World's worst pawn shop owner keeps smiling

TOPEKA, KS--Mel Pepperidge is happy-go-lucky, which is good because the Topeka-based pawn shop owner has consistently made ridiculous or ill-timed purchases for years.

"I caught the collecting bug when I picked up my first Juice Newton record 38 years ago," Pepperidge said. "I still got it; it's over there. Two bucks."

Standing beneath a sign reading "no checks, no judgement" inside Mad Mel's Mporium, Pepperidge said he knows there are those around Topeka who pity or mock him. This has gone on since 1989 when Pepperidge opened his store.

"The big item I had under the glass case back then was almost the entire collection of Traci Lords movies," he said, chuckling in a way that made this reporter uncomfortable. "I paid four bills for the lot. The only one I didn't have was the only one where she's an adult. Whaddya gonna do?"

Pepperidge's shop was raided as a result, during which time FBI agents also found an unexploded landmine inside a wicker baby buggy.

"I wondered why that guy was selling a baby buggy. Turns out he was an eco-terrorist," he said. "I had to do a couple months in the can for that one. I got the buggy 'round back if you wanna look; 50 bucks."

It was not the only time Pepperidge was visited by police. He once bought $10,000 worth of gold jewelry that had been stolen, or so he thought. Two men posing as police officers, but were actually scammers, took the gold as "evidence."

"Them badges looked real," he said. "But on the bright side at least I didn't get took!"

Martin Van Sterling has been a regular customer for years. He appreciates Pepperidge's willingness to buy anything.

"I sold him 'Hope Floats' on VHS for like a dollar. I saw it on the shelf in there the other day, next to a beta copy of 'Star Wars' that someone had taped off TV," Van Sterling said. "Sometimes I buy stuff just to help him out, like the other day I bought a glass fish tank from him that he didn't realize was cracked. I dropped it off a parking ramp to see what sound it would make."

The 18-room, security-camera filled store contains thousands of dog-eared postcards (one, sent from someone named Francis to a Norma Blackwell in 1938, featured a shot of downtown Muncie, In. which Francis described as "nice, but ethnic"), an arcade-sized version of Burger Time, a turbbit ("It's a turkey body with a rabbit head stuck on it. Five bucks," Pepperidge said.), minutes from Lawrence (Ks.) City Council meetings from 1972-1991, a signed Lance Armstrong racing jersey, rusted shut filing cabinets that might contain something interesting, a trombone the previous owner claimed to have played during the 1976 Rose Bowl Parade, a one-hole punch that used to be a three-hole punch, and a dreamcatcher made from coils harvested from spent air conditioners.

"I got the air conditioners they took 'em from, too. They'd make a good beer cooler or TV stand. Six bucks," Pepperidge said.

Also prominently featured next to the cash register is all eight seasons of "The Cosby Show" on DVD. Its price tag reads: $200, $150, $100, $25, $5, TAKE.

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