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History for Sale

the Artist

When the walls of the Hotel Metropole come down, Jesus Lopez has to pawn 38 years

By Michael Learmonth

IN SAN JOSE, change is a source of civic pride. In "The Capital of Silicon Valley," promoters and developers stand proud on the leading edge of new technology and the new economy. Yet amid an arena, a convention center, a tech museum and a repertory theater, there are some corners change has passed over.

"In 38 years I've never changed nothing--only the merchandise," declares Jesus Lopez, the 73-year-old dueño of the California Loan Company in the old Metropole Hotel on the corner of Market and Post.

Inside Lopez's pawnshop, guitars line the walls and cameras sit behind glass, shoulder-to-shoulder with accordions, clarinets, typewriters and electric razors. Faded lime-green paint coats the dusty walls and shelves. In the back of the store, Susana, Lopez's 26-year-old daughter, sits behind antique bank-teller bars with two ancient safes, issuing small loans against the rings, watches and heirlooms customers bring in. Recently, Lopez finally replaced the two-tray balance and 1919-vintage Dayton cash register with a digital scale and a computer. Both the former items, like almost everything else in the store, are for sale.

"You are not married to the merchandise," Lopez explains. To illustrate his point, he says the ring on his finger and the 1-ounce Krugerrand around his neck are also for sale.

The pawnshop at the corner of South Market and Post streets first opened in 1909, just a few years after the Hotel Metropole was built. Behind the cash register, Lopez keeps mementos, including a piece of paper on which the names of three previous owners of the shop are written: Jack Marchick, Dave Blousten and Mr. Englemann. Lopez took over the shop soon after he came to San Jose from Mexico City in 1958.

Almost every afternoon since then, Lopez has held court in the pawnshop, talking politics with the regulars, preaching against alcohol and drugs, and treating every customer, regardless of their "pain and circumstance," with respect.

"Respect is everything in life," he says, pulling the faded necktie from his dark wool suit. "This is worth nothing, but it is very important." To Lopez, it signifies the gentlemanly respect he gives and expects from others. Susana says he wears a tie to work seven days a week.

Back in Lopez's office hangs the memento of which he is most proud: the 1982 Donald Ross Good Citizen Award. Lopez takes it from the wall to show it off. "I am a good citizen," he says, planting a thumb in his chest. Lopez paid for that accolade with cuts, bruises and a short hospital stay. On Sept. 30, 1981, a San Jose police officer tried to arrest a suspected felon in the back of the store. A tussle ensued, and the man made a break for the front door. But Lopez, then a spry 57, jumped in front of the man and tackled him, crashing through three display cases in the middle of the store, and holding him long enough for police reinforcements to arrive. Lopez was rushed to the hospital for cuts on his face and chest. The award says, "On that day, without regard for your own safety, you aided an officer who was attempting to arrest a fleeing felon."

Most days at the pawnshop are far less dramatic. Lopez and his friend Robert DiFranco pore over the day's news, paying special attention to national politics and Mexico. Lopez has distilled his political convictions into one-sentence sound bites he precedes by raising his right hand and first declaring, "My opinion!" Lopez on deportation of illegal immigrants: "You break the law, then goodbye, señor!" Lopez on certification of Mexico as a partner in the drug war: "Mexican government is corrupt!" And most emphatically, Lopez on President Clinton: "My life is for Mr. Clinton, believe me."

Lopez' platitudes seem to amuse his daughter, who usually sits in the back offices issuing loans and keeping the books. Occasionally, Lopez walks back to put a magnifier in his eye socket to appraise a diamond or a watch. Susana, who is listed as co-president of the company on the business cards, blushes when her father announces that she has become the true boss of the store.

But after 88 years, a change is imminent for Lopez's store that could threaten this father-daughter succession. On March 7, a group of San Jose investors called Rose Ventures bought the Hotel Metropole, consolidating their ownership of the entire block on which it sits. While the building is historic, the group plans drastic renovations that include conversion of the upstairs into--in the words of Steve Botto, the broker representing Rose--"swanky office space."

Rose Ventures has kept mum on plans for the building, but Botto says the first-floor tenants, including the pawnshop and Keegan's Kafe, will likely be asked to relocate at least temporarily for the renovations.

And somehow "swanky office space" and Lopez's slow-paced pawnshop seem less than a perfect fit. As of this writing, Rose Ventures has not yet informed Jesus Lopez of its plans for the building. Lopez's plans haven't changed. "I'm here every day working for my family," he says raising his palms. "This place is my life."

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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