I walked through Ace Hardware with my husband yesterday and literally raised my nose to the air and sniffed. I love the smell of wood, sawdust, and building materials. My thoughts raced back to being a kid when I watched my dad and granddad make my mama’s pie safe.

A pie safe is what it implies; made initially back in 1700, it was used to safely store pies, bread, and other perishables. These multi-shelved cupboards typically have two hinged doors and are about eighteen inches deep, and the front doors have punched tin doors to let the air circulate.

Daddy had traveled to Mississippi to get a piece of walnut left over from his grandparents’ old homestead. He milled the wood into slabs so he and my grandfather could start construction on the pie safe built from a replica pattern of one my grandparents had.

Daddy assembled all of his tools: a wood plane, an inclinometer, calipers, this fantastic drafting set, and a wood-handled saw. I watched in complete admiration as granddad measured and daddy cut. I heard granddad say, “measure twice, cut once.” I had no idea at the time what he meant, but later in life, I figured it out.

Daddy loved to build, following in my granddad’s footsteps. After granddad passed on, daddy inherited all of his hand tools. I would go to the woodshop and admire their handles and imagine granddads hands on the devices, working quietly on his next piece. He was a practical man, and there wasn’t much fluff in his creations. All the things he made had a purpose.

Daddy, on the other hand, liked to make beautiful things. After making the pie safe, he made hope chests, bedsteads, tool chests, and even a box for dominos. The neat thing is he made them all with granddad’s tools.

It’s been years since we lost daddy. I now have the antique tools.

Handmade Wooden Chest

The pure quality and craftsmanship tell a story. These antique tools were made to last.

Now they sit in the pie safe daddy and granddad built. I take them out from time to time to tell my grandchildren tales about how they were used and what they created. Some of the best-learned lessons in life were those narrated to me while daddy was making a box, a chest, or a piece of furniture.

As life moved on, I often thought about the tools that were a part of our family, now for generations, and how the following artists in the generational line learned to use them with their twists.

It always amazes me how our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers, and cousins build upon the knowledge gained before them. Each generation establishes the foundation for the next generation to grow and learn.

On a recent trip to Spokane, Washington, I traveled through the various shops and came across Axel’s Pawn Shop. It was filled with new tools, old tools, vintage tools, and all types of other things like gold, jewelry, diamonds, and equipment.

I admired all the “trade-ins” for quick cash that were either sold outright or pawned as I walked around. I was enamored by the kindness of the team of pawnbrokers, who greeted me and asked if they could help me find something.

I started talking about an antique drill they had and how I have my dad’s. I asked about the pawnshop, its story, and how it got started.

Larry & Ruth Carlson

Dr. Larry Karlson Sr. and Ruth Karlson

I learned that Dr. Larry Karlson Sr. and his wife are Axel’s Pawn Shop founders. Dr. Larry Karlson was a teacher, counselor, and administrator in charge of all junior and senior high school counseling programs for the Spokane Public schools. After completing his doctoral degree, he was hired as faculty at Spokane Falls Community College to develop a Human Services Department.

Ruth was a little girl from Minnesota who moved to Spokane with her three sisters and mother. Ruth’s mother was a hard-working woman raising the girls by herself while working and running a farm. She was intelligent and protective. Ruth met and married Dr. Larry Karlson Sr., and they had three boys, Scott, Larry Jr., and Douglas (Dug). She worked as a telephone operator pushing and pulling plugs to make “connections.”

I smiled when I heard this because my mama was a telephone operator while I was growing up, and I remember her telling me stories about her job. Ruth must have similar experiences.

After 30 years of service to his community, Larry retired well; he just changed what he was doing. Ruth and Larry loved antiques and second-hand dealing in general. They traveled through the Pacific Northwest, hitting the flea market circuit. They had acquired many tools and “stuff” as they traveled the regional markets. They would sell the “stuff” from their custom trailer.

Dug, Larry Sr. & Ruth Karlson

True to their genuine nature, Dr. Larry Karlson continued to research, plan, and educate, and Ruth made “connections.”

Dr. Larry Karlson and Ruth managed several political campaigns at both the state and local level, and Ruth handled all the money and reporting, including in-kind giving. During the James “Jim” Chase for Mayor campaign, Larry and Ruth met Gary “Dutch” Singer. Dutch was the owner of Dutch’s Pawn Shop. Larry and Ruth were intrigued.

Ruth also worked several years at Washington Trust Bank as a teller. These skills led to her being the bookkeeper, doing state/federal taxes and payroll. Thier now-grown sons, Scott and Larry Jr., both registered nurses, talked about doing something different. They decided they could devote a couple of years to making a go of running a pawnshop and if it didn’t work out they could always return to nursing. Dr. Larry Karlson and Ruth, after two years of research, preparation, and pooling their finances, opened a “one-year-only” pawn shop in May 1990.

The History Behind the Name

When opening a pawn shop, you have to think about what “fits.” It’s like if it doesn’t, the whole process will be clunky and uncomfortable. After Larry Sr. and Ruth decided to open the pawnshop, they needed a name. The name came from Axel Karlson, Larry Sr.’s grandfather. “We like the name,” said Larry Jr. whose middle name, as well as his father’s, is also Axel.

Alexander means one who assists men. Interesting enough, isn’t that what pawn shops do?

Larry Sr., Ruth, and the family decided that Axel’s Pawn Shop was a strong name, a “Man’s-Man Mechanic” type name, and it would fit since the pawnshop primarily dealt with tools.

Starting Up

Axel’s started primarily as a tool pawnshop to fill a niche in the industry that was severely underserved but has always dealt with “Everything from A to X.” Larry and Ruth’s swap meet tool inventory allowed them to open with a fully stocked store, an unusual way for most pawn shops to begin. Tools, antique tools, jewelry, designer handbags, firearms, musical instruments, electronics, computers, tablets, laptops, digital cameras and accessories, the odd and unusual, collectibles, and more, Axel’s has it all.

It is still open 32 years later, in the exact location, and serves the community of Spokane, WA, and Spokane Metro Area, WA today.

Following the opening of the pawnshop, both Scott and Larry Jr. came on board to help. Scott was the eldest son and was intelligent and driven. He had been an administrator at East State Hospital, and he knew business, how to manage employees, and solve problems.

Larry Jr., the middle-born son, worked at ESH and was a registered nurse. Working in the ICU at Sacred Heart Medical Center, he understood how life gets in the way, and things can turn from bad to worse quickly. He also knew how to work to find solutions in the most challenging situations.

Both sons were ready to take a break from their health care careers and do something different; Axel’s was the place.

New Ideas to Manage the Pawn Business

Axel’s pawn flourished between Larry Sr., Ruth, Scott, and Larry Jr. They each brought unique experiences, education, and perspective to the pawn industry in Spokane. By 1991 with the help of their friend Karl Bingle, they built and used ProPawn, a DOS-based simple and effective pawn program to manage their pawnshop business.

Axel’s Pawn Shop led the jump into the computer era for pawn shops. They went on to sell several copies of the ProPawn software they developed. Having to decide whether to be a pawnshop owner or a software developer they opted to go with the pawnshop. Within a few years, every shop in Spokane was using the software. Larry Sr. and his family team had no desire to build a software company, so they stopped selling and distributing the software and turned their focus on the pawnshop business and their customers. So, Where is Dug Karlson?

Douglas (Dug) Karlson was the youngest and last born of the Karlson children. Last-born children are typically charmers, outliers, and willing to take unnecessary risks; they are more easy-going and funnier. Dug went on to community college and was working with a thriving local original band Von Dutch. He worked with the developmentally disabled and ran a community center program for DD clients, including coaching a Special Olympics bowling team from Peaceful Valley Community Center.

Dug moved away from Spokane to Seattle and went on to work at Ticketmaster Seattle, eventually becoming a phone room floor manager and TM phone employee trainer. A year later, an opportunity came up to become the ticket sales manager at The Seattle Improv Comedy Club.

By 1991 Dug was headed back to Spokane, WA, and joined the family business. Larry Sr. and Ruth retired over time, and by 1999 Larry Jr and Scott were running the store. In 2002 Scott left the family, and Axels, suddenly due to heart failure.

He is loved and missed deeply to this day!

Dug was going to open up a new shop in the area, but he became part owner of Axel’s Pawn Shop with Scott’s passing. Together with Larry Jr. and Dug ran the shop for 14 years until 2016, when Larry Jr. retired, leaving Dug Karlson the sole family member as the store owner.

Larry Sr.’s brother Meredith worked with the family for many years in the early years. He and his nephews always understood the good fortune of getting to work together and knowing each other more closely than most uncles and nephews. Larry Sr’s half-brother Dana Matthews also worked in the family business. At only a year older than Dug, they were more like brothers than uncle-nephew. Dana has been with Axels on and off for 25 years and remains a part-time manager/employee.

Carli Brings New Eyes and Fresh Energy to Axel’s Pawn Shop

In 2018 Larry Jr’s daughter Carli joined the family business as a full-time manager, bringing new eyes and fresh energy to a three-decades-old business. Carli attended School in nearby Cheney, WA, and went on to the University of Montana Helena, where she earned an Associates Degree in Business Management

Carli began a very successful sales career selling hot tubs, advancing quickly in the company. She moved on to Verizon, and again her exceptional skills had her rising fast. She was offered a great job in upper management, but after thinking about it, she wondered about an opportunity to join Dug at Axel’s.

In 2018 she moved back to Spokane and began her new career as a third-generation pawnbroker, a task she has taken on with focus and the full intention to improve and grow an already successful intergenerational pawnshop business.

Most recently, Carli has brought the Jewelry & Luxury categories into better focus while becoming a rising expert in the pre-owned luxury handbag industry. She is currently Treasurer of the Washington State Pawnbrokers Association and gaining a solid reputation in the National Pawnbrokers Association, hoping to serve on the board one day.

Axels Pawn Sign On Store Front

The pure quality and craftsmanship of Axel’s Pawn Shop tell a story.

I could have set up camp at Axel’s Pawn Shop. Their honest and kind approach took me to everyone who entered the store. I kept thinking of daddy’s antique tools sitting in the pie safe at home and how their “connection” with my granddad carries the lessons learned to my grandchildren.

Axel’s Pawn is built with craftsmanship, wisdom, and hard work.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Axel’s would have been different without Larry Sr. and Ruth’s foundation and wisdom. Larry Sr. is a planner, educator, researcher, and teacher with a good understanding of human behavior and personality. Ruth’s fortitude, compassion, mama bear protection, and ability to make “connections” set the cornerstones for the shop.

By a family working together, they have shared experiences and strong and durable ties. I smiled, thinking about how smooth some of the handles are on the planer and drill in my cabinet and imagining each of the Karlson’s sons as well-made “tools” in the generational line adding their twists to the pawn industry. This family’s story is pure quality, and the craftsmanship tells a story. Oh, the lessons learned.


Axels Pawn Logo

Axel’s Pawn Shop In Spokane, WA

Axel’s Pawn Shop is a full-service pawn shop that will pay top dollar for your new and pre-owned power tools. They have loved antique tools since they started 32 years ago.

If you need cash or want to purchase a quality pre-owned hand tool, power tool, yard & garden tool, musical instrument, video game, television, stereo, computer, sporting good, gold or silver, precious metals, diamonds, jewelry, luxury handbag or firearm, look no further.

The team at a family-owned shop understands that life sometimes gets in the way of best-made plans, and they are always willing to look at things most other shops would never consider because they always wish to provide their customers and our community with the broadest range of support possible.

If you need extra cash, Axel’s will work with you to write short-term collateral loans or will pay money if you want to sell your things. They will consider power tools in good working order for extra cash, video game consoles, electronics, musical instruments, sporting goods, and equipment like air compressors. They have hand tools, buy them, and pay good money for them.

Whether you need a small loan to cover an unexpected expense, need to buy-sell, or a large loan to get you through more difficult situations, Axel’s Pawnshop will help. The interest rates are reasonable, and although they may not have the low-interest rates you see at credit unions and banks, the short-term loans were meant to be short-term, so you don’t have to pay large amounts of interest. The loan process is easy, and there is no credit check required, only a state-issued ID.

Larry Sr. and Ruth are free to do what they want in their retirement, and they have earned that place. They continue to visit Axel’s Pawn Shop from time to time. I would have been honored to have met them the day I visited.

Lessons Learned from a Pawn Shop with Tools in Spokane, WA

I picked up a small antique hand drill and bits in the shop to add to my collection. I wanted to remember the lessons learned from the story of Axel’s Pawn Shop and its founders. I wanted to smile when I recalled Larry Sr. and Ruth and their amazing family as intergenerational pawnbrokers.

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