You don’t have to be an economist to know when things have gone south in your town.

When we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, a decade ago, we noticed signs of a changing neighborhood economy when a “Checks Cashed” storefront opened. A few months later, a pawn shop moved into a nearby strip mall.

These businesses don’t pop up in a well-off community when people have money. They move in when families are having trouble making mortgage payments, when white-collar jobs are disappearing, when the locals find themselves living paycheck to paycheck. It was uncomfortable to see the community roll towards the bottom of an economic cycle.

Today in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there are three different full page ads that give me that same queasy feeling. They may not call themselves pawn shops, but the impression is the same.

The first asks you to “bring in those valuables you no longer want or need.” It implores you to sell old paintings, watches, diamonds, and antiques. The second ad is for a business that wants your jewelry, collectibles, silverware, and coins. The third is devoted to scrap gold (which has hit record highs lately), offering to buy your gold earrings, watches, cufflinks, necklaces, and — wait for it — your dental gold.

That’s the definition of desperate: selling your fillings to put food on the table.

True, people have long been posting items like these on eBay, and this is not to derogate these businesses, which have all been around for a long time. Years ago, I even went to one of them to get an appraisal on some old coins my grandfather left me. But when they can afford to take out full-page ads in the newspaper, it says something bad about the financial condition of a region.

Ironically, with the continuing downturn in the newspaper business, many of the customers who may be hocking their lives may be former employees of the very paper those ads appear in.