Pawning off stardom

Viewers have been loving pawnbrokers on TV, but what’s the real deal?

Employees Marquis Dickens,left, and Corey Robinson,right, inspect jewelry from a customer that hopes to make a quick sell.

Blake Leigh

Employees Marquis Dickens,left, and Corey Robinson,right, inspect jewelry from a customer that hopes to make a quick sell.

by Spencer Doar

Jory Herman is realer than the real of reality television’s stars of pawn: He’s a third generation pawnbroker with 31 years’ experience who runs his family’s 78-year-old Hy’s Pawn and Jewelry.

Herman’s business and others like it are fodder for a newer TV-show phenomenon characterized by “Hardcore Pawn,” “Auction Hunters,” “American Pickers,” “Storage Wars” and the History Channel’s “Pawn Stars.”

The click of the employees-only restroom door is audible from where Herman is standing in Minneapolis’s Hy’s Pawn and Jewelry.

“Did someone just go into the bathroom?” Herman asks. Sure enough, a patron had gone behind the counter and helped himself.

Pawn shows are big on these moments of unpredictability, but they fail to capture the everyday reality of running a pawnshop.

First, they rarely focus on pawning. Pawnbrokers are not solely resale jewelry and electronic stores. Rather, pawn shop owners primarily give short-term loans determined by the value of the customers’ items.

“Most of our business is pawn,” said Miciah Kotts, a manager at Uptown Pawn. “We get a lot of jewelry with the price of gold so high.”

Second, “Pawn Stars” doesn’t capture the natural customer ebb and flow, instead soliciting business from individuals with unique items.

“My former boss at Pawn America was trying to sell his collection of vinyl,” said Ben Johnson, a veteran of multiple pawnshops. “He gets a call from the folks at [“Pawn Stars”], asking if he wants to go to Vegas.”

TruTV’s “Hardcore Pawn,” set along Detroit’s M-102 highway, aka 8 Mile Road, is realistic in the eyes of pawnbrokers as it captures the day-to-day happenings of the business. Even then, the producers of “Hardcore Pawn” are playing into the stigma that pawn shops are somehow seedy or cater to the down-and-out.

Herman points out that he does a lot of white-collar business. Real estate agents who cannot make it commission-to-commission are a common sight.

“We have an executive from General Mills that’s here all the time,” said Herman. “We have a Minnesota Vikings player that comes in occasionally.”

That’s not to say that oddball items and customers are a fabricated occurrence. Rare and valuable items do come his way.

“Craziest thing I’ve ever seen is a guy that came in with a jar of eyeballs,” said Johnson. “We didn’t know what to do with them.”

Herman has seen gold dentures, monkey skulls and even had a painting that ended up at Christie’s auction house.

But when it comes to watching these so-called reality television shows, it’s most important to use common sense. This wave of shows is just another reminder that reality television rarely encapsulates any reality at all.

In Herman’s words: “How many people really have an antique suit of armor sitting in their basement?”