Working-class realism reaches Talking Leaves Books

University of Rochester professor reads from his debut novel ÒBluff City PawnÓ

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Not every pawn shop is as successful as Gold and Silver Pawn Shop from the History Channel’s hit series “Pawn Stars.”

Many shops struggle to stay in business, maintain merchandise and avoid rampant crime.

Stephen Schottenfeld, an assistant professor of English at University of Rochester, read from his debut novel “Bluff City Pawn” at Talking Leaves Books on Main Street Tuesday evening. The book tells the story of Huddy, a Memphis pawnshop owner who struggles with the economic woes of the people where he lives, the crime in the area and problems within his family.

The event was part of UB’s Department of English’s Exhibit X Fiction Series.

Dimitri Anastasopoulos, one of the curators for Exhibit X and the director of creative writing at UB, described the book as a piece of “gritty working-class realism.”

Schottenfeld read two sections from his book, showing the effects of poverty and crime within Memphis’ inner city and the family members’ dynamics.

The first part of the reading set a grim outlook for pawnshops as one closed down and the others being routinely busted by police for dealing with stolen items. As the owner of Bluff City Pawn, Huddy meticulously prepares the shop for business each morning on his own.

Crime and poverty have a heavy influence in the first scene. The commonality of theft near his shop leaves him scared to leave the cash register for even a second. In addition to worrying about crime affecting his livelihood, he also has to consider how his transactions affect the lives of people he deals with.

At one point, a poor family enters the shop and attempts to pawn off a watch. Huddy knows the watch is worthless, forcing him to deny the transaction and consider what struggles the family might be facing.

The second part of the reading focused on Huddy’s family. Huddy’s wealthier brother, Joe, hosts him and their other brother, Harlan, at his home to catch up. Harlan, the poorest of the three brothers, recently lost another job.

As the brothers stood in Joe’s ritzy backyard, Huddy felt envious of Joe’s wealth but thankful that he had his own business and a strong work ethic unlike his other brother, Harlan. The scene establishes a hierarchy that results in family conflicts and the three brothers taking jabs at each other.

The addition of the two brothers made Schottenfeld drastically change how he looked at constructing the story.

“I think I actually added the two brothers to force myself to write a [full-length] novel,” Schottenfeld said.

He previously wrote a collection of short stories, but he wanted to push himself to write a full-length novel. The addition of the two brothers and developing their motivations and interactions allowed him to write a lengthier story.

Schottenfeld answered questions for the eager audience when his reading was over.

He said he made Huddy a pawn shop owner because there were many pawn shops near where he lived in Memphis. He often wondered “what their role is” and “what their world is like.” He talked with many pawn shop owners to “get access to a world [he] never knew much about.”

“It was good to get an in-depth look at a published author like that,” said Chris Krysztofowicz, a freshman English major.

Exhibit X has two more speakers planned for this semester with Julia Elliot on Nov. 5 and Yedda Morrison on Nov. 12.

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