On Cowley Road, Oxford, irate customers of the stricken pawnbroker Albemarle & Bond are locked in a showdown with a private security guard who stands between them and their valuables.
At the back of this shabby shop is a warehouse where family heirlooms and sundry valuables have been sent from pawnbrokers around the country for safekeeping after the company abruptly closed all of its 113 shops last week. It has not, however, collapsed into administration and says it remains solvent.
“I’m willing to pay the money but they’ve run away with people’s goods,” said Brar Gill, who had taken the day off and come down from London to demand the return of possessions pawned for £200.
“You call them and nobody answers,” she said. “If I can’t get in touch with anyone, how can I pay? I can’t wait any more.”
A second customer, who asked not to be named, said he had also taken the day off to travel from London to the shop, to find the doors locked and shelves empty.
The guard initially blocked the doorway, before a staff member eventually invited the customers in and offered to take their details.
The Guardian was asked to leave after being given an apparently incorrect email address for a press contact.
An employee of security firm G4S arrived later in a van and dropped off four lock boxes at the shop.
Albemarle & Bond and its sister company Herbert Brown shocked customers when they suddenly closed all of their stores last Friday with no explanation.
But someone who works nearby, who asked not to be named, said the Oxford branch, which doubles as the company’s headquarters, appeared to have been preparing for this moment for some time.
He said an unusually high number of security vans had been arriving for several weeks, unloading goods into the shop’s storage area, which is guarded 24 hours a day.
The Japanese parent company, Daikokuya Holdings, told investors on Tuesday that it was shutting down its UK operations for good, blaming a £7m loss and the uncertainty of Brexit.
But customers who pledged valuables such as gold jewellery in exchange for short-term loans have complained that while investors are being kept informed, they have been left in the dark and are unable to reach the company by telephone or email.
Meanwhile, their belongings have been sent to Oxford. The company promises they’ll get them back but some are starting to doubt that.
Christine Smith from Liverpool said she wanted to pay to retrieve her items last week but found the shop was shut.
“They’ve got my grandmother’s cluster ring and a gold locket that my mother was wearing when she passed away, a gold watch that my mum bought me for my 30th birthday. They’ve got about £900 worth of items.
“I could send the £600 I’ve got and not receive my items. I’ve had to borrow money from my family. I’m just beside myself.”
Staff have been badly affected by the messy nature of the closures too.
One said that the company’s nearly 400 staff have known shops would close since a conference call on 6 September, although the date was suddenly brought forward from November.
She said some staff had been offered two weeks’ pay plus one for every year of employment while others who had worked there for less time were offered nothing.
“They said the company had not been making any money and they were looking for buyers but nobody wanted it.
“A secure van came last Monday to take [customers’ valuables] away.”
She said staff, many of whom have spent their working lives at Albemarle & Bond, had been offered no support from the company to cope with angry customers.
“Customers started coming in and we had no answers to give them. We weren’t allowed to tell them where their stuff was being held. We didn’t have answers ourselves.
“I had to call the police as one customer was threatening us. Some were threatening to mess the shop up or to wait for us outside after work.”
She does not know what will land in her bank account on next payday, 23 September.
“I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I’ve got to ask family to help out. I’ve got bills and a car to run and I need to find a job. It’s a very upsetting time.”
In a statement, Speedloan Finance, which owns Albemarle & Bond and its sister company Herbert Brown, said it “remains a solvent business” and promised to keep customers informed.
The company said it had “tried to minimise the impact on customers by writing to everyone affected and apologise for any inconvenience or distress caused by these closures.
“We have doubled the number of phone lines and doubled the number of staff responding to emails, and will continue to monitor and expand these facilities if required.”
The company has not returned requests for comment from Kohei Ogawa, the chief executive of Daikokuya Holdings, which bought the business in 2015 a year after it flirted with administration.
Rent on its 113 properties is likely to be due this month on “quarter day”, when landlords collect what they are owed for a three-month period.
Another former staff member said they were not surprised the company was in difficulty under Daikokuya’s ownership.
“I found that there were many Japanese executives swapping out UK natives with experience in the pawnbroking industry.
“Some of these new executives from Japan unfortunately didn’t speak English and were not familiar with the specific requirements needed to make a financial company successful.”
The Financial Conduct Authority, which regulates Speedloan Finance, said it has been assured that more phone lines would be ready by Wednesday. It acknowledged the inability to contact the company could be “worrying for customers”.
Everything you need to know about pawnbroking
How does it work?
Like a bank, a pawnbroker lends money and charges interest on the loan. The loan is secured against a pledged item, a possession of value that the pawnbroker will keep if the borrower can’t pay the money back. Its history goes back 3,000 years and the pawning of Queen Isabella of Spain’s jewels is said to have funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage to discover the Americas.
How are items valued?
The pawnbroker makes an on-the-spot guess about the item’s worth, typically jewellery, watches or other small product containing gold or silver. The customer and pawnbroker then sign an agreement and a receipt is printed.
How do borrowers get their goods back?
By paying back the money, with interest, at any time during the length of the loan contract.
What if they can’t pay?
If the customer can’t pay the money back and the loan was more than £100, they will be notified that the pawnbroker intends to sell the item. They then have 14 days to get the money together to stop that happening. If they can’t and their goods are sold for more than the pawnbroker was owed, the customer pockets the extra amount.
Why is it popular?
Borrowers don’t need to prove creditworthiness or risk being blacklisted for new loans, because their debt is secured against a valuable item. Pledged belongings are usually luxury objects such as jewellery that they can temporarily do without in exchange for help with a cashflow problem. Customers often pledge the same possession several times a year.