Finance: Only the Rich Go into Hock

For years the pawnbroker's traditional three gold balls have been the symbol of the down-and-outer. Today the poor can rely on relief or welfare agencies, and who goes to the local hock shop? The high-lifers in the middle and upper classes who are overextended at the bank and need a little ready cash with no questions asked.

Smart pawnbrokers spotted the trend a few years ago and set about changing their image. Manhattan's Kaskel's, which now calls itself a "loan broker," looks more like a high-fashion department store with its mink-draped mannequins and velvet-lined jewelry display cases. "We have customers...