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Ald. Pawar Aims to Block Pawn Shop; Owner Says, 'We're Different'

By Patty Wetli | July 11, 2013 11:58am
 Chicago's zoning board is expected to decide in August whether to allow a pawn shop on Western Avenue.
Chicago's zoning board is expected to decide in August whether to allow a pawn shop on Western Avenue.
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Flickr/Eli Christman

NORTH CENTER — Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) wants to make Western Avenue in North Center "more neighborhood-friendly," and said an Indiana-based pawn shop is not welcome in the area.

Ameripawn is proposing to open an outpost at 3615-29 N. Western Ave., but Pawar is trying to thwart those plans. The city's Zoning Board of Appeals, a five-member board appointed by the mayor, will decide the pawn shop's fate in Chicago. Pawar hopes they hear his concerns.

"If it was going to the regular City Council zoning committee, I would have just denied it outright," said Pawar. "My main issue is, we're trying to make Western Avenue more neighborhood-friendly."

Starbucks and Potbelly have already announced plans to build new stores on Western and the alderman said he intends to continue pushing for Bus Rapid Transit on Western. Ultimately he'd like to see the same types of shops and restaurants on Western as are currently found on Lincoln Avenue.

Pawar has already registered his opposition with the zoning board and plans to speak out against Ameripawn at the body's Aug. 16 meeting, when the special use permit is expected to come up for a vote.

Greg Engstrom, owner of Ameripawn, which he founded in 1986, will also attend the August session and fully expects to encounter resistance to his operation.

"We've been through this before," said Engstrom, whose family runs four Ameripawn stores in Valparaiso, Lake Station, LaPorte and Michigan City.

"Most people who are against it don't understand what a pawn shop is," he said. "They've never been in one."

Half his business involves loaning money against individuals' personal collateral — a watch, for example.

"Everybody's had circumstances where times are a little tough," said Engstrom, who does double duty as president of the Indiana Pawnbrokers Association. "People can sell their watch or they can borrow against it and pay it back. Or not pay it back."

Engstrom acknowledges that many consider pawn loans unsavory and ripe for criminal activity. To guard against passing along stolen goods, Ameripawn requires a driver's license and thumbprint for each loan, according to the company's website.

In addition to providing traditional pawnbroker services, Ameripawn has also established a strong retail presence that Engstrom likened to the History Channel's "Pawn Stars," though with far fewer hijinks and knuckleheads.

"We interviewed with a producer with one of those shows," he said. "But we were thinking we didn't want it. They want the drama. They want me fighting with my kids."

Having passed on his 15 minutes of fame, Engstrom said his job is plenty thrilling just in the variety it offers. 

"We have a lot of different things you don't see too much of," he said, citing rare coins, stamps, vintage toys and antique glassware.

Among the more unusual items that have crossed Ameripawn's threshhold: championship rings belonging to down-on-their-luck NFL and NBA players, though Engstrom didn't name names.

"We have no idea what's walking through the door," he said. "It's like everyone is Santa Claus."

Pawar has no quarrel with Engstrom, whom he's never met, and said he recognized that pawn shops served a purpose in offering credit to people who might otherwise not be able to obtain it.

He just doesn't want one on Western Avenue.

Though his vision of a thoroughfare bustling with pedestrians and sidewalk cafes may take years to realize, "We're planning ahead, we're putting the pieces in place," said Pawar. "For all of this to happen, we need to be thoughtful about what we allow. A pawn shop is outside the character of what we're trying to do."