Asheville Archives: Bolsheviks, Bibles and the poor man’s bank

ESTABLISHED IN 1903: Harry Finkelstein founded the Asheville Loan and Pawn Shop in 1903. By 1933, his son Leo changed its name to Finkelstein's Inc. He also moved the shop, formerly at 23 Biltmore Ave., to a site on Pack Square. No longer in the family, it now operates at 21 Broadway.
ESTABLISHED IN 1903: Harry Finkelstein founded the Asheville Loan and Pawn Shop in 1903. By 1933, his son Leo changed its name to Finkelstein's Inc. He also moved the shop, formerly at 23 Biltmore Ave., to a site on Pack Square. No longer in the family, it now operates at 21 Broadway. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

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.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Harry Finkelstein, left, arrived to Asheville in 1900 on account of an unspecified illness. His son, Leo, was born five years later and would later take over the family business. Photo, left, courtesy of Special Collections, Appalachian State University; photo, right, courtesy of Congregation Beth HaTephila
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Harry Finkelstein, left, arrived in Asheville in 1900 on account of an unspecified illness. His son, Leo, was born five years later and would eventually take over the family business. Photo, left, courtesy of Special Collections, Appalachian State University; photo, right, courtesy of Congregation Beth HaTephila

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.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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9 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Bolsheviks, Bibles and the poor man’s bank

  1. Phillip Williams

    Many fond memories of Finkelstein’s old place on the Square! Back in the early 70’s it was a wonderland of old guns and sporting goods – I used to collect ammunition and they had a huge stock of obsolete military and civilian ammo – Mr. Leo would break a box and sell me one cartridge! Also remember Mssrs. June and Charlie Bassett – all good folks. Dad traded there for years. If “Finkel” didn’t have it, you probably didn’t need it!

    • Lulz

      I grew up here in the 70’s and 80’s. Remember the Plaza, the real porn theater, the Orange Peel sitting empty, Rogers plumbing, Fains,etc. Even the old JC Penny’s and Woolworth. My father purchased his first brand new car in 1973 from Ed Orr. And my parents had their own business on Biltmore Ave.

      • Thomas Calder

        Thanks for sharing. I hope others will as well. Do you mind me asking what business your parents ran?

      • Phillip Williams

        I believe Penney’s was the last actual department store to leave downtown – and I remember being let off at the Plaza but sneaking down to the Fine Arts one time when I was 15 or 16! Remember Robert Bunn’s Antiques near Rogers Plumbing? I remember going in once and looking at a pair of end tables which looked like the price tag was 75.00 – I asked Mr. Bunn if 75 bucks was the best he’d do on them and he gently advised me that the price was 7,500! Mr. Bunn was a personal friend of Thomas Wolfe – used to stop in and chat with him often – also regularly visited Mr. Tom Naomi (Tom’s Grill), Win and Stafford Anders (Yesterday’s Child Antiques), Mr. Leo Finkelstein, Mr. Sidney Schochet (Star Bootery) and Mr. Charlie Baumann (The Olde Curiosity Shoppe) – there was also a Mr. Zack who ran the Pack Square Cigar Store – fascinating folks with neat old businesses!

  2. Phillip Williams

    If you look to the right of Finkels in the pic, you will see “G’s” – this was an adult book store, which I think was, for a long time, the only one in town….Dad called it “the Smut Den” – they had those little video machines you could feed a quarter and watch a bit of a dirty movie…Yes, I know because I sneaked in there a couple of times!

    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks as always for the additional anecdotes, Phillip. I enjoy reading them each time.

  3. Carol Ball

    Love to read and remember the way downtown used to be. We walked up from David Millard after school to catch the city bus home. Much better than riding the school bus. 5 or 6 of us would go into the Rexall Drugstore lunch counter. They would only let you sit if somebody ordered something so we would pool our money hoping we could get enough for a coke! We bought our jeans(which we never wore to school because that was not cool then) at the Army-Navy Store on the corner above Finkelstein’s. I think they were about $5-$7 for Wranglers. Thanks for a great Tuesday History, Thomas!

    • Phillip Williams

      I remember the Army -Navy Store – the proprietor was Mr. Jack Feingold – for years I thought his name was “Jack Fingo” because of the way Dad pronounced it – used to get all kinds of camping stuff – including Army C-rations – I can still taste that chocolate nut roll that came in a can!!

  4. Phyllis Finkelstein

    The Leo Finkelstein family in Ohio thanks Thomas Calder and the Mountain Express for the fantastic article about the Finkelstein store. Of course we have many beautiful memories of Pop and the store. We thank you for keeping the legacy alive.

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