Pawn Stars—History Lessons with Tattoos

What is the highest rated show on the History Channel?
A. Chasing Mummies
B. Gettysburg
C. Pawn Stars

The answer? Pawn Stars. Yes, Pawn Stars.

How did a show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas end up on the History Channel (the History Channel?!) and become its highest rated show? That takes some explaining. And we traveled to Las Vegas to investigate ourselves.

Think of pawn shops and you probably think of seedy establishments frequented by addicts looking for cash to score that next big hit, or pickpockets looking to unload the day’s score. You would hardly envision a place where people bring in rare books, antique jewelry, vintage firearms, or a lottery ticket signed by George Washington. Then again, this is Vegas and, as we all know, anything can and does happen here.

Drive down the strip to downtown Las Vegas and, besides the number of wedding chapels, what stands out are all those pawn shops promising instant cash for gold and silver. Most visitors chuckle and drive right by. Not Brent Montgomery and Colby Gaines of Leftfield Pictures.They saw opportunity in the form of reality television. Why not feature one of these pawn shops, preferably one that’s family-owned, and show what happens inside?

Thus was born Pawn Stars, featuring the Harrison family who own and operate the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, open 24 hours a day. The Harrison family consists of Rick, known as “The Spotter,” who opened the shop in 1988 with his father, Richard, nicknamed “The Old Man.” Helping out are Rick’s son, Corey, and Corey’s best friend, Austin “Chumlee” Russell.

While 60 percent of the shop’s business comes from items that are pawned for cash, the show is built around the unique items brought into the store from customers who often travel long distances to see if that bargain purchase at a yard sale is worth thousands of dollars. As Rick says during the show’s intro: “One thing I’ve learned after 21 years, you never know what’s going to come through that door.”

And that gets to the heart of the show’s popularity. Everything and anything can and does get hauled into the pawn shop. If the item is too big to transport, Rick, Corey, or Chumlee will make a house call. On a recent show, Corey traveled to look over a Delorean an owner was looking to sell. The Delorean, of course, was made famous from the Back to the Future trilogy starring Michael J. Fox, and even though this one didn’t come with the flux capacitor (the device that allowed time travel), Corey was intrigued. The owner wanted $30,000 for the car, and Corey decided to pass.

Because the show runs on the History Channel, history had to somehow find its way into the show. And this strategy is another reason why Pawn Stars is so appealing. Every item featured on the show has a story, often one that involves learning some history. When someone brings in a letter signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, we learn about Social Security. A script signed by Al Pacino calls for learning about the Academy Award-winning Godfather. (Before commercial breaks, a history-based multiple choice question, similar to what we posted above, tests viewer knowledge).

For someone who dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, Rick is surprisingly knowledgeable about art, antiques, musical instruments, and rare books. When he needs help, he calls in one of the many experts the show relies on for opinions. Rick Dale, a metal artist and antique restorer, was on the show so frequently, he now has his own show on the History Channel, American Restoration. Tony Dee and Sean Rich are often consulted on antique firearms, while Rebecca Romney, of Baumann Rare Books in the Palazzo Hotel, is sought after for her opinion.

Rick and his father drive a hard bargain. Sellers often come into the pawn shop with dollar signs in their eyes and are disappointed when told their precious treasures will not pay for their kids’ college educations or support them in retirement. Some take the money anyway, while others leave to seek out another opinion.

Needless to say, Pawn Stars has been a goldmine for the Harrison family, turning the shop into a Las Vegas tourist destination and creating cult followings for the Old Man, Rick, Corey, and Chumlee. After visiting the shop on a recent afternoon, it’s clear that Rick and his crew now put in fewer hours actually working in the shop. More than 30 additional clerks have been hired since the show aired, and fans hoping to spot one of the actual pawn stars will often leave disappointed.

When we stopped in, the shop was crowded with tourists looking over the merchandise for sale, sometimes spotting an item that was once featured on the show. (Most noticeable was a canon that shot bowling balls). The back of the store has been turned into a souvenir shop where fans can purchase T-shirts featuring the show’s logo and stars. Chumlee, whose slacker personality and numerous tattoos have built him a cult following, seemed to have the most items emblazoned with his image.

Outside, we spotted a man from Pennsylvania, who looked surprisingly like Rick, complete with shaved head. He was besieged by fans thinking he was the real thing. While he professed to be taken aback by the attention, we noticed that he was wearing a black polo shirt with a gold insignia (this one for the union he represents he told us) that increased his chances he would be mistaken for Rick, whose uniform consists of a black polo shirt with the gold pawn shop emblem.

We left without seeing Rick, Corey, the Old Man, or Chumlee. (Although we did buy some T-shirts). When we drove by the store later in the afternoon, we noticed the waiting line to enter the shop was now down the block. Since the thermometer was well over 100 degrees, those waiting were being “misted” to keep cool.

Now that we’ve seen the shop and watched the show. We’re planning our next move, going through closets trying to select something that Rick & Co. might find interesting enough to feature on the show. We’ll keep you posted.

Photos by Charlene Giannetti

Pawn Stars
The History Channel
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About Charlene Giannetti (916 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.