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Pawn shop boys

‘In the back’ with the Downtown Vegas heroes of ‘Pawn Stars’

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Rick “The Spotter” Harrison (far left), Austin “Chumlee” Russell, Richard “The Old Man” Harrison and Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison at Gold & Silver Pawn.
Photo: Joe Elbert

At Gold & Silver Pawn, reality is a two-sided coin, akin to an 1870 Carson City silver dollar offered as collateral for a loan at 10 percent.

'Pawn Stars': Behind the Scenes

There is the reality that plays out each day on the showroom floor of Las Vegas’ most famous pawn shop (at 713 Las Vegas Blvd. South, just north of Charleston, next to Super Bail). This is where the devotees who watch the Harrison men bicker and dicker on the History Channel series Pawn Stars anxiously assemble and gawk. The visitors yearn for a photo with the embattled Chumlee, or a Pawn Stars T-shirt, and maybe a glimpse of the weather-beaten Coke machine dating to the 1950s that might be resurrected into a fully operational piece of vintage art.

Outside is a very real cab line and, at the entrance, the type of velvet ropes you’d see at the entrance of Tao. Inside, a real, burly security guard barks at the throng to, “Keep this line moving, folks!” His sidearm, too, is real.

But there is another reality, and it plays out in “the back.” Nothing in this chaotic space is staged: the line of good-condition Harley-Davidsons, stacks of carpenters’ tools and belts in fine shape and even a framed platinum copy of Paul McCartney & Wings’ Greatest Hits album stored in this cavernous garage. There is simply no room for this stuff out front.

In the back is where Richard “Old Man” Harrison, Rick “The Spotter” Harrison, Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison and Austin “Chumlee” Russell steal away to talk business, decompress and smoke. The floor is strewn with cigarette butts, a slice of the Harrisons’ reality never depicted on the Disney-owned History Channel.

In the back, the guys are talking shop. Pawn shop, naturally.

With his father, the irascible Old Man, listening in, Rick Harrison is stressing about the ongoing expansion of the business. Built in 1935, the store is busting out of its original space and needs to be at least doubled in size. Walls are being torn down. Plaster ripped from the surface dirties the concete floor even further.

“It is expensive to do this,” Harrison says, shaking his head. “It’ll be $400,000, at least.”

Harrison is fairly buried in this process of growing the building with the business, but he’s suddenly distracted. His eyes narrow as he looks toward the area of “the back” opened to the alley behind the store. Someone is walking in, unannounced and uninvited. “What now?” reads the look on Harrison’s crinkled face, as he tosses the cigarette and asks this interloper, “How can I help you?”

Visitors cross Las Vegas Blvd. to take pictures of friends and family waiting in line at Gold & Silver Pawn.

Visitors cross Las Vegas Blvd. to take pictures of friends and family waiting in line at Gold & Silver Pawn.

The man is wearing an aqua- and-orange Miami Dolphins jacket and jeans, and he is lugging a backpack.

A pawn-shop terrorist, maybe? Not exactly.

The stranger, likely in his mid-30s, smiles and reaches out to shake Harrison’s hand.

“I just wanted to see the face,” he says.

“Okay, gotcha,” Harrison says, and shakes the man’s hand. Then the fan melts away, having successfully infiltrated “the back.”

“This kind of thing happens,” Harrison says, now grinning. “A lot.”

For the History Channel, unearthing the Harrisons and Gold & Silver Pawn was like uncovering a gold brick under a pile of cinder blocks.

The show, which debuted July 26, 2009, airs back-to-back half-hour original episodes Mondays at 7 p.m. and again at 10 p.m.; the third season launches June 7. The highest-rated show ever for History Channel, it drew a peak rating of 5.8 million and 5.4 million viewers for the episodes airing March 15. Probably the most important statistic is that Pawn Stars helped boost History Channel to its best month ever in February, beating all broadcast and cable competition in the critical (for ad sales) demographics of men aged 18-34, and finished second only to CBS in men aged 18-49.

The series is massively appealing, as measured by TV ratings or just the nonstop tourist activity at the shop. Why? The men who run the show have ready explanations.

“We’re really knowledgeable,” Rick Harrison says. “We definitely have a different type of store. There are three generations who work here. It’s really eclectic. Think about it: We’re American Chopper one week, Antiques Roadshow the next week, Pimp My Ride the next. We’re a little bit of everything.”

Characteristically wasting little verbiage, Old Man Harrison answers the “why” question with: “Thirty, 25 and eight. How about 63 years experience between the three of us? [Chain stores] have 18-, 20- or 22-year-olds running the shop.

“Pardon the expression, but we know what we’re doing.”

Long before reality-TV producers descended on the store, the Harrisons had realized for years they were sitting on a potential gold (and silver) mine. For more than a decade Rick Harrison was referring to the business as “World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn,” after it had been featured in magazine stories, newspaper articles and even on an episode of Dave Attell’s Insomniac on Comedy Central (Harrison even looks a little like Attell).

Even so, Gold & Silver was not exactly an overnight success. Rick Harrison had sought a pawn license for most of the 1980s, and had been maddened by a long-established ordinance that no pawn license would be issued in the city of Las Vegas until its population exceeded 250,000.

“The good-ol’ boys, back in the ’50s, figured we’ve got our pawn shops, we don’t want any competition,” Harrison says, “so they passed a law saying that they would issue one more pawn license when there’s 250,000 people in the city of Las Vegas. This was when there was only 20,000 people in Las Vegas and nobody ever thought it would get to 250,000. But lo and behold, in 1988, I was the first to get a license.”

That was in April 1988, and after a two-year period that would prove crucial in the lives of all three Harrisons. Corey was just a “Little Hoss” at the time, but the Old Man was up for a new career after crapping out in the real-estate market in San Diego. In dogged pursuit of this mythic pawn license, Rick Harrison called the city each week for more than two years to check on the official Las Vegas population count.

A security guard keeps an eye on tourists.

A security guard keeps an eye on tourists.

When the figure finally crept higher than 250,000, he pounced, and Gold & Silver opened for business in 1989. Today more than 50 pawn shops operate in Las Vegas. But when producers sought an apt location for a reality show about that intriguing yet oft-misunderstood subculture, Gold & Silver stood out.

“They were as billed,” Leftfield Pictures owner Brent Montgomery recalls. “The knew a lot about history, a lot about Las Vegas, a lot about the items and told their stories in an interesting way. The History Channel guys came out of their seats in the meeting when they saw this. They were like, ‘Wow! A real-life Antiques Roadshow!’”

Montgomery also remembers the family’s casual response to the news that the show would be picked up by History Channel.

“The Old Man said, ‘Brent, we’re glad you’re here, but leave it how you left it,’” Montgomery says, laughing. “A lot of people would roll out the red carpet. Not these guys. It’s like, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

For the Harrisons, it was time to get to work.

Vital for everyone involved in the project was to depict both the Harrisons and the pawn business honestly. Some production companies had sought to reveal the dark side of pawning, hoping (perhaps) to capture a pipe-wielding Big Hoss putting a Casino-style beat-down on someone who tried to pawn pyrite as gold.

“They asked for the ‘seedy’ side of the business, and we said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Rick Harrison recalls, chuckling. “Back-alley beatings? It doesn’t happen. They were after Taxicab Confessions, and that is not this world.”

As the Old Man says: “Pawn shops have always been a gray area of business, with strip joints and pool halls. But you have to understand that 17-20 percent of people in the United States don’t have an active checking account or any bank affiliation, and this is a place where they can get a loan without that bank affiliation. … We’ve educated the public a lot about what a pawn shop is. We’ve pulled it into middle America from the gray areas.”

To decipher what is and is not real on Pawn Stars, it’s helpful to adhere to the business tenet held by all three Harrisons: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

A fair amount of staging happens in the show, no question. A five-person production crew edits down and brushes up the lengthy negotiations between the Harrisons and their customers. When a person brings in a particularly fascinating item—say, a 1750s blunderbuss from an owner who wants to trade the firearm for an engagement ring—the customer might be asked to return so the crew can properly capture the scene.

Early on, 70 customers in a 24-hour period was considered robust business. Today it’s not uncommon for 1,000 people a day to visit the store, which has grown in staff from nine to 37 employees since the series debuted. Now it is primarily a tourist attraction that seems to serve more as a stage set than an actual business. Corey Harrison says he spends about half his time, tops, on the pawn business. The rest is managing his personal appearances, finances—the fame thing.

What is real are the personalities depicted in the show. There is no acting going on with these guys. “You usually have to feed lines to your subjects, but not in this case,” Montgomery says. “Rick is terrific.”

Old Man is a 69-year-old Navy veteran who served in Vietnam. A photo of him as a young Navy man hangs in the shop. Unbending in his stoic disposition, he does not suffer fools gladly. You wonder if he suffers anyone gladly.

The fame has changed his life, making the most mundane daily activities time-devouring tasks. “It’s taken some getting used to … I can’t go out for dinner unless I stop for photographs with people,” he says. “I go to get gas, and I end up taking pictures at the gas station. It’s changed the lifestyles of all of us a little bit. I’m not saying I enjoy it. It’s okay. But it hasn’t been that long. I’m not tired of it yet. I’m sure I will get tired of it after a while.”

Old Man says he does feel fulfillment from fans who have traveled thousands of miles just for a glimpse of the stars of Pawn Stars.

Checking out the hocked merchandise.

Checking out the hocked merchandise.

“I get everybody telling me, ‘We’re from Texas, we drove 1,200 miles to see you,’ et cetera, et cetera,” he says, “and I mean over, and over, and over. Everybody who comes in the store here, they didn’t come to Vegas because of Vegas. They came to Vegas because of us.”

Rick Harrison is hard-wired to negotiate. Always has been. Even asking his age leads to a pawn shop-style give-and-take: “I’m 35,” he says, chuckling.

We’re going to have to go higher than that. “Okay, I’m 45.”

Harrison has established firm ground rules for Pawn Stars—his wife and 6-year-old son will not be in the show, ever. “I’ve seen how being on TV can screw up a kid,” he says, “and my wife, she doesn’t want to be in the show, so she’s not in the show.”

Having dropped out of ninth grade to take a job as a busboy at the Palm Room restaurant at the Stardust, Harrison— “The Spotter”—has been making deals for cash since he was a teenager.

“I discovered at age 13 that if a spoon had ‘Sterling’ on the back, it was worth money,” he says. “I’d run around a swap meet and find 20 in a day, make 75 to 100 bucks by finding silver spoons … yeah, I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

There is also a genuine affection, apparent even amid the show’s humor at his expense, between the Harrisons and “Chumlee” Russell, who has known the family since he was 12. The Harrisons in essence invited the boyishly tempered Chumlee (the nickname plays off his middle name, Lee, though he does sort of resemble the character from Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons) into the family. Both Corey and Chumlee left school early, in 10th grade, but passed the GED. Now they are rich and famous—maybe slightly more famous than rich, actually.

Chumlee seems to play it day by day, though his dream is to some day enter into the music business, ideally as a producer. But for today he is likely the most-requested figure for photos among Pawn Stars fans, and jokes that once a fan swooned over his mere presence. “It was like I was Johnny Depp or something,” he says, grinning at the improbability.

An inherently private person still wary of public adulation, Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison allows that he was something of a wild child in his younger days. Big Hoss, 26, says his bad decisions were not that rare in his hometown. “I grew up in Las Vegas,” he shrugs, noting that he drinks only occasionally today and doesn’t use drugs at all. He works almost constantly, from 7 a.m. until around 9 p.m., dealing in pawn and non-pawn matters.

There is no urgent financial need for any of the Harrisons to want to change the landscape; each one clears six figures annually. They were successful before the show launched, and History Channel is talking of extending the series for five more seasons.

With the Harrisons, the love always is multilayered.

“I love the Old Man,” Big Hoss says. “But I see him 12 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. We’re more like best friends, and we’ve been that way for about 20 years. But you sometimes have arguments with your best friend.”

An episode in Season 1 effectively depicts the family dynamic, how the personalities mesh and occasionally collide.

A customer, a young man, drives up to the store in a 1962 Lincoln Continental. It’s a venerable car—a 1961 version of this vehicle was the presidential-issued limousine in which President Kennedy was assassinated. It’s the rare piece brought to the store that actually seems to spark genuine interest from the Old Man, who says, “A lot of people consider it a piece of art.”

Rick loves the car, too. It’s the rare piece that has, regretfully, taken him out of his analytical business disposition. He gazes at the car’s flawless, gleaming paint job and listens to its purring engine.

He does not hear, or heed, the words from the Old Man, who tells him, “The interior is a disaster … it’s going to have to be all redone. You’re talkin’ beaucoup money.”

Rick buys the car anyway. He takes it to a member of the Pawn Stars corps of experts, Wally Korhonen of Rusty Nuts Rods and Customs, who is a whiz with automobile restoration.

Korhonen holds the car for weeks. Finally he calls the Harrisons over to his shop, shows them the better-than-new interior and describes the litany of upgrades he and his staff have miraculously performed.

The Old Man shakes his head, attempting to mentally add up the bill. Rick is, for a change, nervous about the outcome.

The cost for the work is $15,000—$5,500 more than the Harrisons paid to buy the car in the first place, and more than $10,000 above what Rick estimated the cost of refurbishing the interior would cost.

“I knew that interior had to be completely redone,” Old Man says to the camera. But The Spotter asks Korhonen, “What can I get out of this car?”

“You can get in the neighborhood of about $30,000-$35,000, depending on the buyer,” Korhonen says. The total investment stands at $24,500. Luckily, the Pawn Stars made out okay.

Finally, father and son are both happy. But this car is not for sale. The Old Man is shown driving it back to the shop, and he looks pretty swift behind the wheel, dressed in his black suit and matching fedora. The story of the Lincoln’s rescued interior is now part of Pawn Stars lore, a yarn certain to be spun for years—in the back, of course.

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