Sometime around 11 or noon every day except Sunday, 103-year-old Florence H. Levy makes her way to a swivel chair behind the scratched glass counter at Reliable Loan Office & Pawn Shop, where she sells jewelry and trades verbal jabs with anyone who'll engage her.
"Boy, you better watch out," she says to a regular customer from her perch. "I spit bullets from my mouth."
The Brooklyn native came south to visit her aunt in 1925 and ended up marrying Moe Levy, owner of the Moe Levy's corner store at Assembly and Lady streets. She'd met Moe, a second cousin, on his regular shopping trips to New York, but this time he courted her and insisted she marry him.
She had never set foot in a pawnshop, but she opened the Reliable Loan Office next to her husband's shop in 1941 – "My husband had a little store, and I told him he wasn't big enough for me," she says.
In 1951, when a soldier from Alabama, Harold Rittenberg, married into the family, he started helping out around the shop. He later became the shop's co-owner.
When Moe Levy died in 1974, his wife "didn't have nothing to do, so I got her back in the store," Rittenberg says.
Sit with Florence Levy, and she'll offer you a Coca-Cola in a foam cup and tell you frankly what she's learned from 70 years in the pawnshop business. First of all, she says, "You've got to meet a lot of different kinds of people."
She sat down recently with The Carolina Reporter to talk about her experiences. Parts of the interview have been edited for brevity.
What sorts of items have you sold here normally over the years?
Everything. A pawnshop has everything. So I've sold jewelry, I've sold shoes, I've sold everything in this store – and you can mention that the store next door is mine, too.
Are there any unusual items that people have come in and tried to pawn before?
One come in and wanted to pawn his false teeth. [She says she didn't buy them.] ….
How did you learn how to run a place like this if you'd never been in one before?
Common sense. You gotta use your head. And then of course, Mr. Levy had a lot of items next door that people would pawn, so I got an idea from that. …
When the economy is in a recession, does that change how business goes here?
No. With a recession, it got better because people needed money; they didn't have money, so it would help business. And of course we didn't take everything in. Anything that was of value we took in; otherwise we didn't take it in. …
So through the years, this has mostly been a family business?
Is that sometimes difficult, to work with the same people you live with?
No. Well, I mean, he's [Rittenberg] the big boss, of course, but I opened up the pawnshop. My husband opened up the store next door, and I said that wasn't good enough for me. I was born with a gold spoon in my mouth; my father was in the manufacturing business, and I came from New York City on a visit, and of course he wouldn't let me go back until I married him. I had to get the OK from my daddy because he was very strict. I was 19, and I finally got him to tell me I could stay here, so I didn't go back home. I stayed here. I didn't want a big wedding because I wanted to get the cash, and that was it. … And when did I open it up? You see the date there?
And here I am. …
You could have retired by this point; you could be staying at home. Why do you still come in to the pawnshop?
Well, I got my son – my son-in-law, but I call him my son – so if I stay home, I'll be miserable. So I come in, I stay here, I sell a little jewelry, and I occupy my time.