Of all the items Rick Harrison has bought at his Gold and Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of the Vegas strip, he says his favorite was a book.
Not just any book, but something from the library of Sir Isaac Newton, the gravity guy.
“It’s about alchemy,” says Harrison, star of the History Channel reality series “Pawn Stars. “It’s a book printed in 1524 about how to turn base metals into gold.”
While alchemy never really panned out, Pawn Stars has. The show, which debuted in July, 2009, has turned four basic guys into gold for the History Channel. It is a televised melange of history, artifacts, the art of the deal and entertaining characters, making it the cable network’s most popular fare.
So popular that, on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, more than 500 fans flocked to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino to meet Harrison, his son, Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison and their long-time family friend and pawn shop cult hero, Austin “Chumlee” Russell. Richard “The Old Man” Harrison, who has earned millions since starting the shop in 1988 on a $10,000 investment after losing millions in real estate, stayed home.
Hundreds of other people stopped to gawk or lean over railings and cheer.
Moments before the fans descended on the cast, Rick Harrison wondered aloud why so many people are so into the show.
“I have no idea,” he says. “Obviously, America loves fat guys in a pawn shop.”
“I am a history buff,” says Thomas, a 34-year-old assistant teacher from Tampa. “I am big into the show.
Thomas says his favorite characters are Chumlee and The Old Man.
Standing next to Thomas at the head of the line, Bob Prong, a 42-year-old guitar teacher from Tampa, says he can’t get enough of the Pawn Stars.
“I love it,” he says. “When they run it back-to-back, I can sit there and watch it over and over.”
Prong says he is drawn in by the “variety of stuff” that people try to sell to the pawn shop, items ranging from old cannon to possibly medieval armor to potentially presidential autographs. And lots of guns and cars and even the odd aircraft and military vehicles.
“I have learned a lot about history from watching the show,” says Rachael Augustine, 23, of Zephyrhills. “You don’t know what will show up.”
It is a pregnant pause fraught with reality show tension.
Rick Harrison says the interactions are spontaneous.
“Generally, the first time I see the people is when they walk through the door,” he says.
Adding to the fun is that no matter what folks try to pawn, the stars, particularly Rick Harrison, usually have a pretty good idea of what they are looking at and how much it is worth.
“I never watched television,” says Harrison. “I read books every night. Usually they were history books, science books, books on antiques and collectables.”
There’s another secret to his antique acumen.
“I have done this my whole life,” says Harrison, 48. “It’s what I have been doing since I was 13 years old – buying and selling stuff.”
For those times when the cast doesn’t know, they are quick to bring in experts.
“I won’t say I broke an item before I bought it,” says Russell, 30. “I know I scratched some really expensive silver before I bought it and Rick got mad, because you’re not supposed to do it.”
Though clearly enamored by some of the shop’s more attractive women would-be pawners, Russell says he is not influenced by beauty when it comes to bargaining.
“Um, I try not to overpay,” he says. “I try to get fair value for all the customers, regardless.”
Looking on, Rick Harrison bellows with laughter.
“That’s because I am standing right here,” he says.
Despite taking home the motorcycle, Russell says he doesn’t hoard many items from the shop.
“The Old Man’s house, on the other hand, is full of any Indian artifact that comes through the store,” he says.
But there are a couple of downsides, according to his son.
“Absolute hell, man,” Corey Harrison, 29, says with a guffaw when asked what it is like to work with his father and grandfather. “The worst thing is Christmas, Thanksgiving, I get to hear about work. He has no problem calling me at 10 at night to talk about how the store did that day.”
And there’s one more drawback to being one of the most popular reality stars on television.
“I had to move out of my last house,” he says, “because people were showing up at my door with stuff, wanting to know if I would buy it.”