The trash, treasure and characters found in a Dayton pawn shop
By Khalid Moss
If you’re into Hardcore Pawn, American Pickers, Oddities, Auction Hunters — or the granddaddy of them all — Pawn Stars, it speaks to your tenuous relationship with reality.
Because you have unfortunately fallen victim to that rare, TV-induced syndrome called Acute Second Hand-itis. meaning: You are fascinated by the art of the deal and live vicariously through characters named Rick and Chumlee.
But, oddly enough, these diverse TV versions of buying and selling, bartering and brokering often mirror what’s going on in the real world. I wanted to dig further into this phenomenon, so I took a stroll to Don’s Pawn Shop at 107 E. Third St. to get the low down on mankind’s oldest financial institution.
Pawn shops make more than 35 million loans per year totaling almost $2 billion. Today there are 15,000 pawn shops nationally and the redemption rate (picked up by the customer) is between 70 and 80 percent. In some cases, the redemption rate is as high as 96 percent. The pawn industry is one of the most regulated industries in the U.S., and most of the regulations have been initiated, sponsored and supported by pawnbrokers.
The first thing you have to know about Don’s Pawn Shop is that Don doesn’t exist. The store was founded 63 years ago by businessman Harvey Lehrner. It’s now being run by his son, Harvey Jr. who says the advent of TV pawn shows has been good for business.
“We really like the new shows because they’ve opened the window, opened the door to people who really didn’t understand pawn shops,” Lehrner said. “The shows have made pawn shops a big curiosity.
“Increasingly, a number of people have found junk in their garage that they thought had no value. They ask us ‘Do you guys buy this?’ In many cases we say ‘Yes.’ Others say they’ve never been in a pawn shop before and wanted to see for themselves. They are kind of amazed at all the jewelry, musical instruments and items we have for sale.”
In the TV show Pawn Stars, owner Rick Harrison, his dad Old Man, son Big Hoss and village idiot, Chumlee, execute the majority of the transactions.
They ask stock questions:
“What do you want to do with this? Pawn it or sell it? How much are you trying to get for it?”
Usually the customer believes the item is worth far more than the pawnbrokers are willing to pay, which initiates a spirited round of cat and mouse with the price of the item.
“Most of what goes on in Pawn Stars is real, but, like the police shows, it’s kind of overdone,” Lehrner said. “For instance, you never see the loan transaction on TV. Also, Rick often calls experts into the store to verify the validity of an item. We don’t do that. We’re really a banking, financing institution for people who need money.”
“Of course the Detroit show [Hardcore Pawn] shows you the ugly side of pawn shops,” said Lehrner.
Hardcore Pawn, a Pawn Stars knockoff, takes place on the hardscrabble streets of Detroit, Mich. The general manager is Les Gold, son of a pawnbroker. Hardcore focuses mainly on the human aspects of drama, conflict and absurdity between the staff and its customers. The show is populated with disgruntled customers who cuss, fight, scream, threaten and tussle over items in the store.
“They edit all the fights, basically,” said Don’s store manager Terry Carolus, a 27-year veteran of the pawn business. “That’s their angle; the argumentative side of the business.”
Phil Dreety has worked at the pawnshop for 36 years. He said the store and circumstances in Hardcore Pawn are unique.
Unruly behavior is not kosher at Don’s.
“We very rarely have that happen here,” Dreety said. “That’s really an over-dramatization of the circumstances. We treat our customers with dignity. That was required by Harvey’s father. People feel good when you say ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No ma’am’ and you don’t address them in a harsh way. People pick up on that.
“If we ever get a situation where somebody doesn’t understand, we’ll let them know, this is how we do business. If you don’t like it, you can choose to go somewhere else. Usually, that takes care of the situation.”
After my visit to the pawn shop, I have to conclude that there is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the pawn business. It is an industry that combines retail sales with old fashion banking and serves a clientele that ranges from the very upper to the lower classes and all those in between.
“The thing about pawn shops and why they’ve been around so long is because it is a very basic transaction,” Lehrner said. “People need money. They lend a valuable item that they want to get back. You pay the loan, you get your item back. If you don’t pay the loan, you don’t get your item back. It’s a very basic transaction.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Khalid Moss at KhalidMoss@DaytonCityPaper.com