The World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas has been the setting for The History Channel’s number one hit show Pawn Stars for over a decade, but the history of pawnbroker Rick Harrison’s store goes back well before its 2009 debut as reality TV prime-time viewing with its cast of memorable characters including Chumlee, The Old Man and Corey.
Pawn Stars is like most major success stories that come from humble beginnings and lots of hard work, and Rick Harrison’s opening of his Gold & Silver Pawn Shop family business off the Las Vegas strip sure had its share of struggles. According to Rick, his deceased dad and former best friend “The Old Man” Richard Benjamin Harrison ran a small coin shop in Las Vegas, which was part of the impetus for Rick dreaming of one day owning a pawn shop filled with samurai swords, civil-war era guns, rare paintings and celebrity-autographed memorabilia.
A high school dropout only finishing grade 9, Rick Harrison had been in and out of jobs through his teens and into his early twenties before starting to buy and sell things to make ends meet while he continued to self-educate by reading voraciously. Naturally, as his reading gave him the power of knowledge, Harrison’s pawning prowess improved, leading him to spot better deals and steals.
Eventually Rick became ambitious enough to decide he wanted to open his own pawn shop in Las Vegas, but there was a hitch, the Nevadan didn’t have a license to open a store and the city wasn’t issuing licenses anymore at the time.
“So I went down to city hall, and they told me: ‘No, you can’t get a pawn shop.’ I asked them why, and they pulled out the city code and apparently what happened in 1955, the good old boys got together and they passed a city ordinance that when the city population got to a quarter million they would issue one more pawn license,” explained Harrison to Fox News host and his good friend Mark Levin in an interview.
“When they made this law there were only 25,000 people in Vegas, they never thought it was going to happen. So I’m 22 years-old , and you know, a pawn license, if someone has one for sale back then it was $500,000, $700,000–something like that.”
The American businessman didn’t have that kind of money back then, but Rick realized the city was close to hitting a population of 250,000 people and he stayed persistent. He started calling a City of Las Vegas statistician once a week to keep an eye on when the population would surpass a quarter million. Then in April of 1988, not long after Harrison’s 23rd birthday, the city hit a population of 250,000 and he immediately went to the city’s business licensing office to purchase a license and was denied. Undeterred, Rick took his rejected application to court and six months later a judge told the city Harrison was entitled to the new license because he was the first to claim it.
But nabbing the pawn license was only the beginning of Harrison’s challenges as a pawnbroker. Rick had to figure out how to keep the books and run the business. He struck a friendship with an old pawnbroker who mentored him over the first years. Another challenge was his competitors in Las Vegas, where some pawn shops were part of a chain of stores across the country, so in order to compete he had to find unique pieces of artwork, weaponry, memorabilia, and other items to attract customers.
“There’s always got to be a Picasso on the wall. This place has to be immaculately clean. Just the best employees, everything had to be better than everybody else,” Rick recounts on how he set his pawn shop apart from the competition. On top of that, when first starting out he was cash poor because he had to loan out a lot of money to fill his store with goods to sell.
But now, Rick’s World Famous pawn shop (a 13-minute drive from the Bellagio Hotel & Casino and 2 miles from the main strip) from the show has no trouble attracting an endless sea of tourists and sellers with rare and expensive treasures after he got a TV deal with The History Channel (now History). The show became one of the most successful Reality TV shows of all-time with millions of weekly viewers.
On top of a hard work ethic, self-education and persistence, Harrison has also had his share of luck. Las Vegas ended up beating out Atlantic City as the go-to weekend gambling and entertainment spot in America after he opened up shop. To add to his revolving door of new customers, and after he tried pitching his own reality TV show for years, Rick Harrison and his family were approached by show producers who saw the potential for an entertaining show. Once the show became a hit, the pawn shop was put on the map and is now a hot spot for tourists all over the world.
“Once you develop a really diverse knowledge in your head, when you see something, you can start figuring some things out [and have big success].”
New episodes of Pawn Stars air on History on Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET.