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December 14, 2009 LOCAL INSIGHT

Second-Hand Gems

Tommon Tinney, owner of Good Ole Tom’s, wants “Mr. Obama” to know something about his pawn shop’s 45 years of success.

“I’m the backbone of America’s small businesses. I’ve been adding employees during the entire recession. Who else is doing that?” he said in a thick Southern accent that reminds you he grew up in Florida, just 18 miles south of the Georgian border.

Inside his East Hartford shop where he buys and sells second-hand jewelry and other items, 75-year-old Tinney sinks into a leather desk chair as his Yorkshire Terrier, Gigi, jumps onto his lap. His cane rests on his leg — it doubles as his pointing stick.

A gold optimizer magnifying tool dangles from his neck, and he casually mentions that his eyes are going blind from decades of torching platinum. Tinney claims on his Web site that he has “bought millions of dollars worth of precious metals and coins” during the past four decades from all 50 states.

Tinney started his business with “zero dollars.” This year, his Internet transactions, wholesale deals to other vendors, export sales to “first-world countries” and his shops in East Hartford, West Hartford and Hamden will net him “in excess of $10 million,” he said.

The recession has been good for Tinney, who has seen his business grow by about a 30 percent over the past two years.

Aside from “always pleasing his customers,” Tinney believes a key factor in his business success is that he’s never thought of himself as a pawn shop.

“In Florida where I come from, we’re the upper crust. I’m a jeweler by trade. Anyone who thinks I’m running a pawn shop is just ignorant and I don’t let it get to me. I don’t get defensive, I get aggressive. These people just need to visit my store to see the quality of items I carry,” he says.

Tinney attributes part of his success to marketing. He spends in excess of $500,000 a year marketing his business on television ads. He says these commercials are mainly what attracts his customers, second are recommendations from customers and third is the Internet, which he sees as a growth area of his operation.

One way Tinney appeals to his increasingly “high-end Internet customer base” is by providing free shipping to any place other than Third World countries, which he refuses to ship to because of postal laws.

Although Tinney won’t export to Third World countries, some of his greatest buys over the years have come from importing diamonds from India, where the cost of labor is extremely low.

Tinney maintains that his operations generate a profit from buying, not selling.

And he takes a very active interest in that particular aspect of his business. In a recent exchange with a customer hoping to sell a shotgun, Tinney puts on his glasses and stares directly into the gun barrel. About three minutes pass and he politely tells the customer that he can only purchase guns if they’re at least 100 years old, otherwise he says the federal government will come hunting him down for violating firearm laws.

At 12 years old, his East Hartford store is his longest running shop. Over the years, Tinney says that he has opened and closed four stores, liquidated the merchandise and temporarily retires, which he says is a key to his longevity as an entrepreneur. His next venture is to open a few more Good Ole Tom’s in Arizona, where he has a second home.



Editors Note: Joanna Smiley, a freelance writer from Collinsville, will periodically serve as a guest columnist for the Hartford Business Journal.

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