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Pawn-ography

Hardcore Pawn shows America how Detroit does business

By John Q. Horn

The pawn shop.

The very words elicit an array of imagery and preconceived ideas, which include everything from thieves selling the stereo they just boosted from your Jeep to fiends trying to get a few bucks for their momma’s toaster.

Pawn shop-based cable TV programming has taken America into the day-to-day operations of the country’s biggest pawn-brokers. And a Detroit shop is at the forefront of this landscape.

American Jewelry and Loan — at Eight Mile and Greenfield — is the setting of truTV’s show Hardcore Pawn, and is now in its third season. And owner Les Gold and his family say you can forget everything you thought you knew about pawn shops, their customers and the way they do business.

“The pawn shop has become mainstream,” Gold says. “We are an important part of society, not just in Detroit but nationwide.”

Gold’s operation works a couple of different ways. You bring an item for sale, pocket the cash and move on. Or, you can borrow a specific amount of money, using the item as collateral. You come back, repay the loan with interest and retrieve your item.

This process, and the colorful folks involved on both ends, has turned out to make very interesting television. The numbers don’t lie. Hardcore Pawn premiered on truTV in August 2010, scoring the network’s biggest series launch. According to network officials, during its second season, the show averaged 2.2 million viewers, a 23-percent increase over the first season. The current season has also generated the network’s biggest telecast to date and has helped truTV attain its best Tuesday night ever.

“Hardcore Pawn” just started its third season and airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m.

The show follows the Gold family — Les, along with his son, Seth, and daughter, Ashley — as they operate their 50,000-square-foot shop in northwest Detroit. Les runs the show here, with an iron fist inside of a velvet glove. He’s matter of fact with slicked-back hair, is unafraid of sporting eye-catching jewelry, has a contained intensity to him and drives a hard bargain.

Les is all business; a requisite for this line of work when you have 1,000 people per day coming in to your store, looking to either buy or sell jewelry, tools, electronics and anything else. “In the pawn business, you take in everything,” Les says.

Since 1978, Les has been providing loans and buying/selling merchandise. He has seen it all, including the evolution of the pawn broker’s image in the eyes of society. Gone are the days, says Les, when people came to the shop incognito, with their heads down, not wanting to be seen. With Hardcore Pawn and shows like Pawn Stars, the community’s perception appears to have shifted.

Les took some time to debunk some common stereotypes about his line of work, including:

  • Most of the stuff at the pawn shop is hot: “When you pawn an item, we get positive ID and then fingerprint you. We then forward that to the police department.”
  • Most pawn shop customers are selling their stuff for drug money: “Our customer is not worried about planning their next vacation. Our customer is worried about feeding their family and putting gas in the car to get to work.”
  • Buying from the pawn shop is lower class than a traditional retail store: “A diamond is 3 million years old. If you reset it into something else, it’s a brand-new ring. When you go to the store, you think nobody has worn it before you. Not true.”

In the 30-plus years Les has been doing this, he has seen it all, from people trying to pawn prosthetic limbs, to someone trying to sell to him the skull of an elephant. He has an alligator someone sold to him; several antique swords; two Bentleys (a ’61 and ’65); a tour bus; Camaros; and a coat made out of monkey skin.

“People who need money will pawn anything,” Les says.

And it’s not just a place to take out a loan against your TV or gold watch. The items available for purchase at American Jewelry and Loan range from snow blowers and fur coats to a cello, crystal vases and power tools.

The show became a reality after Zodiak Productions made a short, eight-minute demo tape of the characters and environment of the show in 2008. According to Hardcore Pawn Producer Tony Horn, two pilot episodes were ordered after the demo made the rounds.

“Those aired on the network and did well,” says Horn. “That lead to an order for a larger number of shows. The future of the show looks promising.”

Horn added that different dynamics come together to make Hardcore Pawn work.

“People are more intrigued by other ways people are making money,” Horn says. “There is also the inherent mystery of the object. People watch these shows and they think they know the answer. They want to hang around and see if they’re right.

“Les is a strong character in a fun and intriguing sense, but he’s also an expert. He’s an impressive negotiator who knows the values of things. The family sometimes gets to battling about things, and this is interesting to watch those play out against the backdrop of the business.”

Published previously by Real Detroit Weekly. Photo courtesy of TruTV.

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