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'Pawn Stars' becomes a History Channel hit

The History Channel show 'Pawn Stars' has an unlikely cast of real-life characters. Meet the Harrisons.

December 23, 2009|By Doug Elfman

Reporting from Las Vegas — Here's your unlikeliest feel-good story for Christmas week: Las Vegas' newest rising celebrities are four local guys who have been quietly running a family-owned pawnshop downtown for years.

This summer, the History Channel launched the reality show "Pawn Stars" to focus on their Gold & Silver Pawn Shop and its boutique-museum hodgepodge of items people have pawned.

There are Rolexes and motorcycles (of course), but also two-century-old rifles, a centuries-old samurai sword, a 1920s surgical chair, a Super Bowl ring, Olympic medals and an 1830 gold-gilded Ormolu clock known as "The Death Clock," because gilders handled deadly mercury to craft it.

"It's 'Antiques Roadshow' with cash," says Corey Harrison, the youngest of the family.

"We went from the lowest-rated show on the History Channel to No. 1 in 10 weeks," says co-owner Rick Harrison.

Going to the mat

"Pawn Stars" took off so well, the History Channel began marketing it mainstream, renting coveted ad space on the boxing canvas of Manny Pacquiao's last fight.

Kids around the country, apparently, are buying T-shirts featuring the bearded likeness of the shop's star worker, Austin "Chumlee" Russell. The Harrisons call Chumlee "our village idiot," with his muted-giddy glee and his molasses speech pattern (he's got a great stoner-like laugh.)

"Everyone likes feeling smarter than someone else" Chumlee says. "Even 6-year-old kids can feel smarter than me.

"It's my part. If someone else was doing my part -- I wouldn't be doing my part."

The three family members behind Gold & Silver are a grandfather, father and son, all named Richard Harrison. The grandfather goes by Richard "The Old Man." His bald son goes by Rick "The Spotter." Rick's son goes by Corey "Big Hoss." Chumlee works for them.

They're nicer than you'd expect in a store packed with guns behind the counter and workers licensed for security.

These guys are "quote machines," as we say in journalism.

The other day, Corey told me, "My wife asked me what I'm getting her for Christmas. I told her, 'You have half of everything I own!' "

They're blunt.

"I tell people, 'Just because it's old doesn't mean it's worth money,' " Rick says. "I have 3 million-year-old rocks in my backyard. I have to pay people to get rid of 'em."

Booming business

Before "Pawn Stars" premiered, the shop got 70 customers a day. Now: 700.

Customers cram into the shop and say, "We love your show, man," and "We came here to get a shirt," and "This place looks bigger on TV."

They eyeball stuff: a Babe Ruth baseball; a 1930 Mickey Mouse doll with no ears, because originally it came with paper ears; an 1830 .78-caliber competition rifle weighing in at 40 pounds ("it's like a shoulder-mounted cannon," Rick says); a marker from the South Pole; two Olympic bronze medals pawned by long jumper Joe Green; Stardust showgirl headdresses; a Renoir etching; and Benny Binion's hat.

"They come in here, they want to see Benny Binion's hat -- then they buy a silver ring for 20 bucks," Rick says.

A few years ago, 90% of people who pawned items would eventually reimburse the shop (plus 10% interest) to get their stuff back. Last year, that dropped to 70%. Now, it's back up to 80%.

Rick paints his customers as fine people who pawn stuff for cash because they're single moms and didn't get child support, or they need groceries, or they need to pay payroll for their small company, or their grandfather died and "left me this stupid thing."

Varied clientele

Since the rise of "Pawn Stars," more dressed-up people arrive in nice cars and ask about things they've seen on the show.

"Billionaires shop here," Corey claims.

New crowds have scared away some crazies who used to stop by, like the lady who came in ranting about Jimmy Hoffa, or the woman who put a blessing and a spell on the place at the same time.

"We get a few of those a year," Chumlee says. "What I think of as normal [customers] could be really crazy to you."

Then again, this is star-studded Vegas, so "Old Man" Richard -- known on the show for mumbling clichés like "that's the story of my life" -- once sold a watch to Alice Cooper; and the store lent jewelry for the film shoot of 2007's "Lucky You."

The guys' lives haven't changed much, other than walking a few red carpets on the Strip, like recently at B.B. King's new blues club at the Mirage.

They're not turning newfound fame into clubbing, for instance.

"I'm not a go-out-and-party . . . type of person," Chumlee says. "But I do like to have a beer with my breakfast at 3 in the morning, if that happens to be what's going on that night."

The family owns most of the property on the block. But Corey says they won't expand until they're sure "Pawn Stars" proves its longevity.

"We gotta make sure this whole thing's gonna stick around before we put another $2 million in it," Corey says.

Elfman writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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