Stores usually sell goods, not buy them. But on Southern Boulevard in Hunts Point, commerce is a two-way street. Almost every other storefront window bears a sign declaring, “We Buy Gold.”
As the effects of the recession continue, more and more residents of the South Bronx are looking to part with gold jewelry – often precious keepsakes that they’ve treasured for years. With the price of gold rising to $1,395 an ounce, the temptation to sell is strong and local business owners see a new opportunity.
“Yes it hurts, it’s hard to get rid of something you really love,” said Longwood resident Evelyn Sanchez , as she shopped on Westchester Avenue. In 2008, Sanchez lost her job of 20 years as a teacher in a special education school. With no health insurance and no work, Sanchez, who suffers from scoliosis, did not have enough money to pay for her treatment. In need of quick cash, she decided to sell a pair of 10-karat gold earrings that were a birthday present from her sister. “I don’t like to give things away, especially if it is a gift from a loved one,” said Sanchez. But she knows she is not the only one looking for sources of extra money. “I see a lot of people selling these days,” she said.
With an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, one of the highest in the nation, Bronx residents like Sanchez are doing whatever they can to get by. In an uncertain economy, gold jewelry is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary commodity in lower income neighborhoods such as Hunts Point and Longwood. In the past, residents might have been buyers – looking for Christmas presents for loved ones. Now, they have become sellers, seduced by the appeal of quick cash.
“We usually buy more than $500 of gold a day,” said Lisa Alvarez, 21, a Longwood resident originally from the Dominican Republic. Alvarez rents space in a cell phone store. Her “office” consists of a podium with a scale for weighing gold, a file, and small plastic bottles of solution, which she uses to determine the the amount of karats of the gold she is buying.
Alvarez and her partner Angel, who prefers to go by his first name, stand outside of the store handing out cards, and hoping to attract potential sellers. “It’s because of the neighborhood, people need money right now,” said Alvarez.
Also a native of the Dominican Republic, Angel wears a sign on his chest stating, “We buy gold.” He switches back and forth between Spanish and English as people walk past him on the street. A Puerto Rican women walks by, and Angel says to her, “Compramos oro.” A black man walks by and he switches to English, “Ay, we buy gold we buy gold.”
Angel lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend and her family. He makes $50 a day, under the table. Because Alvarez is in charge of determining the value of the gold they buy, she earns more: around $70 to 100 a day, all cash.
Inside the store, Alvarez scrapes a recently purchased gold ring with her file. She then places a few drops of a clear liquid solution on a small flat stone where she has rubbed the ring. The gold’s reaction confirms its value.
“A lot of the time you will scrape it with the file and underneath it’s like silver or something else,” said Alvarez. “Most of the Africans and Indians come in with 22- and 24- karat pieces.” “But most people in the neighborhood, like the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans come in with 14- and 18-karat pieces.” If the gold passes Alvarez’s test, she buys it on the spot, handing over cash.
Her boss John, who would not give his full name, is a Palestinian businessman. He says he has identical operations spread throughout the Bronx, with the head office based out of his clothing store “Underground” on Southern Boulevard. John employs 40 people in teams of two, at 20 different locations in the Bronx. The teams work six days a week, from 11 in the morning until 7 at night, pulling gold out of the Bronx as cheaply as possible.
Imal, John’s cousin who also preferred not to use his full name, says that as sales at the clothing store went down, his family started exploring other options. “We started selling shoes, hookahs, anything.” Imal is new to buying gold, but says that businesses like his are being forced to think creatively in order to stay afloat. As for the gold itself, “If it works, it works,” said Imal as he smoked a cigarette in front of the clothing store. “ If not, then I will leave it alone.”
Before the recession, jewelry stores were the primary buyers of gold in the area. Now, independent gold buyers are moving in and capitalizing on the public’s willingness to trade their gold for cash. Gary Pinero, the manager of Golden Dreams Jewelry, a jewelry store on Southern Boulevard, and feels that independent buyers like John and Imal mislead people on the street.
“A lot of people don’t know the value of the gold,” Pinero said through the thick plastic window separating him from his customers. “The only reason they sell is because they hear now is the best time to sell, or because finances are tough.” But he thinks the sellers should be wary of buyers. “They take advantage of those people.”
When Pinero started buying and selling gold 15 years ago, it went for $275 an ounce. It’s now $1,396.
For many Bronx residents, the decision to sell gold is an easy one. This was the case for Libby Perez, a middle-aged Bronx resident who has sold many pieces of gold jewelry in the past. “I sell gold that I am not going to use,” said Perez nonchalantly. “I prefer the money especially because I am not doing anything with the gold.”
The decision to part with his gold assets was more difficult for Terry Kaine, a 23-year-old father, originally from Virginia. “Regret would be the proper word to use,” said Kaine as he sold cologne out of a briefcase on Southern Boulevard. Kaine spoke somberly about a gold necklace that he sold in Virginia when he was only 15. “I wish I hadn’t sold it, so I could pass it on to the next generation. I have a two year-old daughter, and I would have liked to give it to her.”
Karina Minaya, a 19-year-old store clerk was attracted to the idea of quick cash for her gold jewelry. “I wasn’t doing nothing with it,” Minaya said about a ring given to her by her grandmother. Minaya said the ring didn’t even fit. “It’s always a good time to sell gold if you are not using it.”
But is it really a good time to sell? Donald Davis, a Columbia University economics professor, says the gold market is tricky. “Anyone who tells you they know where the price of gold is going is a fool or a shill,” said Davis. Davis cites the 12.5 unemployment rate in the Bronx as another strong reason people opt to sell their gold. “Gold sales may also be driven by desperation. If we had a crystal ball that told us where the economy will go, then we would have a much better guess about where the price of gold will go. But we don’t.”
But on the street, all that really matters is getting cash when you need it. For gold buyers such as Imal, a high price per ounce on gold means more business. For gold sellers like Sanchez, it ultimately means getting out of a tight situation. Fortunately, she is now getting disability payments from Social Security, which means she has enough money to pay for her scoliosis medicine without having to sell any more jewelry. At least for now.