My Hometown

Williamson Road is a sprawling commercial strip that slices through the working-class neighborhoods of my hometown, Roanoke, Va., a city of 96,000 nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's like many streets in urban centers or blue-collar suburbs: Amid the convenience and secondhand stores are merchants who offer credit and financial services to consumers who are mostly squeezed out of the mainstream banking system. In many cases, those mainstream companies profit from the businesses that charge much higher rates.

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These businesses offer people who have bad credit, no credit, or little money a way to get the goods and services they need and want. But the prices they pay can be painful: 120 percent annual interest on pawnshop loans . . . 30 percent on persoal loans from finance companies . . . weekly or monthly rent-to-own payments that equal finance rates of 100 percent or more. Paying $29 for a quick tax refund or $20 to cash a paycheck may not sound like much, but it all adds up.

"You pay double--I know that," says a woman who has been a customer at a couple of Williamson Road's rent-to-own stores. "But if you want nice things, where are you going to go if you can't get credit?"

SOME "SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP" SPOTS ON WILLIAMSON ROAD

They are part of the credit economy for people who can't pay in cash.

3302 NW Credit Tire and Audio
Buy your tires and car stereo on credit. Next door at Bankers' Optical, you can get your eyeglasses the same way.
3733 NW Mr. Car Man
Rent-to-own cars. Transmission jobs on credit.
3806 NW Town and Country Pawn Shop
Charges 120 percent annual interest on small loans.
4517 NW Prime Time Rentals
This rent-to-own chain offers high-interest "Fast Tax" loans.
6431 NW Avco Financial Services
One of the nation's 20 biggest consumer finance companies.
7222 NW Beneficial Finance
An outlet for one of the nation's largest consumer loan companies. See Hall of Shame.