In early January over two and a half million people tuned in to watch Hardcore Pawn, a show about the drama that plays out inside a Detroit-based pawn shop. The hit series, which airs on TruTV on Tuesday nights, follows the Gold family (father Les, his son Seth and daughter Ashley) as they manage their store, American Jewelry and Loan, located just off of 8 Mile Road in Detroit.
Reality television has found a new darling covering those who buy and sell second-hand merchandise, with popular shows like American Pickers, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars hard to miss on cable each evening. Like its name suggests, Hardcore Pawn departs from the G-rated theme of those other shows. Each episode inevitably involves a 300 pound security guard breaking up a profanity-laced argument between the Golds and an irate customer.
Drama aside, the basic operation of a pawn shop is fairly simple. Customers bring in merchandise to either sell outright or pawn, meaning they’ll get a cash loan using solely their merchandise as collateral. If the customer doesn’t meet their loan obligation, the store can put their items up for sale. With the backdrop of that business alongside some genuine family tension and contentious customer interactions, you’ve got the formula for a hit show.
Viewers of Hardcore Pawn, now in its fifth season, have no doubt spotted a winged helmet and a framed Wolverine jersey in the office of Seth Gold, one of the stars of the show, who happens to be a Michigan graduate. As a fan of the series and someone who delves into Michigan football memorabilia and history, I was thrilled when Seth invited down to the shop to talk about the business, the show and even about his beloved Michigan Wolverines.
MVICTORS: So explain to folks how things work at American Jewelry and Loan.
Seth Gold: “What we are, essentially, is a bank for people without bank accounts. In essence, we are just a banker. Period. These are often folks that don’t have a bank account which means they don’t have anywhere to go besides the pawn shop. I’ll ask you—out of ten people, how many do you think come back to get their merchandise?”
“Most people would say ten to twenty percent, and it’s actually like eighty to ninety percent.”
MVICTORS: So I think a people assume a lot of your merchandise that comes through your door is stolen. Do you have to submit a police report for items over a certain value?”
Seth Gold: “No, we submit a police report for everything. People think pawn shops [have] hot merchandise but that’s not how it works. First of all we take your ID and we take your thumbprint and forward that to the police. There’s a whole host of areas where you can unload that kind of stuff. And here’s the thing—most of my customers come in for loans. They don’t sell there stuff outright. So at an 80% redemption rate, I want to help you out, if you’re going to redeem your stuff I want to loan you more. The more I loan you the more I get back.”
MVICTORS: So for those ten to twenty percent who don’t redeem their merchandise, what happens then?
Seth Gold: “State laws says after 90 day it belongs to me and I can put merchandise up for sale. So think about it—two things happening when I pull their stuff. Number one, I have a pissed off customer who’s saying I stole their merchandise. They know exactly where they left their merchandise, so it’s my fault. The anger is much more directed than say, at a bank [if you default on a bank loan]. Number two, for a TV that’s sitting in back, when someone defaults on it, what’s its value? It’s only worth what someone will pay for it. In a perfect world we’d have 100% redemption rate. I could get rid of most of my staff and I’d make money on interest and I wouldn’t have to care about selling anything. The problem is, even at an 80% redemption rate and with at least 500 loans a day, that’s still 100 pieces that go to the showroom floor. I’m not selling 100 pieces every day. I’d like to see the redemption rate go up.”
“This business is a science. When someone comes in with a TV, let’s say they paid $100 for it. If I give the person $90, the person is not coming back in for their merchandise. They are going to take a 10% hit and they aren’t going to care. If I give them 60% of the value, then they might not want to lose it. You can’t over-loan because if you over-loan you’ve bought the merchandise. If you under-loan, people are going to think you tried to scam them.”
MVICTORS: Some of these products are a commodity, right?
Seth Gold: “Gold. Simple. I can always sell gold. That’s why I always draw them back to the jewelry. There’s always going to be a buyer for it. Even if I don’t sell it on the showroom floor, I can scrap it. My normal customers can’t afford gold anymore. Four grams of gold, if I was going to scrap it, would be $120 and four grams is nothing. And you have to mark it up a little bit because there’s workmanship. Our biggest sellers right now are silver and diamonds. Retailers understand that people aren’t buying gold like they used to so they have to come up with another trick…and the trick is silver and diamonds. I outsell it to gold three to one.”
MVICTORS: Talk about the onset of eBay and how it’s affected your business. I know from watching the show that you use it to value items and you market a lot of your inventory on eBay as well
Seth Gold: “It’s a great way to price items but it’s also my competition. So we utilize eBay and we utilize the internet. Our brick and mortar store is closed most of the day; it’s only open nine hours. Our internet store is always open. So it’s a good tool to price things but you have to lower your prices to be competitive. If someone can go on the internet and get a Wii for $50, guess what? I’m selling it for $50. It also hurts us because customers will come in and claim they saw product for a lower price on eBay. You can ask whatever you want on the internet, if you see what they actually sell it for, that’s often different. What did it actually sell for?”
MVICTORS: [The store recently hired former popular Detroit Red Wing Darren McCarty]. What does McCarty do for you?
Seth Gold: “Stock guy, sales guy—wherever we need him. He’s a really good worker and I’m glad he’s part of our team. He’ll be showing up in a couple episodes.”
MVICTORS: I’ve read somewhere that based on the activity in the pawn shop, you are a pretty good economic barometer. The University of Michigan produces a widely used consumer confidence index each month–should Wall Street be polling you to get the temperature of the economy?
Seth Gold: [laughs] “Definitely. We’re commodity traders at a street level. Period. When my loans are increasing and retail is decreasing, there’s a problem. It makes sense, right? It’s simple. Every day there’s a study going on my showroom floor. “
MVICTORS: So how is the economy doing right now?
Seth Gold: “Better. Believe it or not we are doing better. It’s crazy because we’ve been in a lull for such a long time, that people aren’t confident enough that it is getting better, but I see it getting better.”
MVICTORS: So let’s get into your U of M background. You’re Michigan graduate, right?
Seth Gold: “Yes, I’m a 2003 graduate of LS&A [Literature, Science and Arts] and I was on a pre-med track. Ultimately my whole life I wanted to be a doctor and to help people. Then, my senior year, after my Chem, Bio, and Orgo exams, I didn’t sleep for like three days. I thought, ‘I don’t like what I’m doing. If I don’t like this now I’m going to be in big trouble.’ So I came here [to the pawn shop] for two years after I graduated and I was real quiet for two years, just learning the business. I was working in the back and just doing whatever I needed to do. Then after two years went by I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to make some changes.’
MVICTORS: How were things when you started out, given it is your dad’s business?
Seth Gold: “When you are the owner’s son you get this inherent respect, but that only lasts for a second before the older managers who have been here for 20-years+ say, ‘We don’t really care what he says’. So that’s why I stayed really quiet for the first couple years–you have to earn that respect. And I think I did.”
MVICTORS: You were a big Michigan fan before you went to school in Ann Arbor?
Seth Gold: “I’ve always been a Michigan guy.”
MVICTORS: On Hardcore Pawn every once in a while you can see a winged helmet and a frame Michigan jersey in your office, tell me about those items
Seth Gold: “If you watch the first season, the helmet is always behind me. Then they’ve been moving out because of the rights and stuff, so it ended up getting pushed out [of the camera shot]. I was really upset because when you walk into my office you should be able to see it. But there are still glimpses all over the place of my Michigan stuff.”
MVICTORS: So are you a collector of Michigan memorabilia?
Seth Gold: “I’ve got some cool stuff, absolutely. Now that we have the show people bring in their [U-M] stuff because they know I’m a big Michigan fan. A guy came in one day and tells me he’s got something I won’t believe. He has a lamp made out of a Michigan helmet and it’s signed by Bo and Woody Hayes. But I’m wondering if Woody Hayes would actually sign a Michigan helmet. I asked for the certificate of authenticity, because if I’m going to invest in it I need to make sure that’s Woody Hayes’s actual signature. He said didn’t have it, so I asked him how much he wanted for it. He wanted one hundred grand [laughs]. Give me a break. But people are bringing all kinds of cool pieces all the time.”
MVICTORS: Do you see any vintage items, like old programs?
Seth Gold: “I’m getting a lot of sports memorabilia, and people know that I have an affinity to Detroit and Michigan things. Last week someone brought in a piece of Michigan stadium turf, cut up in a 4 x 4 square—they wanted $800 [laughs]. I wanted to help him out but come on. Whenever they have Michigan items they come straight to me.
MVICTORS: I know you get championship rings in the shop now and again, how often do you see college rings like from Michigan or Michigan State? Have any Buckeye gold pants made it in to the shop?
Seth Gold: No Michigan State rings, but I do have Ohio State rings. No gold pants though [laughs].
MVICTORS: You have a few Michigan championship rings in the shop [they are kept in his office]. How did those end up in the shop?
Seth Gold: “[For one of the rings], I asked [the former player] how much he wanted, he said he wanted $500. Based on the gold value of that day, if I scrap it, meaning I melted it down and made it a little brick of gold, I’d get $350. I can’t over loan, period. I gave him a loan for $345.”
“Being a student athlete is one of the most difficult things. I lived in West Quad with a whole bunch of athletes—golfers. Obviously it’s not the most rigorous sport but these guys are busting their ass the entire time they are at school. You have to perform, but they are also given an expensive gift [the scholarship]. So take advantage of it while you can. A University of Michigan degree can take you places.”
MVICTORS: There’s a #16 Michigan jersey hanging on the wall in your office, is that for Denard or someone else?
Seth Gold: “John Navarre. “He was the quarterback when I graduated. My wife was friends with a player on the team and got it autographed for me.”
MVICTORS: Do you try to make it out to the Big House for games?
Seth Gold: “I was at the night game! So hell yeah. But I still work on Saturdays so it’s hard for me. I’ve got a TV in my office that I watch the games on. After the [Notre Dame] game, they interviewed Darius Fleming for the local Notre Dame paper. They asked him about his favorite show, he said Hardcore Pawn. So I actually reached out to him and said, ‘Real rough game over in Ann Arbor’ [laughs].
MVICTORS: So you follow the games pretty close on those Saturdays?
Seth Gold: “Oh yeah. Of course, of course.”
MVICTORS: When did Rich Rod lose you?
Seth Gold: “I liked the offense. It was a fun offense to watch. But it just wasn’t a Michigan offense. I was always uneasy with it. It didn’t seem right for the Big Ten. I think Denard is great but I like the pro-style quarterback.”
MVICTORS: How do you feel about the state of the football team now?
Seth Gold: “I like it. I think it’s going to change and, you know, 10-2 is nothing to laugh at in Hoke’s first season. I heard [a local sports radio host] say they’re going to win a championship in the next four years. I’m like, ‘Let’s go!’ I’m going. Wherever it is, I’m going to be there! It’s exciting.”
MVICTORS: You must have a lot of people who like the show who just want to come in to see what it’s like here
Seth Gold: “I had some coaches from the Chargers come by last week [they were in town to play the Lions]. You know who else was here? Mila Kunis. She stopped by.”
Seth Gold: “Who would ever imagine there’d be folks coming to a pawn shop, just wanting to check it out? I think our show and Pawn Stars has helped our industry tremendously because now people are walking into pawn shops all across the country, which is good. And they understand that it’s not this seedy business and that we don’t take things that are stolen because you’d have to be an idiot to bring in stolen stuff. It’s not the reputation we want.”
MVICTORS: How often do you get stopped in public by people who recognize you?
Seth Gold: “Recently, a lot. It’s cool because I always knew I had a cool job. But now people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, you’re the guy with the pawn shop’, and they want to come in. Before they would never want to come into a pawn shop because they viewed it as a hang-your-head-low, I’m-broke’, kind of thing. But you saw it in the showroom—people are coming in, excited and happy to see us. And you can buy all the 30 second commercials you want but nothing compares to having the show.”
“The first time someone ever wanted to take a picture with me my reaction was like, ‘For what?’ Because I had no idea. The power of TV—people are always you looking at you. It’s a weird thing.”
MVICTORS: What’s the key difference between your show and Pawn Stars?
“They buy. Period. They don’t loan. Here’s the thing—my customers aren’t looking for $5,000 to take their family on vacation. They’re looking for $20 to feed their family. That’s the difference. They’re not coming all the time with this crazy, old stuff. They’re coming in with PlayStations and TVs, your run-of-the-mill stuff that people have. Of course there are going to be some unique items because everybody has something that’s unique. Inevitably people are bringing some weird things. But that’s not our bread and butter. Our bread and butter here are the rings, the TVs, the DVD players—stuff to help people get by to their next paycheck.”
MVICTORS: Do you ever call in experts to value merchandise?
Seth Gold: “I think one of our first episodes we addressed that. I think we said, ‘We don’t call in experts, we are the experts.’ It’s funny because they’ll [Pawn Stars] will jab at us saying they are the biggest and baddest pawn shop, and we’ll say we’re the biggest and baddest. Overall I think it’s helped our industry.”
MVICTORS: When the crew from TruTV comes in to film Hardcore Pawn, I understand they are in for three weeks at a time and that you have no editorial control over what ends up on TV?
Seth Gold: “That’s exactly right. We just finished a run two weeks ago [mid-December].”
MVICTORS: So does three weeks of filming cover a season of the show?
Seth Gold: “No. It’s about nine weeks total for a season. They have to come back to cover stories that are developing. They can literally base a whole show on a second or on something I say in an obscure moment.”
MVICTORS: Have you or your staff had had any trouble with the TruTV crew?
Seth Gold: “No…it’s a good relationship. Here’s the thing that we needed to realize: They have a business and we have a business. And those two things don’t always meet but you have to understand we’re all working. They have their interests and we have ours, often times you have a couple hiccups, but ultimately we have a pretty good relationship with them.”
MVICTORS: When the cameras are rolling, do you feel like you have to act, or have they been here long enough that you just act naturally?
Seth Gold: “It’s hard because you are doing everything three times. For the first transaction I ever did on camera, there was a customer up front that had an Xbox 360. I offered them $120, because I know what it is. It’s $120. But then the producer calls me aside as says we need to talk about it and that I need to explain why I offered $120. I told him, ‘Because that’s what I do’. The producer said, ‘No, people don’t understand that, you need to explain why.’
“On the show, all you are is a character. And you have to be a little loose in order to keep the characters. When my sister cries on TV, I can’t stand it. It bothers me. With my sister, while we don’t agree a lot on the way things are run here, and she went to Michigan State so obviously I don’t agree with her college choice [laughs], but we’re still family in the end. We’re still trying to provide a service and we have our own personalities but in the end, we’re still family.