'Pawn Star' Rick Harrison On His 'Deals And Steals' The History Channel star details how he became an expert in customer relations, human behavior, antiques, economics — and spotting fake Rolexes — while running his family's Las Vegas pawn shop.
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'Pawn Star' Rick Harrison On His 'Deals And Steals'

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'Pawn Star' Rick Harrison On His 'Deals And Steals'

'Pawn Star' Rick Harrison On His 'Deals And Steals'

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

If you were tapped out in Vegas, you might find your way to our next guest, Rick Harrison. He, his dad and sons own the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on Las Vegas Boulevard, where over the years he's bought jewelry, gold teeth, watches, power tools, antique guns and Picasso paintings. Yeah, that's right. I said Picasso. He'll explain that in a few minutes.

Harrison's willingness to buy or pawn just about anything has made him a unique sort of pawnbroker, and it's gotten him on television. He and the crew of the Gold & Silver are featured in the History Channel series called "Pawn Stars." And he's written a book about his life in and out of the shop. It's called "License to Pawn."

Rick Harrison, welcome to FRESH AIR. You run a pawn shop in Las Vegas. A lot of our audience has never pawned anything. Let's just start with some of the basics. Now your customers do come in and sell things outright. But when somebody pawns something what are the rules? How does it work?

Mr. RICK HARRISON (Owner, Gold & Silver Pawn Shop): It's pretty simple. It's the oldest form of banking. It's been around for thousands of years. Just say you have a wedding band. You bring the wedding band in my store. Say I offer you $100 and you accept it. I give you the $100, plus a pawn ticket, after I fill out some paperwork. You have 120 days to come back in my pawn shop and pick your merchandise up and pay me my money back.

So say you come back in 30 days, you give me $115. I hand you your ring back, everything's good in the world. Now, if you don't pay me back at all, I end up keeping the merchandise and I put it in my showcase for sale. Nothing goes on your credit report. No one chases you down to break any legs or anything like that. You just simply lost your merchandise. It's that simple.

DAVIES: Now you make the point that this is actually a banking service that a lot of people really need, right?

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. Most people don't realize, you know, OK, it's 20 percent of the adult population in the United States does not have a bank account. And most of them can't get one. They don't have credit cards. They don't have anything like that for like when some small emergency pops up. And a lot of people don't realize up until the 1950s, pawn shops were the number one form of consumer credit in the United States.

DAVIES: Hmm. I didn't know that. Now the interest rates I guess are high if you calculate it on an annualized basis, right? I mean $15 on $100 is a lot for a short-term loan.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. I mean you got to realize most pawn shops around the country, the average loan is $50 and most pawn shops charge between like $2 and $5 service charge, and they average right around 10 percent a month. So if you get a $50 loan, it's going to cost you $7.50 for the first month and $5 a month after that. It's a lot less money than if you go to one of these payday loan places. The interest keeps on accruing and accruing and accruing, and if you don't pay them back they end up suing you, garnishing your wages and you end up a lot of times owing them as much as 10 times as much as you gave them, as you got in the loan.

DAVIES: Now one of the things you want to do when someone brings you something is make sure it's not stolen to the extent you can. Are there particular clues that tell you something might be hot?

Mr. HARRISON: I mean we always ask the questions, you know, where did you get it, and a lot other things like that. Most people don't realize how regulated the pawn industry is, especially where I'm at in Nevada. When I take something in pawn or I buy something, I just don't take ID. I take their ID, it's their driver's license number, it's their height, it's their weight, their eye color, their build. I turn that into the local police department, and then I also have to turn into Homeland Security; it's part of the Patriot Act. And that goes to leads online, which is put in a central database across the United States, it checks for stolen items.

DAVIES: Now if something does turn out to be stolen I mean because when you make that transaction you don't know, and I'm sure this happens, what, do you take a hit? Does the...

Mr. HARRISON: Oh, I take the hit. Oh, yeah, two years ago I took a hit for $40,000 on a set of diamond earrings.

DAVIES: What happened?

Mr. HARRISON: You know, basic procedure. Asked him all the questions and he showed me receipts. Apparently, he had committed some credit card fraud. I was out $40,000.


Mr. HARRISON: Police came in the next day and just took them.

DAVIES: So the lady who lost her earrings gets them back. The miscreant gets prosecuted. Justice is served, but you're out the money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: I'm out the money and it's the price of paying - doing business. That's the way I look at it.

DAVIES: All right. Now the other thing that you've got to do is figure out when somebody is trying to pass off a fake. So I guess you get pretty good. One of the things you see a lot is Rolex watches. How can you tell a fake Rolex watch?

Mr. HARRISON: It's not as hard as you would think. There's just a list of things that's right on a Rolex watch that's not right on a fake. I mean the case has to be right. The face the dial of the watch has to be right, the hands, the crystal, the stem, the movement. If everything checks out, everything's fine.

I mean in my book I talk about how so like 15 years ago, someone spent, they probably three- or four-thousand dollars to make a fake Rolex. And I got burned on that one, so it won't happen again. Someone took a went out and bought a probably 1970s Rolex. They could have probably got a really beat-up one for like $700 or $800. They take the movement out. They went and bought a - got a new Rolex face for it, new Rolex hands, new crystal, made an 18-karat gold case and band for it. And they were probably in the watch $3,000 or $4,000, and I ended up buying it for $5,000.


Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. It's an entire industry, making fake things.

DAVIES: Do you see a lot of fake Rolexes?

Mr. HARRISON: Oh, I see them every day. They come in every day with them. And I try to explain to them why would someone sell you this watch for $50 when they could go to a pawn shop or someplace else and get a lot more? Someone's trying to sell you a Rolex for $50, it's fake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: A little piece of advice from Rick Harrison, right. The $50 Rolex is not a Rolex. And if word gets out that a pawn shop has taken a fake anything, does word spread and suddenly people rush over?

Mr. HARRISON: Immediately. I know of a pawn shop where the owner thought he was going to make a lot of money. He was going to start cashing income tax checks. It's like a golden rule in the pawn business: never cash a government check. So he started doing that. Word got out. Six months later he just - he realized he had cashed a half million dollars in bad checks.

DAVIES: Now why is it a golden rule that you'd never cash a government check?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, the problem is with a government check you can deposit it in your bank account and all of a sudden four or five months later they come along and say oh, the check's bad. We're pulling the money back. I mean so you could literally cash hundreds or even thousands of checks and five months later you're burnt.

DAVIES: That's because the government is slow to deposit them?

Mr. HARRISON: No. The government is just slow on their paperwork. What happens is with this particular scam, what it was is people were going around to mailboxes and stealing income tax check returns. And it was really simple. What they would do is they would just look at the check. Here's the name. Here's the address. They would make themselves a phony ID, put their own picture on it and the information on the check on it, and go cash the check.

The reason this person got burned is because he thought he was doing a great thing. All this money was piling up in his account and all of a sudden it started pouring out five, six months later. That's how long it can take the government to realize they screwed up.

DAVIES: Now is running a pawn shop on the Strip in Las Vegas different from running one any other place?

Mr. HARRISON: Yes it is. I mean it's a real eclectic mix of everything I get. Las Vegas is a crazy, crazy town at times, so there's a lot of high-end things I get. I've so you have to know about those things. It's - you got to know about really large diamonds, really expensive watches. I'm open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There's the whole problems of dealing with that. Yeah, it's a lot different than most places.

DAVIES: You write that the best nights are fight nights, especially Mike Tyson fight nights. Why?

Mr. HARRISON: It used to be insane. Well, because well, what happened is you would get 150,000 fanatic fans in Vegas, every one of them betting on this fight. And generally, you know, someone's got to lose. And people, I don't know what it is about fight fans, they always bet more than they can afford to lose. I would - they would be lined up down the street to get money.

DAVIES: And so, after they lose, why did they come to you?

Mr. HARRISON: Because...

DAVIES: And what do they offer you?

Mr. HARRISON: It's usually gold jewelry. A fight night in Vegas, everyone's wearing the bling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: So they bet more than they can afford. They got to pay.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. It's that sure bet thing.

DAVIES: Interesting. You write about jewelry. You say that pimps buy a lot of jewelry and always the real thing, right?

Mr. HARRISON: This is the neat thing about my job. I have talked to every aspect of society in the past 30 years. I have talked to pimps and prostitutes. I have talked to billionaires and everything in between.

And, you know, I've always been a really curious person so I just talk to these people. I mean and this was the story I got from actually a few guys that were pimps. And it was when you get arrested for pandering, that's being a pimp, they take your cash. That's because the cash was obtained illegally and they put it away for evidence. But they don't take your jewelry. And a pimp knows that if he buys jewelry in a pawn shop, if you bring it back to the pawn shop to get a loan against it, you'll always get half of what you paid for it - as opposed to buying it in a jewelry store, you don't know what you're going to get when you pawn it.

So, when they get arrested, they will always have someone bring their jewelry down to me. I will loan them half of what they paid for it - and that's their bail money.

DAVIES: Do you have a lot of regular customers?

Mr. HARRISON: Yes. A lot of people, I mean, I have, it's really odd. I do have a lot of regular customers. Some of them are well off and that do pawn stuff a lot because they go out and gamble too much or do too much of one thing or the other. And then I also have single moms that show up that need that $40 or $50 at the end of the month. I have literally thousands of regular customers.

DAVIES: You know, I think in the popular imagination, a lot of people think of pawnbrokers as ruthless people who kind of prey upon people in tough straits.

Mr. HARRISON: I really believe we've been vilified by Hollywood and it's one of those odd things I don't understand. If you read the newspaper, you watch the news, there's some doctor. He did some very bad things. No one assumes every doctor in the country is a bad person, just that one. But if you see the news where there was a pawn shop owner or something that did something bad, took some stolen merchandise, something like that, it's immediately equated to every pawnbroker. I don't understand why that is but it just sort of happened that way.

DAVIES: You know, you write about one lady who comes in, pawns stuff, goes out and gambles but always comes back to retrieve her stuff. And when I read that I thought, well, you know, if someone is really a steady, steady gambler, isn't the rule, you know, the casino is going to grind you down. You're going to end up broke.

Mr. HARRISON: Yes. That's the truth. And I don't understand why some people do it but I have regular customers. I mean like on a weekly or monthly basis pawn the same stuff, pick it up, pawn it, pick it up, pawn it, pick it up. I have customers that if you look in my computer database have pawned and picked up the same thing over a thousand times.

DAVIES: Really?


(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Rick Harrison. He owns the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. His new book is called "License to Pawn." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Rick Harrison. He and members of his family own the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. And they're featured in a reality show on the History Channel called "Pawn Stars." He's written a new book about the business called "License to Pawn."

Now the show is fun to watch. You, the people who come into the show to give you stuff are usually selling not pawning, right?

Mr. HARRISON: Generally. The people who pawn stuff never want to be on the show. And the reason behind that I find out is when people are pawning something it's - they're getting a loan. They have to admit they're broke. For some reason or the other something has happened or they're financially irresponsible. But the fact is they're broke. When people are selling something it's a financial transaction. It's completely different. It's just perceived differently.

DAVIES: Right. So people come to you with all sorts of stuff that they've gotten from a friend or dug out of a basement or whatever, and if they agree to have the transaction videotaped, it might make the show. So I thought we would listen to a clip. This is a case of a guy who brings in a big like 19th century coffee grinder. Do you remember this item?

Mr. HARRISON: Yes, I do.

DAVIES: Yeah. Just describe it, if you would.

Mr. HARRISON: Good 30 inches tall. Has a wheel on the side of it. Has a flywheel on the side of it. That way you start cranking, it keeps its own momentum going. This would have been used for like a large restaurant or something like this. And it was pretty beat up and ugly when I took it. And then a lot - like a lot of these antiques I do get restored because an old ugly antique doesn't look nearly as nice in your home as something restored and that basically looks pretty.

DAVIES: OK. Yeah. And it was sort of a big industrial looking thing. And I thought we would listen to that part of the show where, you know, the guy showed you the thing, you like it, and now it comes down to a price. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pawn Stars")

Mr. HARRISON: The big question is, what you want for it?

Unidentified Man: Well, I'm thinking like $500, man.

Mr. HARRISON: Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Some people buy it like it's sitting out on their front yard like this. But if you're going to put it in your kitchen, man, and you're going to put it inside somewhere nice, it's got to look nice.

Unidentified Man: We'll clean it up a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: There you go.

Mr. HARRISON: It's going to take a lot more than spit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: I'll tell you what. I'll give you $200 for it.

Unidentified Man: That's a quality piece, man.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. But I mean I'm going to have to spend $300 or $400 to get it powder coated to make it look nice.

Unidentified Man: That's a drop in the bucket for what you'll get for it, man.

Mr. HARRISON: But, you know, there's a limit to what I can pay for something. So $200.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: All right. Come on. Let's go do some paperwork.

Unidentified Man: All right.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Rick Harrison closing a deal at his pawn shop in Las Vegas on his reality show "Pawn Stars."

So how did that one work out for you?

Mr. HARRISON: It actually worked out pretty good. Like that thing I bought, I paid $200 for it. I think I paid $400 or $500 to get it - make it look attractive again. And when it was all...

DAVIES: To get it sandblasted and painted and, right.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah, and all that thing. When it was all said and done, I think I got like $1,300, $1,400 out of it.

DAVIES: So it worked. Now what are some of your rules that you have for negotiating with customers?

Mr. HARRISON: And this applies to just about everybody, especially if you're out buying a new car or something like that, never give the first price.

DAVIES: Now why is that?

Mr. HARRISON: Just suppose you're out and about, you go to a yard sale or something like that, you never want to give you're negotiating against yourself. You don't want to offer someone $1,000 for something when if you ask them what they would pay for it they might have said $500.

DAVIES: Right. So you might have a really uninformed customer who doesn't realize the value of what he has. And if he says something really cheap you'll luck into a really great deal.

Mr. HARRISON: Yeah. A lot of people go with that. Unfortunately, I really believe in that karma thing and that six degrees of separation, so I've done that before and the price they've set is way too low and I wouldn't - didn't give it them. I actually paid them more. But the other most important thing about negotiating is...

DAVIES: Wait a minute. You're blowing my image of a pawn shop owner. You actually negotiate up with somebody?

Mr. HARRISON: Actually, we actually filmed this. I had a lady come in with a Faberge brooch into my pawn shop. And she wanted like $2,000 for it. And I just explained to her, you know what? I can't do it to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRISON: I ended up giving her $15,000. You know, it's, I really do believe in six degrees of separation. If I did give her $2,000 for that, she would have eventually found out that I ripped her off, and she would have told everybody for the rest of her life that don't go to that store. They will rip you off. And just through that six degrees of separation everybody in the world would know it. And...

DAVIES: Yeah. So Rick Harrison buys $13,000 worth of goodwill or good karma or something.

Mr. HARRISON: And I believe it works, because I'm sure that lady right there will be worth her weight in gold in advertising because she will tell everybody for the rest of her life what I did for her.

DAVIES: Rick Harrison and his family own the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas and they're featured in a History Channel reality show called "Pawn Stars." And Rick's written a new book called "License to Pawn." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Rick Harrison. He and members of his family own the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas, and they're featured in a reality show on the History Channel called "Pawn Stars." He's written a new book about the business called "License to Pawn."

Now, you know, it's interesting. When you look at your, the TV show, the reality show you're on, it's not most people's image of a pawn shop. It's clean. It's brightly lit. The counters are nice. The people are friendly. It's a big operation you have there. Now you close at nine and then there's the night window, right where...


DAVIES: ...it's Plexiglas. Is it a different scene then?

Mr. HARRISON: Yes. It's - the world flips upside down. The weird thing is my pawn shop is located downtown Las Vegas, which is a wonderful neighborhood during the day, it gets bad at night. And people's attitude changes when there is a - that big sheet of bulletproof glass in between you and the customer. They're more apt for confrontation. And I say this a lot if it's 3 o'clock in the morning, 3 a.m. on Sunday and you've got your microwave wanting to get cash, you should just go home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: But that's what you're there for.

Mr. HARRISON: I know. It's a double-edged sword and I chose it as my profession.

DAVIES: OK. Now, but you'll bought my microwave, right?

Mr. HARRISON: Microwaves I don't buy anymore. They're basically worthless. You can buy them for $29 at Walmart.

DAVIES: All right. All right. But my wife's wedding ring you'll buy?

Mr. HARRISON: Oh yes.

DAVIES: OK. OK. Now even if I'm drunk and looking surly?

Mr. HARRISON: If you're drunk I can't buy it off you.

DAVIES: Is that a rule or just your own principle?

Mr. HARRISON: That's my principle down at the pawn shop. If someone's really intoxicated or something like that, they don't know what they're doing, they don't know what they're getting into, and I'm not going to deal with it.

DAVIES: Now is that from experience where you bought something and everybody regretted it?

Mr. HARRISON: It's, over the years, yeah. I mean a few guys, a little tipsy, come in the pawn shop. They come back a few days later, no, I didn't borrow that much. It's an argument. I tell my employees, a drink or two is fine, but if they're - got a good buzz on, it ain't happening.

DAVIES: OK. Now what kind of people show up at night? You said people are a little more confrontational. Give me an example of a confrontation.

Mr. HARRISON: Remember, I'm the party stopper. If it's 2 a.m., you come up with your jewelry or something like that, no I'm not going to take it. It's not real. No, I'm not going to give as much money as you want. I've just stopped the party.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HARRISON: And it can really piss some people off that were in a good mood and I suddenly stopped everything. And that happens a lot at that night window. It's been a great 20 - I mean it's been a great time working in this pawn shop. It's amazing seeing what walks up.

DAVIES: Yeah. Do people ever sell you their gold teeth?

Mr. HARRISON: All the time. I have - the majority of the time the teeth are taken out by the dentist. But there is - my son has a story when he was working the nightshift once where an elderly lady came up to the window, wanted a pair of pliers. He figured she - car troubles or something like that. And she came back a little bit later with - she had actually pulled her tooth to get the money.

DAVIES: Mm. And at that point I guess, you buy it, huh?


DAVIES: And you tell a story about - I'm trying to remember the details, but somebody who would come to you who was like a finance minister for an Asian country?

Mr. HARRISON: He would come to town like every six months. He had the diplomatic passport. I looked him up online. He said who he was and he would get broke. Come to the pawn shop, pawn a lot of gold. Gamble some more. Come back, pawn a lot of gold. This would be over a weekend. And on Monday or Tuesday he would get a bank wire in and pick everything up.

DAVIES: And what kind of gold? Are we talking about coins, bars, what?

Mr. HARRISON: You know, what baht gold is?


Mr. HARRISON: It's 24-karat gold chains that they where in different parts of Asia. They call them baht because one baht chain, two baht chain. Each baht was 15 grams. They also traded it back and forth as money.

DAVIES: And so...

Mr. HARRISON: Heavy, heavy, heavy jewelry.

DAVIES: Do you know how this guy got so much gold?

Mr. HARRISON: I have no idea. I do know he was the finance minister of an Asian country. Real character. Real flamboyant. When he did get his money wires in not only did he pick up all of his jewelry but they bought a lot of jewelry from my pawn shop.

DAVIES: Do you ever get something from a customer that you felt you just had to keep personally, you're not going to sell it?

Mr. HARRISON: Oh, I have lots of those things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Give us a couple of favorites.

Mr. HARRISON: I have four Olympic medals that I kept. I am a big sports - I have a really neat sports collection. I have four Olympic medals. I have four Super Bowl rings, a World Series ring, three pennant rings. I have three NBA championship rings.

DAVIES: Now do you keep this stuff like the gold medals and the Super Bowl rings on display?

Mr. HARRISON: All the time. It's what keeps people coming back into my store. Before I had the television show I needed that draw and that was one of the things the motto of - one of mottos of the pawn shop. We always have at least one Picasso on the wall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You have a Picasso on your wall?

Mr. HARRISON: Yes. I always keep it...

DAVIES: Where do you get a Picasso?

Mr. HARRISON: People bring them in. You have, one of the reasons I get such odd things and expensive antiques, remember, wealthy people come to Las Vegas to retire. And retirement communities get a lot of people who pass away. The children come to town and generally there's a lot of stuff they want to get rid of. And I have a reputation of being honest and paying a fair price for those estate pieces. So that's how I get a lot of the stuff.

DAVIES: Rick Harrison, thanks so much. It's been fun.

Mr. HARRISON: All right. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Rick Harrison and his family are featured in the History Channel series "Pawn Stars." His new book is called "License to Pawn." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

Here's George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Ring")

Ms. TAMMY WYNETTE (Musician): (Singing) In a pawn shop in Chicago on a sunny summer day, a couple gazes at the wedding rings there on display.

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Musician): (Singing) She smiles and nods her head as he says, honey that's for you. It's not much, but it's the best that I can do.

Ms. WYNETTE AND Mr. JONES: (Singing) Golden rings, golden ring, with one tiny little stone, waiting there...

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Ring")

Ms. WYNETTE: (Singing) In a small two room apartment, as they fought their final round, he says, you won't admit it, but I know you're leaving town.

Mr. JONES: (Singing) She says, one thing's for certain, I don't love you any more and throws down the ring as she walks out the door.

Ms. WYNETTE AND Mr. JONES: (Singing) Golden ring, golden ring, with one tiny little stone. Cast aside, cast aside, like the love that's dead and gone. By itself, by itself, it's just a cold metallic thing. Only love can make a golden wedding ring.

In a pawn shop in Chicago on a sunny summer day, a couple gazes at the wedding rings there on display. Golden ring.

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