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Las Vegas: Pawnshops Doing Gangbuster Business

Posted by Anne Burke on June 02, 2011
people lined up outside the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas picture
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Photo: Anne Burke
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Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, Las Vegas.

Road Journals Blog—It’s not even 10 a.m. The party crowd from the Strip is still sleeping it off. But in gritty downtown Las Vegas, a couple hundred people are cued up outside a pawnshop, waiting to get in. Have things really come to this in Sin City, the foreclosure capital of America? It’s not how it looks. The people are fans of the History Channel’s wildly popular reality series, “Pawn Stars.” The show is filmed at Gold & Silver Pawn, which takes up most of a city block on a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South, a world away from the glamorous casinos.

The show stars three generations of the Harrison clan—patriarch Richard (“The Old Man”); son Rick, the brains behind the business; Rick’s son, Corey (“Big Hoss”); and a store employee, Austin “Chumlee” Russell. In the two years since “Pawn Stars” first aired, it's become one of Las Vegas’ more unlikely tourist attractions. Fans arrive at Gold & Silver by the thousands each day, solemnly shuffling down aisles crowded with Olympic gold medals, Faberge brooches, Rolex watches, Les Paul guitars, vintage cash registers, and gold records by Frank Sinatra. The store can get so crowded that fans often have to wait outside, behind a velvet rope, to be let in a few at a time.

“Pawn Stars” chronicles the goings-on at the shop and the sometimes-fraught relationships among the stars. Like most reality shows, this one has only a tenuous connection to reality. That's because most people who use pawnshops bring in fairly ordinary things—say a piece of jewelry or a stereo—for an average loan of $85, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association. In the alternate universe of TV land, customers bring pricey and unusual items to Gold & Silver Pawn. Usually the objects hold some sort of historic value—say a pair of Houdini handcuffs, a 1763 Stradivarius violin, or jockey boots autographed by Willie Shoemaker.

Some of the shop's most interesting—and saddest—transactions happen off camera. A few years ago, Brock Williams, a former cornerback for the New England Patriots, pawned his 2001 Super Bowl ring for $2,000. For whatever reason, he never returned to get it. If you have a spare $100,000, it’s yours. If Las Vegas is not the pawnshop capital of America, it’s pretty close to it. One of Gold & Silver’s competitors, a chain called EZ Pawn, has 16 locations in the Las Vegas area alone. Nationwide there are around 13,000 pawnshops in the U.S., and it’s fair to say that many don’t enjoy a sparkling reputation. Critics say they prey upon people at their most vulnerable. Those inside the industry, of course, disagree. Emmett Murphy, a spokesman for the National Pawnbrokers Association, said that pawnshops provide a valuable service, especially for the 44 million Americans who don’t have a bank account or credit card.

“A pawnshop is a place where you can go and borrow $80 or 100 bucks to get through to the next paycheck,” he said. Murphy added that “Pawn Stars” has done a lot to boost the image of pawnshops, as did the credit crunch, which made it hard for even upper-middle-class people to get bank loans. As far back as the 1990s, Newsweek ran a story about pawnshops that cater to high-end clients. Rick Harrison is a little defensive on the subject of pawnshops, and it’s hard to blame him. “Hollywood has really vilified us,” he told me. “Do you know how many single moms come down here and pawn something because they didn’t get their child support check? But you don’t see that in the movies. “You come to me and borrow $100 and it costs $15, which really isn’t bad. And remember, if you don’t pay me back, there’s nothing against your credit.”

This blog post was first published in June 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.