In 1998, the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University published Leo Finkelstein’s Asheville and The Poor Man’s Bank. The book, written by Leo Finkelstein, offers personal anecdotes of the author’s life, as well as glimpses into Asheville’s past.
The book’s introduction, written by its editor, Patricia D. Beaver, provides a brief overview of Asheville’s Jewish community. In it, Beaver notes that Jewish immigrants first arrived in the region in the late 19th century. According to Beaver, most began as street peddlers. Such work, Beaver writes, “often led to the establishment of a store, and by the turn of the century, a variety of commercial establishments were opening in Asheville’s small downtown.”
Asheville Pawn and Loan Office was among these businesses. Its founder, Harry Finkelstein, opened shop in 1903. But for the Lithuanian businessman, his arrival in the mountains of Western North Carolina came about only after a series of unfortunate events.
In the pages of Leo Finkelstein’s Asheville, it is reported that Harry, Leo’s father, fled his hometown of Pushalot in 1872, shortly after knocking out a drunk Bolshevik who was pestering his mother. He relocated to South Africa, where he worked as a house painter in Johannesburg before falling ill from lead poisoning.
After his recovery, Harry opened a restaurant. However, according to Leo:
“In 1898, right before the English-Boer War, my father sold his restaurant for gold coins, got a money belt and went to Cape Town. He had a cousin in Australia and a brother in Jacksonville, Florida. By a flip of a coin he came over to Jacksonville, Florida.”
By 1900, Harry was struck by another, unspecified illness. His recovery led him to Asheville, where in 1903, he opened Asheville Pawn and Loan Office. One of the shop’s earliest advertisements appeared in the March 10, 1904, edition of The Asheville Citizen. It declared: “You can get loans on your diamonds, watches, and jewelry.”
The following year Harry married Fannye Sherman. The couple lived in an apartment on Ashland Avenue, where in 1905, Leo, the first of the couple’s three children, was born.
Just as his family was growing, so too was Harry’s business. On Aug. 5, 1906, an advertisement in The Asheville Citizen promised readers: “An Opportunity of a Lifetime at Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop.” The store was hosting a public auction, selling off “everything in the house which customers failed to redeem[.]” This included guns, ammunition, musical instruments, trunks, suitcases, handbags, tools and “a big stock of unredeemed Clothing, Shoes, Hats, etc.”
By 1913, Leo began working for his father and would eventually take over the business. “When I was eight years old, I started selling newspapers,” Leo writes in his book. “I wasn’t doing very good so my father gave me a job in the pawnshop at 50 cents per week.”
In 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, Leo changed the store’s name from Asheville Pawn and Loan Office to Finkelstein’s Inc. The economic struggles of the 1930s are prominently featured in Leo Finkelstein’s Asheville. A number of the book’s anecdotes highlight the types of loans made during the period, shedding light on the desperation felt by many in the community. In one instance, Leo writes:
“Back in the Depression days of the 1930s there was a preacher who pawned his Bible every Monday morning after Sunday’s services and redeemed it on the following Friday or Saturday for the next service on Sunday. I made the original loan of $10 and advised the preacher that he could get it out at a charge of $1 anytime in 30 days or if needed, he could wait three months at no additional charge.
“In checking the records I have found that he had pawned the Bible weekly on many occasions. On the next Friday morning when the came after his Bible I told him he didn’t owe anything on it, that he had paid more carrying charges than the original loan. I told him to put that $10 bill he had next to the Ten Commandments in the Bible and the next time he needed $10 to take it out and put it back in the Bible after Sunday’s service. Just don’t bring the Bible back here for a loan. He didn’t.”
Leo sold the business to H.G. “June” Bassett in 1973. No longer in the Finkelstein family, the pawn shop nevertheless still operates to this day.
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.