By Bill Kunkel
From classic plays (“The Merchant of Venice”) to legendary films (“The Lost Weekend”), pawnbrokers have been depicted through the prism of every imaginable negative stereotype.
But the medium of television — ands, specifically, the category of the reality show — has made stars out of the family that owns and runs Gold & Silver Pawn, a Downtown Las Vegas shop with as much provenance as many of its most upscale items.
“Pawn Stars” has become a major success story for the History Channel, providing a departure from Hitler documentaries, Nostradamus’ predictions and reality fare based on dangerous occupations (“Ice Road Truckers”).
And while the network’s press releases tend to play up the way the Harrisons “amusingly clash while running the business together” the actual show unwinds less like “Miami Ink” and more like a cross between “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” and a blue-collar version of “Antiques Roadshow.”
Gold & Silver Pawn was purchased and grown by the Harrison family, led by father Richard (AKA “The Old Man”) and son Rick Harrison, whip-smart and a skilled appraiser who knows a lot but also knows when to call in a specialist.
Richard favors black clothing and cowboy hats and is one of those larger-than-life Vegas “characters” in the tradition of Benny Binion, Buffalo Jim Barrier and Wilbur Clark. A Navy veteran who lost a million bucks in real estate, Richard then popped up with his family in Las Vegas in 1988 at the beginning of the city’s massive growth spurt, looking for the proverbial fresh start that he found at the Gold & Silver Pawn shop.
Rick, meanwhile, with his shaved head and affable manner, is a walking encyclopedia of historical and collectible minutiae. He is also the anchor of the show, a compulsive reader whose decades spent in a Las Vegas pawnshop have turned him into a guy who knows something interesting about almost everything.
Rick’s son Corey (AKA “Big Hoss”) is an intelligent young man who has worked in the shop since he was nine. He’s also a confirmed smartass whose clashes with his dad and grandfather bring some good, light-hearted tension to the show.
Finally, Corey’s childhood friend and utility player/sidekick Chumlee provides the comic relief.
The formula has proven to be 14-karat television gold.
Asked for Autographs
“It’s a little overwhelming at the moment,” Rick says of their sudden notoriety.
“I had to do some promotional stuff in New York last week and there were people on the street walking up to me and my son [Corey], asking for our autographs.”
This was almost certainly a first for a pawnbroker, but the Harrisons remain totally down to earth. “It hasn’t gone to anybody’s head,” Rick says. “We’re pretty grounded people.”
Of course, “Pawn Stars” didn’t just happen. In fact, Rick had been pitching the idea of a reality show for some time based on the incredible things that arrive at his store.
“You never know what’s gonna come through that door,” is an oft-repeated line that should also include the parking lot, where some of the most amazing — and largest — items make their first appearance.
“I’ve been trying to get a reality show on TV for years and it’s been a real drawn-out process,” Rick says.
“Every time I’d get somebody interested, they’d come in and film and do something that was negative, I wouldn’t agree with them and it would fall apart. I had a contract with HBO, and they sent out a producer and director to do the show, they did a terrible job and we were never picked up for a series. We just did the pilot. But it sort of wrapped me up for over a year and during that time period a lot of people had contacted me, wanting to do a reality show.”
Right after the HBO contract expired, a couple of young guys came into the shop and wanted to shoot a show. Rick agreed, but declined to sign another contract. He did send out numerous copies of the resulting DVD in an effort to get a deal. Whether because of the DVDs or not, Rick was soon fielding calls from some 20 production companies.
“We decided to go with Left Field Pictures because we just liked their approach to the show. It was just the kind of show we wanted to do; it was positive and we didn’t want to put the industry in a bad light,” Rick says.
“They did what they call a ‘sizzle reel’ and History Channel was the first place they sent it to. [History Channel] saw the sizzle reel on a Friday and signed for a pilot on Tuesday, which is like, completely unheard of. Then they came out, filmed the pilot, and within three days of seeing the pilot, History Channel ordered the series.”
Experts Add Variety
The show makes extensive use of its Las Vegas locale not only for the standard scenes of the big hotel-casinos on the Strip but for the amazing breadth of expertise within the city — and Rick seems to know each and every one of those experts.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about “Pawn Stars” is getting to see iconographic pop cultural pieces such as a “cocktail” style “Pac-Man” arcade machine, vintage vehicles and gutted, wildlife-inhabited gas pumps being restored to lustrous life by Rick’s army of local craftsmen. Rick can even find someone to transform an old beat-up soda machine into a pop-art sculpture.
But as you would expect, there’s a strong emphasis on using experts to help value items brought into the shop. The appraisal specialists wow the audience by spotting a replica firearm, a post-WWII airplane ejection seat or a bogus autographed guitar (turned out only the pick guard was autographed, and had been reinstalled on another axe) at fifty paces.
Of course the restorers get paid — their sometimes-heavy transformation fee is always figured into the price and investments costs shown on screen in contrast with the post-refurbishment appraised value of the item. But while the experts who certify the more esoteric items’ authenticity, or lack of same, aren’t paid, they’re listed on the History Channel Web site and their name and association appears on screen during the show.
“A lot of people say it’s crazy that the experts [appraise the value] of the piece right in front of [the seller], but 90 percent of my business is referrals. I treat everyone honestly and I do a lot of business,” Rick says. “That’s why we’re one of the busiest pawnshops — in fact, I’m the busiest pawnshop I know of.”
However, the majority of the initial evaluations come directly from one of the Harrisons. In areas such as coins and historic Las Vegas-related memorabilia, the Old Man will usually nail it. But in terms of the more offbeat items, it’s typically Rick who calls the shots or, when over his head, reaches out to his cadre of unpaid consultants.
Rick attributes his success at determining a piece’s value to “being in this business for over 20 years and being a complete bookworm. I’m one of the most boring people you ever met in your life. I’m either off-roading or I’m off reading. Over 20 years I’ve read at least two books a week. And then my wife got pregnant again and now I’ve got a six-year-old, so that’s all I do at night.”
Gold & Silver is co-owned by Richard and Rick. With Corey in the wings, this is your classic family pawn business. “Me and my father own it; we’re partners, but he definitely forgets that a lot,” laughs Rick. “It’s a family-run business and I even say on the show: ‘The best thing about being in a family-run business is that I work with my family and the worst thing about being in a family-run business is that I work with my family.’”
Odd Items Catch Viewers
But even with all the familial interaction, the show’s real stars are those fascinating pieces that keep coming through the door.
What does Rick regard as the most unusual piece he has had in the shop? “I could go on and on,” he says, “but how about a 200 year old piece of Japanese porn in a Japanese shunga scroll?” And there’s more, he adds — “right down to hand-painted bodily fluids,” he attested. “Really exaggerated body parts.”
Certainly, the focus on the weird and high-end pieces that “walk through the door” means the TV image of the Pawn Stars world is not entirely accurate. “I have a lot of Xboxes and Wiis,” Rick says. “I go high end, but I’ve still got my customers who have the $10 loans.”
But as all pawnbrokers know, that doesn’t mean that the strange and unusual aren’t a genuine aspect of Gold & Silver’s business. The store’s reputation for welcoming the odd items means it attracts more and more of them.
“People know I take this high-end stuff, so they bring it to me,” Rick says. “A lady used to pawn her tiara here — and it was real. I get 40 to 50 Super Bowl rings every year.
“I don’t take guns anymore because I don’t have room for them and I got sick and tired of dealing with the ATF,” he says. But he still takes antique firearms, and recently took in an 1897 Bisley.
It’s clear Rick is as fascinated by the unusual as viewers are.
“I have an Ormolu clock in here,” he says. “It’s actually mercury-gilded. Right around 1900, that became illegal in the United States because people died making these clocks. You take the brass body off the clock and soak it in mercury nitrate. The nitric acid in the mercury would burn off, and that would etch the brass while the mercury would stick to the clock. Then [the clockmakers] would take a gold amalgam, which is gold, mixed in mercury, and hand-apply it to the clock. Then they would burn off the mercury in an oven. Making them was probably the single most toxic occupation that ever was. I also have an Atmos clock.
“The other pawnshops in town — I think we have six or seven independent pawnshops left in Vegas, the rest are owned by CashAmerica and EZCorp — don’t take the kinds of things I take. They have a business model that works for them and I have a business model that works for me, and that makes it good for me.”
The Harrisons’ showroom is a little larger than 3,000 square feet, and their warehouse space about 10,000 square feet. “I store a lot of stuff at my dad’s place, which is just a ridiculous [space],” Rick adds. “He’s got 2.5 acres, a 6,600-sq.-ft. house, an eight-car garage and it goes on and on, so we’ve got a lot of room out there. Plus, I own this entire block so I have a lot of buildings I store stuff in.”
Like the rest of the country, even the TV stars of the pawn industry are seeing the severe slump in the economy. “I take a lot of large diamonds and stuff like that, but actually I’m not even getting that many large diamonds right now, once I tell them the price I can pay or pawn for them. In high-end art, the prices have gone to hell and not only has the price of jewelry gone down, but any expensive art or collectibles, the price of that is down to death,” Rick says.
These days, however, the business must sometimes seem like a backdrop for the TV show, which Rick reports has been a major success for the Harrisons and the History Channel.
“We are the second-most popular show on the History Channel, so I’m sure there will be a second season,” Rick says. “The only show that beats me is ‘Ice Road Truckers’. ‘Pawn Stars’ was the third-highest rated premiere in History Channel history. We also have the youngest demographic of any show on the channel. It’s amazing how many 10-, 11- and 12-year-old kids come into the shop every day wanting my autograph because they love the show. It’s interesting. People like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ but everyone knows it’s a little hoity-toity and the prices are exaggerated. They just like that our show is more real life.”
The show has even attracted interest from across the Atlantic. “We were contacted by a network in the UK asking questions about showing it over there. I have no problem with that. I tried to make this happen and you know what they say: be careful what you wish for,” Rick says.
The show has also acquired some high profile fans, including Wall Street insider publication Motley Fool analyst Todd Wenning, who tossed the show a major shout-out in print for not only offering excellent examples of how to make buying decisions but for the historical notes the show features regarding the history of pawnbroking (such as the fact that until the 1950s, pawnshops were the leading form of consumer credit in America).
The audio and video crew are rarely a distraction “It’s a really small crew,” Rick says. “There are two camera guys and a sound guy. On an average we write 100 tickets a day, so I have just a massive amount of stuff that comes in here and 80 percent of the people agree to be on camera, so if something interesting comes in, we get it on film.”
But the show has attracted so much attention that the Gold & Silver shop has become a regular tourist mecca, even though it’s in the midst of some of the most famous destinations in the world.
“The store is packed every single day now, but one of the problems with that is that it’s a lot of Lookie Lous. We’re also trying to get some less expensive merchandise in here and that’s the only real problem I’ve had so far. Everyone’s been really, really nice, except for a few haters on the Internet,” Rick says.
“Pawn Stars” has definitely scored with viewers. The family dynamic, the anticipation of seeing what the next piece will be and the informational package around the items that allows the show to continue tickling its audience’s expectations has proven the perfect alchemy for creating reality show gold.
And, of course, there’s Las Vegas.
“It’s a great town, a really eclectic town; you see everything here,” Rick says. And if he hasn’t seen it yet, he can just keep waiting; it’s sure to come through his door sooner or later.