American Jewelry and Loan isn’t just your every-day shop… It’s Hardcore Pawn. I got the chance to sit down with Les and Seth Gold, who were able to educate me a little bit on the art of the pawn, how to haggle, and the importance of the family unit. They also gave me a little peek into their daily lives, telling me about all the crazy things people try to sell nowadays. Some of it is pretty unbelievable stuff. Ever had someone pop out their glass eye and try to sell it to you? Well they have.
Tell me about the history of American Jewelry and Loan.
Seth: American Jewelry and Loan was founded in 1978. We started off in a 1200 sq. foot store in a shopping center about a half a mile from where we are now. We moved several times within that same mall until the landlord decided they didn’t want a pawn shop anymore and gave us 30 days to find a new place. That’s when Les just happened to hear about a bowling alley that was considering selling their building. A 50,000 sq. foot bowling alley!
Les: What can I tell you? I saw the future of American Jewelry and Loan in a big way! I walked in and it was packed with bowlers. A week later, it was closed and we began renovating. But, I kept four lanes operating, so we could bowl in our spare time!
Seth: We still have those four lanes. Only now they’re filled with merchandise!
Les: But, to take you back even further, I began in the pawn business at my grandfather’s side 54 years ago. I made my first deal at 7.
Age 7?! That’s dedication. I guess I’ll let the fact that I can’t come bowl at your shop slide. (I joke.) How do you feel pawn shops have evolved over the years, especially with the down-turn of the economy?
Seth: Pawn shops are a barometer for the economy. So, we saw the recession coming months before it hit. More and more people were coming in for loans -- people who had never been inside a pawn shop.
Les: And, we saw a lot of new customers on the retail end as well. People are still having birthdays. They still have anniversaries. They still want to celebrate. But, they’re looking for better deals. A video gaming system costs $300 retail. At American Jewelry and Loan and on our website pawndetroit.com, you can find that same system for $125. The only difference is a pretty box. Do you really care if someone has used it a couple times when you can save that much money?
Seth: When Hardcore Pawn began airing, people started seeing pawn shops in a whole new light. Now it’s cool to find a deal at a pawn shop – and pre-owned is the way to go.
It’s funny how views have changed. One thing that never changes is your motto, “The customer always lies.”
Les: It’s not that they always lie. But, a lot of them do embellish. Let’s say 75%. Listen, customers will do anything to get more money and they think if they pull at our heartstrings, we’ll give them more cash. But, it’s still a business, so we can’t get sucked into the drama.
I see what you’re saying. I’m a softie, so I don’t think I could cut it. Any other philosophies that are important to keep in mind?
Seth: It’s not about the story. It’s about the piece. That’s the biggest lesson I had to learn here. Oh and don’t listen to anything Ashley says. (He laughs.)
I come from a Jewish mother, so I know a thing or two about the art of the “haggle”, but I’d like to hear about it from a professional. What is key to know when it comes to haggling?
Seth: You can’t be nervous to negotiate. Most people are uncomfortable with it. So, the person who is calm and understands what they’re negotiating for is going to prevail. And, you’ve got to be prepared to walk away.
So what does it take to be a successful and educated pawn-broker?
Seth: You have to understand your customer’s needs and the products you’re dealing with.
Les: And, that you’re going to hear a lot of crap – so don’t get caught up in it.
What are some of the most off-the-wall, bizarre items that people have brought to your shop to pawn?
Les: A guy brought in an alligator. He thought he’d keep him as a pet, until he saw how big he was getting and how much it cost to keep him from getting hungry! We thought about putting him out front at night to keep the bad guys away, but we opted for something that didn’t require constant feeding.
Seth: Like security cameras and gates. And then, there was the guy with the glass eye. He came in with nothing in his hands and said he needed a loan. Then he popped out his eye, right in front of us! Really, how are we going to sell an eye?
Whoa. So, other than people’s eyeballs, what kind of items do you just have a “no pawn” policy for?
Seth: Bodily fluids. A guy brought in a vile filled with sperm. Well, he said it was sperm. It’s not like we tested it. Either way, we weren’t buying.
So, what was the highest-priced item you’ve ever profited from in the shop?
Les: People bring in things all the time for a $500 loan that are worth a lot more. But, you pay interest on the amount you borrow, so people tend to only borrow what they need at that moment. If they don’t come back at the end of 90 days, it’s ours and we sell it for its value. So, it’s not unusual to sell a piece we take in for $500 for $5000.
Seth: But 80 – 90% of people pay their interest and pick up their items. We want them to come back and get their stuff. No one wants an unhappy customer coming in 30 days late and finding out their merchandise is gone. But, as you see on Hardcore Pawn, it happens.
Have you ever taken in an item that just never sells?
Seth: Yes, Les takes in many things that sit on our shelves! That’s why we keep those bowling lanes open! Actually, everything sells eventually – assuming Les is willing to part with them. Even the party bus we bought on Hardcore Pawn. That sold 5 times! Fortunately the 5th check actually cleared!
How did you American Jewelry and Loan get involved with Hardcore Pawn in the first place?
Les: Actually we were in the right place at the right time. A producer happened to come in and see the potential. We’ve always said that what happens at American Jewelry and Loan is like a reality show waiting to happen – and then it did.
What do you think draws so many viewers to your show?
Les: I think we give people a window into something they’ve never seen. Until recently, if you didn’t need a pawn shop, you probably never had any concept of what they were all about.
Seth: We also have a lot of interesting customers. Look, this is a real business in a real urban setting. Detroit has been facing economic challenges for a long time, so every person that comes in here has a story. They wouldn’t be here otherwise.
Les: Unless they just want a great deal on a diamond ring or a Rolex, of course.
Seth: And, people seem to be intrigued by our family drama, which is a reality show of its own!
Les, tell me how you and Seth differ in your philosophies regarding the shop.
Les: I have the right philosophy and sometimes Seth thinks he does.
Ha. And Seth, what areas in the way things are done in the store do you feel there’s room for improvement in?
Seth: Les is focused on the brick and mortar store. I’m trying to move the store into the 21st century. That’s why we launched our e commerce site, PawnDetroit.com. So, now we can sell 24/7 to people around the world, which is cool, because we’re also airing in the United Kingdom and Australia. It’s pretty exciting.
Tell me about some of the other workers on Hardcore Pawn and what you think they bring to the show.
Seth: Felix just cracks everyone up. We love to watch customers try to antagonize him and you just expect this guy to haul off and punch someone at any minute – and out of nowhere – he says something that just makes everyone laugh. Nothing gets to him. And, Rich always adds some levity to the situation. Not long ago a customer brought in a “Prince Albert”. For those of you that don’t know, a “Prince Albert” is a penis piercing mechanism. Rich told Dennis it was a whistle and to try it out.
Les: Of course Dennis knew better, since he has one. Well, we think he does. (He smiles with a wink.)
What are the benefits of working with family?
Seth: No one has your back like family. There’s no question, we have our disagreements, but in the end, there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for one another.