The first thing I notice is the long line. I was warned it would be long (Gold & Silver Pawn is one of Las Vegas’ top tourist attractions) but seeing people lining up to get inside still comes as a bit of a shock.
Since the store became famous thanks to the successful TV show Pawn Stars, a lot has changed. Apart from the line there’s also a perpetually busy taxi stand, a hot dog pop-up store (it too has a line) and people everywhere.
Although I’ve been able to organise a VIP tour with store manager Andy Spyer (meaning I get to skip the line which can take two-to-three hours to get through) I spend a few minutes there to eavesdrop. There’s a sense of anticipation in the crowd and I want in. Everyone is chatting Pawn Stars – what happened on the last episode, Chumlee’s massive weight loss, who they want to see most…
The reality is that the stars don’t hang out on the shop floor. Andy explains that it would be too much of an interruption to the business. Occasionally one of the superstars will come out from the back (where they produce the show every working day) and sign autographs for about an hour.
As expected, when that happens the pawn store business side of things stands still.
The majority of people here on any given day come because they want to be a part of something they’ve seen on TV, and predictably most don’t plan on shopping. However, Andy tells me 80 per cent will walk out the door with a purchase, and considering the store averages anywhere from 3000 to 5000 visitors a day (up from around 70 before it shot to fame) the shop does well... obviously.
To cater to this massive influx of interest they’ve had to renovate a few times and they’ll keep getting bigger and better.
I get to chat to Rick Harrison, co-founder and co-owner of the shop/TV superstar, who says, “As long as it’s fun I’m going to keep on doing it. And after that I’m done.”
When I quiz Rick about the show concept and why he thought it would be such a success he laughs (he laughs a lot throughout our chat) and explains that, for the want of a better term, he’s always been a "media whore" and knew that appearing in the newspaper or on TV would be good for business.
“It took me four years to convince someone that a show about four fat guys in a pawn shop would work,” he laughs again. It worked. It more than worked.
Rick had no idea how big it would get but now he’s used to the attention. He shows me a video on his phone of thousands of overjoyed Philippinos greeting the Pawn Stars cast at a shopping centre. It’s the kind of reception a rock star gets and Rick laughs again enjoying the reminiscing.
In the footage the Phillippinos are madly excited to see their heroes, and Rick is thrilled because being received like that never gets old. It’s good for business too.
On my tour Andy explains that at any one time there are a quarter of a million items for sale and everything is on showcase.
“Anything that is for sale is out on the floor,” he says. “I don’t make money storing it out back, although we do sell electronics online.”
The customers are like kids in a lolly shop – there is just so much to look at! Although it’s busy inside and there’s a walk-around-anticlockwise arrangement, people are free to take as long as they like, or even walk in the opposite direction.
Most choose to walk slowly and stick to the line to take it all in. It reminds me of those lines to see famous paintings in busy galleries – it works if everyone keeps moving along – and in this case it’s the best way to see every single item and get as close as possible to the cabinets.
The cabinets are broken down into sectors – jewellery, glassware, antique weapons, toys, silver… Silver is the most purchased item, because as Andy explains, people like to have a bit of metal in case paper money disappears.
There’s a small, enthusiastic crowd around the silver debating the pros and cons of ownership and most patrons chatting acknowledge they own at least some silver, verifying Andy’s point.
There are paintings on the walls, a NSW number plate for sale (for $1500 because it was never meant to leave Australia), and a bunch of truly special items that are not for sale – a LeRoy Neiman painting, a cloth flag off a WW1 bomber from a time before ‘flags’ were painted on fuselages and an old Frank Sinatra record.
These items are the old man’s collection and add a special eclectivity to the store.
The most expensive article for sale is a white gold, diamond-encrusted 2001 New England Patriots super bowl ring and when Andy takes it out to show me an awe-struck man suddenly appears behind me.
I’ve no idea where he’s come from but I can tell from his rapid breathing rate that this is one item he’d buy if he could afford it.
Patriots player Brock Williams pawned it a few years ago for $2,000 and today it’s for sale for $100,000 plus tax.
According to Andy it’s all about the right person at the right time. “I’ve probably sold three super bowl rings in three years,” he says.
Thanks to the show’s popularity the shop has been able to welcome a lot more of the ‘right people’ in, and because of its international success (it’s watched in over 160 countries and in 39 languages) some of the items that arrive are nothing short of spectacular.
“One of the best bits about all this is that families who inherit generations of stuff didn’t know where to bring it. Now they see the show and they bring it to us,” Andy says.
For Rick the best and worst parts of his job go hand in hand. “The greatest part of my job is working with my family, and the worst part of my job is working with my family,” he laughs.
But in the grand scheme of things, it all seems to work.
Virgin Australia flies daily to Los Angeles from Sydney with connections to Las Vegas via Virgin America. See virginaustralia.com, phone 136 789.
Because you’re in Las Vegas, Bellagio for an indulgent over-the-top experience. 3600 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas. Rooms from US$169 (but rates vary significantly depending on when you visit). See bellagio.com.
SEE & DO
Reserve a seat at three Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon restaurant inside the MGM Grand Hotel for an exquisite culinary journey. The degustation is divine, although you might need to pawn something to pay for it. 3799 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas. US$425 for a 16 courses. See mgmgrand.com.
Pawn Stars screens Mondays at 8.30pm on 7mate. New episodes premieres on Foxtel's A&E 7pm weeknights from April 17.