Five things we learned from the New Yorker’s look at Toronto’s cash-for-gold showdown

Five things we learned from the New Yorker’s look at Toronto’s cash-for-gold showdown

Over the past year, the heated cash-for-gold feud between Harold Gerstel (a former protege of Cashman Russell Oliver) and Jack Berkovits has been a Toronto media sensation (see Rob Hough’s trip down the rabbit hole from our December issue). Turns out the Canadian press aren’t the only ones baffled by the death threats, public arguments and underhanded advertising that have turned the pair’s neighbouring jewellery stores, at Bathurst and Glencairn, into a war zone (Gerstel’s shop was mysteriously fire-bombed last December). In the current issue of the New Yorker, Calvin Trillin (he of the great poutine debate) has a feature story on the tumult. And while we’re always chuffed when our southern neighbours take an interest in our humble affairs, things often come out just a little bit funny. Here, five things we learned from the New Yorker about Toronto’s cash-for-gold brouhaha.

1. Russell Oliver has been shameless for a really long time.

You might call him the grand old man of the cash-for-gold business, if that phrase can be applied to someone who has been seen in a television commercial emerging from a phone booth in a spandex superhero costume to proclaim himself Cashman. Oliver came to my attention in 1999, when Time Warner, which holds the trademark for another superhero who emerges from a phone booth, filed a trademark-infringement suit against him—a suit that he treated as a gift of publicity wrapped in legal papers. I particularly admire one argument he made in his defense: “too fat to fly.”

2. Shamelessness begets more shamelessness.

In 2006, with gold at more than $600 an ounce, Gerstel and Oliver parted ways—not amicably—and Gerstel opened his own store…He immediately began his own series of television commercials. They show up on the Internet occasionally on “worst commercials” lists. The characters show no evidence of having acting experience in that wider world of the dramatic arts beyond Harold the Jewellery Buyer productions.

3. To jewellers, cash-for-gold is a dirty business.

“My instinctive reaction was that I don’t want him to move across the street from me, because it’s a dirty business, but I never expressed that.” A storefront cash-for-gold operation has an obvious attraction for someone who wants both and is carrying a weapon.

4. Cash-for-gold becomes a much less dirty business when no one wants to buy jewellery and everyone wants to sell gold.

“Business got worse and business got worse and business got worse,” he told me. “Gold was climbing. The public was not buying jewellery. My overhead was going up. More respectable people were selling. If Birks, the most respectable of all jewellers in Canada, can buy gold from the public, then who the hell am I to say it’s beneath me?”

5. Tacky ads apparently work—until they’re subverted.

A word was added above the sign of the window of [Berkovits’s] Easy Cash for Gold. The word was “Herald.” The Toronto Star ran a picture of the sign, along with an interview with a woman from Etobicoke, Ontario, who had come to sell jewellery to the Harold she’s seen on television and had ended up in Berkovits’s store instead. Soon, Berkovits had expanded the sign to cover the entire storefront window, with a huge “HERALD—The King of Jewellery” and two red rectangles that said “As Seen on TV.”