There are no dead parrots on sale at EJ Markham & Son, but its shop window does display a sad-looking hawk which went to meet its maker many moons ago. Underneath, a notice reassures the concerned onlooker that the animal died of natural causes.
Three-legged instrument stands and sensitively stuffed birds suggest pawnbroking is attracting a rather different clientele to the paupers who pledged their coal and blankets back in Dickensian days. "I went bankrupt," the tripod man explains. "But you can trust me. I've an honest face."
Pawnbroking is, apparently, the second oldest trade in the world. For a long time it was saddled with a reputation to rival the oldest profession, prostitution. "For reasons I do not understand," says Sonia Styth, managing director at Markhams, "it has been ignored as though it were obscene."
Yet it has hauled itself out of the seedy Victorian backstreets, removed its mittens and grubby old cardigan, and proudly taken its place, brass balls and all, alongside the High Street banks and building societies.
"We get more middle class customers than we used to," Miss Styth explains, offering the man with the tripod and honest face a tenner. She takes me down a narrow staircase to a dark cellar filled with silver, golf clubs, videos, CDs, musical instruments and Royal Worcester figurines.
Miss Styth pines nostalgically for the days when people brought in their false teeth; one man, she recalls, pledged his pony and cart - accepted on condition that he came in to feeds it every day.
Still she welcomes the move upmarket. "Before the welfare state, we were of crucial importance to the working classes. But we are shaking off the old association with poverty and lending money to those who are quite well blessed with this world's goods."
Some customers keep taxis running outside the shop's electronic doors as they pawn jewellery to pay for second holidays and children's school fees.
But the old reputation, of Fagin types exploiting the poor and destitute, dies hard. Also, as Stuart Bradkin of the National Pawnbrokers Association concedes, people don't like to be seen borrowing. "It's like going to the bookmaker's." As a consultant to a turf accountants' organisation, he should know.
In an effort to compete with "legitimate" lending institutions, Miss Styth has taken meticulous care over decor; on being admitted through her electronic door, one is immediately confronted by a potted plant and several tastefully framed photographs of Old Colchester. "It's very clean," she says. "Like a bank or building society."
Barclays staff, however, are not accustomed to being threatened or spat at. "We've got glass screens for our own safety," she admits. "Some people do bang on the glass and spit."
Upstairs, the well-dressed thirtysomething with the tripod and honest face is explaining that his parents have refused to bail him out one more time. Since going into therapy, at pounds 15 a session, his need for instant cash has grown.
"We try to put people at their ease," Miss Styth says. "Everybody's got a sad story to tell. People want to tell you why they are pawning. They feel so much better afterwards."
National Pawnbrokers Association, 1 Bell Yard, London WC2A 2JP (0171-242 1114)Reuse content