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September 16, 2014

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An inside look at Las Vegas’ television ‘Pawn Stars’

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Joe Elbert

Pawn Stars” stars Rick Harrison, his father Richardson Harrison, his son Corey Harrison and Corey’s best friend Austin “Chumlee” Russell (wearing the backwards cap).

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After 28 years in the business, Rick Harrison is an expert when it comes to spotting anything fake or stolen. As far as big-ticket items, Rick is the man for the job. Spotting a fake Cartier watch that most people would mistakenly purchase for $30,000 is just one of his many skills. Often acting as the middleman between his father and his son, Rick is the glue that holds this family and business together.

"Pawn Stars": Behind the Scenes

Austin "Chumlee" Russell gives us a behind-the-scenes tour of the wacky collection in the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, where History Channel's hit TV show "Pawn Stars" takes place. While business is booming, Rick and The Old Man tell us why they're better than the competition and how they're dealing with their new-found fame.

Pawn Stars

After 28 years in the business, Rick Harrison is an expert when it comes to spotting anything fake or stolen. As far as big-ticket items, Rick is the man for the job. Spotting a fake Cartier watch that most people would mistakenly purchase for $30,000 is just one of his many skills. Often acting as the middleman between his father and his son, Rick is the glue that holds this family and business together. Launch slideshow »

The cabs are lined up outside the business at 713 Las Vegas Blvd. South and, at the entrance, the type of velvet ropes you’d see at the entrance of Tao are keeping the curious in line. Inside, a burly security guard barks at the throng, “Keep this line moving, folks!”

Everyone wants to see the Harrisons bicker and dicker with customers, just as they do on TV. They operate Las Vegas’ most famous pawnshop, which found stardom on the History Channel reality series “Pawn Stars.”

But there is another reality, and it plays out in the back: 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 and 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 strewed 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. Pawnshop, naturally.

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A security guard, Antwaun Austin, rests his hand on a wooden statue while keeping an eye on tourists coming into the store.

•••

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 concrete 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?”

The man, wearing an aqua-and-orange Miami Dolphins jacket and jeans and lugging a backpack, reaches out to shake Harrison’s hand.

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

“OK, 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 their Gold & Silver Pawn was like uncovering a gold brick under a pile of cinder blocks.

The show, which debuted last summer, has become the network’s highest-rated show ever. In February, it beat all broadcast and cable competition in the demographics category most important to advertisers: men aged 18-34, and finished second only to CBS in men aged 18-49.

No surprise, the Harrisons say.

“We’re really knowledgeable,” Rick Harrison says. “We definitely have a different type of store. There are three generations (with 63 years of experience) 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.”

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” on the weight of publicity it had garnered.

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 pawnshops, 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.”

Today more than 50 pawnshops 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 knew a lot about history, a lot about Las Vegas, a lot about the items and told their stories in an interesting way,” Leftfield Pictures owner Brent Montgomery says. “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.”

Vital for everyone involved in the project was to depict the Harrisons and the pawn business honestly.

“Pawnshops have always been a gray area of business, with strip joints and pool halls,” the Old Man says. “But you have to understand that 17 to 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 pawnshop is. We’ve pulled it into Middle America from the gray areas.”

•••

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.

When the show started, 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. 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 stoical disposition, he does not suffer fools gladly. You wonder if he suffers anyone gladly.

Rick Harrison is hard-wired to negotiate. Always has been. Even asking his age leads to a pawnshop-style give-and-take: “I’m 35,” he says. Yeah, right. “OK, I’m 45.”

Harrison, who dropped out of ninth grade to take a job as a busboy, 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.”

That’s why he’s called “The Spotter.”

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. Both Corey and Chumlee left school in 10th grade, but passed the GED. Now they are rich and famous.

Indeed, Chumlee is likely the most-requested figure for photos among Pawn Stars fans, and jokes that once a fan swooned over his mere presence.

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. “I grew up in Las Vegas,” Big Hoss, 26, shrugs. He works almost constantly, from 7 a.m. until around 9 p.m.

“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.”

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The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop has become more of a tourist attraction. Lines gather outside for a chance to see the merchandise.

•••

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 OK.

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 the store, of course.

The full version of this story appears in the current issue of Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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