For almost all of his 61 years, Les Gold has known exceptionally well the value of a dollar. And just about everything else.
The owner of Detroitâs internationally famous pawn megamart American Jewelry & Loan â and star of truTVâs Tuesday night hitÂ Hardcore Pawn â says he made his very first sale (a hydraulic jack) at age seven while âworkingâ at his granddadâs shop.
As hardcore Hardcore fans know, that store â Samâs Loan Office â would go on to become the Golds’ sprawling 50,000-ft store. And the charismatic Gold and his children Seth and Ashley would become the best-known brokers in the business when word of their pawnshop and its steady stream of colorful customers reached the truTV producers.
“The production crew came by and they loved my character and my kidsâ characters, and they saw that we were 50,000-square -foot-shop dealing with 1,000 customers a day,” says Gold of his surprise segue from pawnshop owner to TV star. Â “And they realized that if thereâs 30,000 items at the back of the store, thereâs 30,000 stories.Â Fast-forward to now, weâre on Season 5 and weâre going full-steam ahead!”
It’s a full head of steam that Gold and his family (wife Lili is also part of the business and the show) are proud to share with their lifelong hometown of Detroit, and their customers/fellow residents also waste no opportunity displaying Â their allegiance for the Hardcore Pawn cameras.
“It’s normal for us,” Gold says of Hardcore‘s’ rampant Â civic pride. “Iâve been an advocate of the city of Detroit since 61 years ago when I was born here. My children have been in the business for most of their lives. We know that Detroiters are very resilient and when times are tough, Detroiters get tougher and they become part of the growth of the city. When the city was really staggering during the recessions, they worked hard, and weâre coming back. So weâre a big advocate â we think Mayor Bing is doing a great job and Police Chief Godbee and weâre proud to be a part of the city of Detroit.”
Gold is also proud that the presence of television cameras hasn’t changed one thing about the way American Jewelry & Loan does business â which can be a real rarity in the reality TV industry.
“The way it works is we run a business and the TV cameras follow,” Gold explains of his unspoken deal with his network partner. “They have to work around us. What you see during the show is exactly what it is. We donât have a staging area â we donât have any of that stuff. Unlike other shows that are similar to ours, ours is more caring about the customer than about the item. Itâs âWhy do you need the money? Are you going to be able to pay us back the money? How did you get the item and when are you going to get it back?â Itâs a full story line with every customer.”
Gold shared more of his thoughts on the new season, the business, retirement and changing economic times, and the one thing he wouldn’t trade for any amount of money â his family.
Channel Guide Magazine: Last Tuesday’s premiere episode started out with a bang â especially the VCR guy and Bruce Lee’s “sister.”Â How much has the show increased the flow of characters to American Jewelry & Loan?
Les Gold:Â Weâve always had characters â that was part of the draw when the production people came and saw us.
We deal with a thousand people a day. And weâre their last resort. Where are they going to go if we donât give them money? So theyâre hyped up and theyâre trying to receive the money â and you know when television cameras are on everyone wants their couple minutes of fame. So I can’t say they wouldnât do some of the things theyâve done if they werenât on camera. But our customers are desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Theyâll do almost anything to raise our emotions, because theyâre playing on that emotion.Â And sometimes you hear some of these stories and theyâre horrific. So we do as much as we can for as many people as we can.
CGM:Â My favorite part of the show â and what I think is one of its most interesting and unique elements Â â is when personal emotion or personal interest enters the picture for you or one of the kids where a deal is concerned. Do you prefer those kinds of transactions, or is it easier when someone is just coming in to sell their TV for extra cash?
LG: Much easier without the emotional bond! There was one transaction that we showed and it was a young lady whose father passed away and she needed $700. And my thing was, âGod, I hope sheâs not lying!â Because we gave her the money. She came back a couple days later to show me she wasnât lying and she brought me the funeral program, and I reached in my pocket and gave her more money out of my pocket that I never expect back. Since then, sheâs been a regular customer.
And if you saw the premiere show the other day, a gentleman who was on disability came in and pulled his [artificial] eyeball out.
CGM: … and I don’t think there is another business out there that could possibly offer such a wide â and weird â range of emotional interactions.Â
LG: There isnât one.
CGM: You also have more of a front row seat to the changing status of â and devastating effects of â the economy.
LG: Weâre an economic barometer. We can tell you three months in advance how the economy is going to be, because if the pawn lines are longer, that means the economy is bad. When the loan lines are shorter and people have disposable income, that means that the economy is on the uptick.Â Right now, because of the holidays, itâs an [unreliable] barometer, but come January, weâll be able to tell way in advance how the economic times will be in the new year.
But no matter what, our retail department still does good business because people still have birthdays, anniversaries, engagements.
So the good thing about this show is that it shows the nation â and that goes for any pawnshop in the country â that retail is for suckers! People go to the mall jewelry store and if theyâd come to the pawn show, they could save anywhere from 40-80%
CGM: Retail is for suckers â that should be your new motto. But Hardcore Pawn is probably the first look many people have at a pawnshop and the pawnbroking business … for better or worse.
LG: Thatâs what people have never seen. The pawnshop business is still the same as itâs always been. The difference is that now people in the United States, in the UK and in Australia where the show is viewed see how a pawnshop really works â and now people see how the other half lives. Weâre not just talking about the good half. Weâre talking about the half thatâs desperate.
But theyâre also realizing that, you know what, itâs really cool to come to the pawn shop.Â Seth, my son, has become the youngest president of the National Pawnbrokers Association in Michigan â and itâs now become cool to go to the pawn shop. So now you get these suburbanites from everywhere whoâve never been to a pawn shop and now they see us on truTV and they realize that itâs really cool.
CGM: How often do you hear from other pawnshops owner seeking advice or ideas?
LG: Regularly. They call up regularly, and they come in frequently and thank us for portraying a real pawnshop operation. You’ve seen the other shows. We donât deal in gambling guns. We donât deal in million-dollar pieces. Somebodyâs going to pawn a $50 ring. Somebodyâs going to pawn a $30 television set.
Reality. Real life. Real drama. Real emotion â that is what you see when you see the show on tru.
I tell people that when you drive down the street and you see a car accident, everybody turns their head. You donât want to be in that accident â but you do want to see what happens. And thatâs kind of the draw for the show. People want to see what really goes on. Itâs something that theyâve never seen in their life.
Pawn shop has always been a dark industry. In the mid ’60s when it was Rod Steiger playing a pawnbroker, it was dark âŠ it was a dark store. When you see us on tru, you realize itâs not dark. Weâre a department store that just happens to be a pawn shop. Actually, itâs in reverse â weâre a department store that just happens to be a pawnshop. Because the pawnshop is the draw.
CGM: I think the Gold family is part of the draw, too … you guys are characters.
LG [laughing]: The Gold family has some emotional outbursts amongst each other! You know, when I was on the premiere show on Tuesday night, when I was thinking about buying this store, Ashley and Seth definitely had opinions on how the store should be run. It may not match up with how I think the store should be run, but they have their own emotions. And thatâs why you often see the two of them getting into it.
They provided a unified front Last Tuesday against me doing the new store. But thatâs the same level of emotion they have toward each other when they donât agree on something.
CGM: Well, to that end, with the idea of expansion, youâre on the cusp of some big changes for your business and your family in this season akin the when Ashley left and returned? Can you give me an idea how this will affect what the viewers will see compared to past seasons?
LG: To be honest with you, I think Season 5 is the best season yet. Thereâs been a lot of good shows â because, you know, I see them in advance. Thereâs a lot of comedy scenes â three weeks from now thereâs a great show and I wonât give it away, but there are some great interactions between Seth, Ashley and the customers that will have you rolling on the floor.
And the end of the season will have some very emotional ups and downs between my children and each other and with me.
CGM: Â Because the pawn business has been your family business for multiple generations, and youâve been a part of it since you were seven, would you have been heartbroken if your kids didnât want to go into the business?
LG: Let me be perfectly honest with you. Ashley was all-in as a child. She loved coming to work. Seth, on the other hand, couldnât deal with it. It wasnât until his last year at the University of Michigan â he was in pre-medical school â and it wasnât until his last year that he said, “You know, maybe this is for me.”
He called my wife Lili â we were out of town â and he called my wife and said, “You know, I think I might want to go into the family business.” And my wife Lili said to me, âSeth wants to come into the family business.â And I go, âWhose family business is that?!â Because there was no way it was going to be ours [laughs].
Getting Seth to come into the store to work Christmas was like him going to dentist and getting a root canal. He was not really an advocate of the pawnshop. And part of that was, as he grew up, his friends had parents were professionals. So, âWhat does your dad do?” “Heâs a pawnbroker.” It wasnât as exciting. It wasnât as cool to be a pawnbroker as it is to be one Â now.
CGM: I just can’t imagine what it would be like for you if neither of the kids wanted to go into the business, and you were the last of the generational line…
LG: Neither can I.
Like I said, Ashley was always into it. When she was a little girl, I used to bring her in here and she would write pawn tickets even though she couldnât reach the window. She would sit on a high stool. So I knew that Ashley would be involved in it. And I was hoping that that would be her career. Sheâs got children and thatâs really her career, but I really do believe that once the kids move out, she would be more than happy to come back and run it every single day.
CGM:Â Do Seth and Ashley have the pawn business â the assessing and negotiating skills â Â in their blood, or have your taught them everything they know?
LG: You cannot be a pawnbroker unless its in your blood. Especially at the level that we are.Â It doesnât come easy; you have to work hard it. And Iâm still not convinced that itâs Seth time to run the business.
And I would never retire. [laughs] Thatâs not even an issue. The day that I die is the day that Seth can take over fully. Thatâs part of this seasonâs issue â you know, how smart he thinks he is. So the excitementÂ that youâre going to see this season is what I think of him running the store if I were to retire.Â Which is never going to happen!Â When the day comes â and it does for all of us â he can take over, but until that day comes, he and Ashley will run it as a team with me at the helm.
CGM: It has to be cool for you to have all of these episodes as a record of what you’ve done â sort of like except at work.
LG: Thereâs no question! My grandkids absolutely love it. Every Tuesday they look forward to Hardcore Pawn because itâs Popsy â thatâs what they call me â and Mom and Uncle Seth. So itâs great. Itâs absolutely great. Hmmm, I wonder if I have to pay truTV for those?
CGM:Â What do you do to keep yourself educated about the kinds of things people bring into the store? Or do you just trust your gut after this much time in the business?
LG: I know a little bit about a lot of things. One of the reasons is because Iâve been in this business my whole life, so Iâve kind of seen almost everything.
Now the new technology thatâs coming in, I leave that up to Seth and Ashley. Iâm not that computer savvy â Â and I know thatâs the wave of the future. Because of the Internet, youâre able to check on items when people bring in things that are very different from what people normally bring in â the Internet is a very viable option to check pricing.
Seth has come up with our web site at pawndetroit.com which has opened up the opportunity for people to get the deals as if they were walking into the store. When people go to pawndetroit.com, thereâs no difference from if they walk into 20450 Greenfield where our store is located â they can get the same deal.
CGM: What percentage of your business would you say you do via the web site?
LG: We probably do 10 percent.
In some of the older shows, Seth brought it to my attention that this is what he wanted to do, you know, I donât know from that. I know brick-and-mortar building, so he had to convince me that this was a viable option for doing our business.
CGM: It just seems as though the personal interaction and the personal stories that go hand-in-hand with pawnbroking are so integral to the business that the web could never replace traditional pawnshop pawnbroking.
LG: It will never go away. Thatâs not what pawnshops are. Every deal, every transaction â even on our web site â is a negotiation. âWould you take X amount of dollars for that?â So itâs always interesting.
CGM: And you seem like you especially enjoy that person-to-person contact … and you can be a pretty emotional guy.
LG: I try not to because then you pay too much [laughs]. Thatâs what I try to tell Ashley â keep the emotion out of it. But sheâs a pretty emotionally-charged young lady. To say the least âŠ
CGM: You also clearly enjoy being at the shop and being immersed in the business. What do you do on your day off?
LG: Right now I donât take a day off [laughs].
Most of the time I spend it with my wife. But on a daily basis, I work out. I work out seven days a week, which keeps me focused. Before I come to work, I work out every single day.
Now come Sundays, my family, my kids, my grandkids â thatâs what important. Thereâs scenes â when Seth got me the sign for my birthday that was the sign for Samâs Loan where I used to work. Â I was cryinâ like a baby. Thereâs nothing more important to me that my family â thatâs what I live for. Thatâs why Iâve worked as hard as I have, because I wanted to support them. And now that I have grandchildren â which was a big shock to me, because my friends have always told me, you donât know how much you can feel until you have grandchildren. You donât see them on the show and you donât see Ashleyâs husband and Sethâs wife on the show because we donât want to get them involved.
But thereâs nothing more important to me than my wife, my children, their spouses and my grandchildren. Thereâs nothing more important than that.
New episodes of Hardcore Pawn air Tuesdays at 9pm ET on truTV.