was a landmark for the district, and its owners were always really involved.”

For Dale, who bought Hilltop Loans with Rand Chiarovano roughly two decades ago, none of this has been easy; his emotions are mixed. He said he’s still getting accustomed to his new life — which includes a new job at a local bakery — but at the same time, he remains confident in the decision to sell.

“I think we helped a lot of people who didn’t have traditional banking means. And there are a lot of people like that in marginalized communities,” Dale said.

“We didn’t want to see two businesses displaced and tenants displaced, where they wouldn’t be able to afford the rent,” he added.

“For the community, we just wanted something to stay.”