The History Channel's 'Pawn Stars' Are Las Vegas' Newest Unlikely Tourist Attraction

By Andrea Doyle
November 17, 2010

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Part of the allure of Las Vegas is the chance to hit the jackpot. Unfortunately, this possibility gets the best of many. There are those who find themselves flat broke and need to sell some personal possessions for fast cash. The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop has been helping since 1988.

Three generations of the Harrison family, grandfather Richard, son Rick, and grandson Corey, jointly run the family business, and there's clashing and camaraderie every step of the way. They are straight-talking, shrewd, and sometimes even a tad crude.

Pawn Stars, aired on the History Channel, features the Harrisons and their shop. "Plus, it offers a little window into the real Vegas," says 45-year-old Rick Harrison, who Successful Meetings magazine got a chance to speak to. Their customers, often as colorful as the merchandise, are carrying on a centuries-old practice: pawning or selling their possessions to make a quick buck.

"One week it's Antiques Roadshow, next it's Pimp my Ride, then it's American Chopper," is how Rick describes Pawn Stars, a mega hit that attracts nearly six million viewers a week. In turn, the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, on Las Vegas Boulevard toward downtown, has become a 24-hour-a-day tourist attraction. It wasn't that long ago when 70 customers visited the store a day. That was before Pawn Stars. Today, the shop handles at least 3,000 customers daily, and a line of up to about 100 wraps around the shop many days a week, complete with doormen. As a result, a $400,000 expansion has increased the store's space by 60 percent.

"There is an allure to the shop. It's a museum. It's fun. It's something totally different," explains Rick. "Plus, we're the only TV personalities whom you can come see at work which is the actual set. Generally, we're in the pawn shop most days of the week." The showroom is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and at night, a bank teller window is in operation.

"We pawn more stuff in the middle of the night than during the day," declares Rick. "Around midnight, people are here in Vegas, their fun has run out and they want it to continue, so they visit a pawn shop."

So don't get concerned if a member of your group asks to visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. Odds are they are not down on their luck; they just want to visit an unlikely Las Vegas hot spot. Rick says that there's so much activity going on at the store that it would be difficult to host events, but he is willing to work with meeting planners. He'll make arrangements for groups to skip the long line to get in, and the Harrisons are also available to speak to groups. Not surprisingly, this comes at a price.

"Everyone who watches the show wants to come to Vegas. It's such a great city, and it's making a comeback for meetings and conventions," declares Jackie Baskow, owner of Baskow & Associates, a Las Vegas-based destination management company. "Many are also excited by the fact there is a chance to be part of the show when they visit the shop, as they are constantly filming." When a friend of Baskow's, who is a New Jersey-based meeting planner, recently visited Las Vegas, she wanted to bring home souvenirs from the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. Yes, a section of the shop is devoted to Pawn Stars T-shirts, magnets, bobbleheads, glasses, cups, and even onesies, also available on their website, www.gspawn.com.

Sky Is the Limit

Customers bring in the typical pawn shop inventory like rings and watches, but there are those who bring in much more eclectic items. From a 16th-century samurai sword, to Super Bowl rings, to a Picasso painting, to a 17th-century stay of execution, there is no telling what is going to end up in the shop.

Rick admits the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop isn't the only pawn shop in town, but it is the most unique. "Other pawn shops are owned by big corporations with specific business models. An 1830 Ormolu clock known as 'The Death Clock' certainly doesn't fit in their model, so they send it to us. I've built a business on taking the odd things," he admits.

What's a death clock? Deadly mercury was used to craft this gold-gilded clock in 1830. The craftsmen who worked on these clocks usually died before the age of 35. Rick also has a 200-year-old Shunga Japanese scroll that he's asking $10,000 for. "Shunga" is a Japanese term for erotic art, and this one is handpainted and extremely graphic—down to bodily fluids. "I haven't figured out how to display it as my mom comes in here," he says with his iconic laugh.

The first pawn shops emerged in ancient China more than 3,000 years ago. Today, there are more than 12,000 pawn shops operating in the United States alone. It is estimated that approximately 25 million Americans do not have a bank checking account, and pawn shops serve this population as a source of short-term loans.

The founder of the store, Rick's dad, Richard Harrison, uprooted his family and moved to Las Vegas in pursuit of a fresh start after serving in the U.S. Navy and losing a million dollars in the real estate market. Opening the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in 1988, he had to learn a little about a lot really fast. With uncanny precision, Richard is the king of purchasing underpriced merchandise, even from archrival pawn shops, which has helped turn his initial $10,000 investment into a multimillion-dollar business.

After 28 years in the business, Rick is an expert when it comes to spotting anything fake or stolen. Often acting as the conciliator between his father and his son, Rick holds the family and business together. He's been in the pawn business since the age of 13. Married for 23 years, Rick and his wife have three children.

Although he may not have graduated from high school, partly because of all his absences as a result of his epilepsy, Rick is self-taught. "I read three to four hours every night about business, history, and science. The most obscure things can end up helping your business some day," he states.

For instance, all he learned from reading a book about the history of alchemy, the ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, came in handy when a customer came into the shop looking to sell a book on alchemy from 1531 written by Sir Isaac Newton. In the margins were subscripts written by Newton.

An entrepreneur, Rick has owned and sold many different businesses. "I've owned rental companies, loan companies, sandwich shops," he says. "It doesn't matter what type of business it is, if I can make money, I'll give it a shot."

Corey Harrison began working at the pawn shop at the age of nine. Expertly trained in the art of appraisal, Corey not only has the brains to spot a cheat but the brawn to back it up. He manages the shop's eBay clients. Also featured on the show is Austin "Chumlee" Russell, Corey's best friend since childhood.

The Harrisons' Go-To Experts

When the Harrisons are perplexed by the value or origin of an item, they call on a professional network of specialists for advice. One of their most valuable resources is Rick Dale, owner of Rick's Restorations, also based in Las Vegas. He has become famous for restoring everything from old Coke machines, to motorcycles, to dentists' chairs for the Harrisons. The before-and-after reveals of Dale's work are always awe-inspiring. With much charisma, Dale offers a glimpse into the objects he restores, including the where, when, and why they were invented and who used them.

Dale's charm has resulted in his own reality show, American Restoration, airing on the History Channel. Dale's shop, as well as his showroom, is available for tours by appointment, and he is also available to speak to groups. (www.ricksrestorations.com)

Tony Dee, aka "The Godfather," a gun genius, is also frequently featured on the show, when the Harrisons have a question about a firearm. When Dee is not in The Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, he can be found in The Gun Store Las Vegas.

Get Your Group Fired Up

Where else can a group build team camaraderie by shooting M16s, AK47s, Tommy Guns, Uzis, and submachine guns in a high-powered indoor shooting range? That's exactly what Emily Miller, director of marketing and VIP services for The Gun Store, recently planned for a Los Angeles-based financial planning company that took over all 15 lanes of the private range. Group members got in touch with their inner commandos, as they participated in a shooting competition complete with customized targets. Not for the faint of heart, these guns are the real deal. Number one target request? Bin Laden.

"The Gun Store is special in the sense that not only do we offer an experience that's unique in the U.S., but Nevada gun laws allow us to carry fully automatic weapons that are not available anywhere except in the military," explains Miller. "We have highly trained staff and make every effort to make the experience fun, informative, and memorable for all our customers. It's a thrilling alternative to the classic entertainment, drinking, and gambling that Vegas is known for."

Located three and a half miles from the Strip, there is also a pro shop with firearms and accessories for sale. (www.thegunstorevegas.com)

Unexpected Hit

"I thought the show would run for a season or two, we'd get a little business out of it, and that would be it. We never expected this," says Rick about Pawn Stars, now in its third season. The series produced record-breaking ratings for the History Channel in June, and has repeatedly been the number one telecast on all of television among adults aged 18 to 49, with an average of 2.9 million in Monday night's 10-to-11 p.m. time slot. "We're just having a good time and enjoying the ride," Rick says. The rest, as they say, is history.

Originally published Nov. 1, 2010
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