Before the appearance of the velvet rope, hulking bodyguards and string of taxis disgorging carloads of fans, you might not have noticed the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in the 22 years of its existence. Located on the sketchy stretch of real estate just south of downtown, the store counts Showgirl Video, ABC Bail Bonds and Cupid’s Wedding Chapel as neighbors. And the building’s nondescript façade—crumbling concrete plastered with signs advertising “WE WILL BUY YOUR GOLD & SILVER”—doesn’t distinguish it from the city’s slew of EZ Pawns and Cash Pawns (though the feel is less corporate).
But the lackluster storefront belies an interior that’s chockablock with rare artifacts—such as an 18th-century Damascus sword and Benny Binion’s 10-gallon hat—artwork by Picasso and Renoir, and case after case of gold, silver and gemstones.
The shop, as most of America knows by now, is run by three generations of Richard Harrisons: There’s the grandfather, a.k.a. “the Old Man,” a retired marine with a saying for everything; his son Rick, a geeky history buff and natural-born hustler with a shiny bald head and infectious laugh; and his grandson Corey (his middle name), also known as “Big Hoss,” whose penchant for getting suspended from school as a young ne’er-do-well landed him behind the counter. Lending a hand and adding comic relief is Corey’s boyhood friend Austin “Chumlee” Russell—a sweet village idiot-like character who describes himself as the “Go-Getter” (i.e. Chumlee, go get some coffee). Their business is the unlikely subject of the History Channel’s overnight hit, Pawn Stars, which is now filming its third season. It’s Antiques Roadshow meets Sin City. But while there’s the occasional bleeped-out cussword, this is more of a family show than a seedy pawnshop version of Confessions of a Taxi Driver.
As seen on TV: Vegas’ newest tourist attraction.
Back in 1981, when the Harrisons moved to Vegas from San Diego, a law prohibited new pawn licenses until the population reached a quarter million. Rick was only 16 at the time—and making big bucks hustling faux Gucci bags—but he knew an opportunity when he saw it. Dutifully, the young entrepreneur kept track of the census and secured a joint license with his father the minute the city’s numbers 250,000 in April 1988.
“When I first started, I was broke,” Rick remembers. “I spent all my money getting the license, and it was a grind for years. When you have a pawnshop, you’re constantly loaning out money. It wasn’t until 10 or 12 years ago that things started to get really nice.” Even then, the shop got fewer than 100 customers a day.
It was the Harrisons’ willingness to deal in rare antiques and less-conventional wares that separated them from the pack—and ultimately got them national attention as one of the top shopping destinations in Vegas. “When you are competing against 40 other pawnshops,” Rick explains, “you have to be different.” And his fascination with random trivia and arcane goods made the riskier business of dealing with Philco radios, antique Coke coolers and Civil War-era weapons a natural fit.
Once the shop got a bit of buzz, the offers poured in, most notably from HBO, though the Harrisons ultimately went with the History Channel because they wanted to present their business in a favorable light. The rest, as they say, is history: A teaser led to a pilot, a second season, and now a third. Up next? A $400,000 expansion that opens this week (which Rick describes as “the most expensive removal of two walls ever”) will double the size of the showroom and make the 1,000-a-day crowds more manageable.
Despite their success, the Harrisons are modest about their newfound celebrity. Sure, their life now includes red-carpet appearances—such as the grand opening of BB King’s Blues Club and the World Mixed Martial Arts Awards—and fawning fans, but they still get excited about the little things (such as the kid at the Starbucks counter giving them a free cup of coffee). And they’re genuinely surprised about the near-universal adoration, from Bible Belt devotees who flock to Vegas to buy a coffee mug or snap a picture, to celebs like Ludacris and Bon Jovi.
And while business has grown tenfold and the number of rarities and “cool items” as Corey calls them, has tripled, the business of owning a pawnshop remains essentially the same: Jewelry is still the bread-and-butter, and the average customer is more likely to be a single mom looking for quick cash or an average Joe buying a wedding band than a billionaire or, say, the Prince of Nigeria, who once stopped by.