Image Credit: Joey L/History ChannelIf you’ve never seen The History Channel’s Pawn Stars, you are seriously missing out. Much like an actual pawn shop, this good-natured reality show — which airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET — has a little bit of everything: unbelievable objects, absurd stories, ridiculous family banter, and surprise fortunes. Viewers can’t get enough of the cable smash, which is reaching ratings heights that almost any network would be willing to trade for. We got the chance to speak with shop-owner Rick Harrison, the man-in-charge on Pawn Stars, about the success of the show, his old man’s work ethic, honesty in the pawn business, and a whole lot more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the show come about?
RICK HARRISON: I was pitching the show for four years, and nothing ever came of it. Out of the blue, Leftfield Pictures calls me up and says, “Hey, we’re thinking about trying to do a reality show in a pawn shop.” I said, “Oh, really? I’ve been trying to get this thing going for four years!” It was really refreshing. They were from New York. They weren’t from Hollywood. They were really business-minded, from the first call with them to being on the air for six months, and from there, the ratings just kept on going up.
The show doesn’t necessarily get the attention of other cable shows like True Blood or Burn Notice, but you’re right at the top of the ratings pack. Did you expect it to be this big of a success?
No, we never thought it was going to be this big. I was hoping to get a season or two out of it — maybe a little press, maybe a little more business in the store, but I never thought it was going to do this.
Have you seen more business in the store?
Yeah, there’s a lot more people in the store. It’s a lot busier.
What kind of people come into the store?
It’s everybody. I get people from all around the world because it plays in a lot of countries. I don’t know how many, but I know it plays in a lot. Apparently it’s real big in England now, because I get a lot of English people coming down saying they love the show. I get every walk of life. It spans the whole spectrum — you wouldn’t believe how many 11 year old kids love my show.
When you hear it’s on The History Channel, you wouldn’t expect the ratings to skew as young as they do, but it’s really incredible.
I think the thing is, it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a history show, it’s Pimp My Ride, it’s American Chopper, it’s sort of like a game show because everyone wants to know if they win in the end. They always want to know, “Is it real? Is it fake?” There are a lot of different things going on in the show, and it attracts a really broad range of people.
Now, your father started the shop in 1988, correct?
Me and my father started it together back then.
Is one of you more in control than the other, or is it still a joint operation?
It used to be he was mostly in control. It’s mostly me now. He still works every single day in there, though. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t. He makes excuses to my mom to come into work! (laughs) He is great. You know, he’s not happy unless he’s complaining.
His relationship with employee Chumlee Russell is one of the funniest parts of the show. They’re secretly best friends, right?
They actually like each other, yes. They drive each other nuts over the way they dress, though. I mean Chumlee is always saying, “Come on, just please, go out and buy a nice suit.” And The Old Man says, “As long as you get one with me.”
Is Chumlee related to you at all?
No, he was [Rick’s son] Corey [Harrison]’s childhood best friend, and I’ve helped him out a lot in his life. Christmas morning, he will be at the house.
I’m guessing the staff is much bigger than what we see on TV.
Yeah, it’s a lot more than what you see on TV. I believe there are 43 people working there.
Well, remember, we’re open seven days a week. We’re open at night. It’s a very busy shop. I mean, you only see a little bit that goes on there. I buy over 100 things a day.
Let me ask you about the buying process. On the show, we see a lot of people selling their goods instead of pawning them. Is that pretty accurate?
No, actually most people pawn stuff, but most of the time, those people really don’t want to be on television. Another thing is, it’s regular customers that come in every four or five months — they’re late on rent, and it’s not really that interesting to see a construction worker pawning a saw, or the one girl who’s got the same set of hoop earrings every time. It doesn’t make great television. It’s the weird stuff that makes great television.
There’s a certain stigma around pawn shops in America, and many people think they’ll get hustled if they go to one. Part of what makes Pawn Stars so watchable is that your shop feels honest. It doesn’t feel like you’re trying to wheel-and-deal anyone. Is that something you wanted to emphasize?
Yeah, I mean, you have to realize — I don’t know why it is, but if you have one pawnbroker in the news buying something stolen, it just automatically reiterates to every pawnbroker. But if you see a doctor in the news doing something bad, it’s just the one bad doctor! Pawn shops have been around for thousands of years — they were the number one form of consumer credit up until the 1950s, but we were vilified by Hollywood. We were easy people to vilify.
Well, I think the show is doing a lot to counteract that.
It’s just one of those things, but there are a lot of other reasons, too. When someone brings Grandma’s diamond ring into my pawn shop, and I tell her that it’s a very, very bad diamond. For this girl, her whole life she’s been told that Grandma’s diamond is perfect, and she doesn’t want to believe that Grandpa was cheap. So that can give a bad reputation to a guy like me. [Laughs] It’s not justified, but it happens.
The National Pawnbrokers Association is honoring you, though, right?
I got the Pawnbroker of the Year award. They said I did more for the pawn business in one year than their media team, in 30 years, has been able to do.
So, are you shooting now?
Actually, we have a three week hiatus, so I actually got a few weeks where I could take a little vacation and get a little bit of stuff done, but we’re filming the third season right now.
And how long are the cameras on each day?
Generally, twelve hours, but you get little lulls. I tell people, “I’m the only business in the world where I don’t pick my merchandise.” So, it’s just the odd stuff that comes in during the week. They come up to the pawn counter, and you say, “Hey do you mind us filming this?”
Yeah, and I guess some end up interesting–
And some of them not at all!
For the ones that are interesting, where do you find your experts? Some of these people are so specialized, whether it’s in police memorabilia or salvaged shipwreck items. How have you accrued that team?
It’s 30 years of being in this business. I got my pawn license 22 years ago, and before that we had a second-hand store. It’s just all the different people you meet over the years, and you keep the card around, and you end up doing business with them occasionally.
Well, Rick’s Restorations always blow me away.
Rick [Dale] is unbelievable. I’m telling you, he could make a nail look beautiful if he wanted to. You could take a crunched car to this guy, and he will sit out there with hammers, and just start tapping away, and next thing you know, it looks brand spanking new! His business is called Rick’s Restorations, but it really should be called Rick’s Art.
Pawn Stars and American Pickers have done a lot to redefine the History Channel as something hip and relevant. You’re kind of bringing the Antiques Roadshow to a new generation in an edgier way.
My producer calls it laugh-and-learn-TV. For years, everyone has joked around at my pawn shop: “If you bring that back to Rick, he’s going to give you a history lesson,” but I really believe people prefer to watch a normal guy just talking to them to learn history — or just to learn anything, for that matter — instead of a professor talking down to them. When you were a kid, it was lot easier to learn from your dad than it was from your teacher, you know?
Well, clearly something is working for the show. It must be exciting for you.
It’s been really, really fun.