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 Detroit’s internationally famous pawn megamart American Jewelry & Loan — and star of truTV’s Tuesday night hit Hardcore Pawn — says he made his very first sale (a hydraulic jack) at age seven while “working” at his granddad’s shop.
As hardcore Hardcore fans know, that store — Sam’s Loan Office — 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 kids’ 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. ”And they realized that if there’s 30,000 items at the back of the store, there’s 30,000 stories. Fast-forward to now, we’re on Season 5 and we’re 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 their allegiance for the Hardcore Pawn cameras.
“It’s normal for us,” Gold says of Hardcore‘s’ rampant civic pride. “I’ve 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 we’re coming back. So we’re a big advocate — we think Mayor Bing is doing a great job and Police Chief Godbee and we’re 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 — 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 don’t have a staging area — we don’t have any of that stuff. Unlike other shows that are similar to ours, ours is more caring about the customer than about the item. It’s ‘Why 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?’ It’s 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 — his family.
Channel Guide Magazine: Last Tuesday’s premiere episode started out with a bang — especially the VCR guy and Bruce Lee’s “sister.” How much has the show increased the flow of characters to American Jewelry & Loan?
Les Gold: We’ve always had characters — that was part of the draw when the production people came and saw us.
We deal with a thousand people a day. And we’re their last resort. Where are they going to go if we don’t give them money? So they’re hyped up and they’re trying to receive the money — and you know when television cameras are on everyone wants their couple minutes of fame. So I can’t say they wouldn’t do some of the things they’ve done if they weren’t on camera. But our customers are desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They’ll do almost anything to raise our emotions, because they’re playing on that emotion. And sometimes you hear some of these stories and they’re horrific. So we do as much as we can for as many people as we can.
CGM: My favorite part of the show — and what I think is one of its most interesting and unique elements — 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, “God, I hope she’s not lying!” Because we gave her the money. She came back a couple days later to show me she wasn’t 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, she’s 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 — and weird — range of emotional interactions.
LG: There isn’t one.
CGM: You also have more of a front row seat to the changing status of — and devastating effects of — the economy.
LG: We’re 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. Right now, because of the holidays, it’s an [unreliable] barometer, but come January, we’ll 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 — and that goes for any pawnshop in the country — that retail is for suckers! People go to the mall jewelry store and if they’d come to the pawn show, they could save anywhere from 40-80%
CGM: Retail is for suckers — 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: That’s what people have never seen. The pawnshop business is still the same as it’s 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 — and now people see how the other half lives. We’re not just talking about the good half. We’re talking about the half that’s desperate.
But they’re also realizing that, you know what, it’s really cool to come to the pawn shop. Seth, my son, has become the youngest president of the National Pawnbrokers Association in Michigan — and it’s now become cool to go to the pawn shop. So now you get these suburbanites from everywhere who’ve never been to a pawn shop and now they see us on truTV and they realize that it’s 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 don’t deal in gambling guns. We don’t deal in million-dollar pieces. Somebody’s going to pawn a $50 ring. Somebody’s going to pawn a $30 television set.
Reality. Real life. Real drama. Real emotion — 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 don’t want to be in that accident — but you do want to see what happens. And that’s kind of the draw for the show. People want to see what really goes on. It’s something that they’ve 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 … it was a dark store. When you see us on tru, you realize it’s not dark. We’re a department store that just happens to be a pawn shop. Actually, it’s in reverse — we’re 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 that’s 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 that’s the same level of emotion they have toward each other when they don’t agree on something.
CGM: Well, to that end, with the idea of expansion, you’re 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. There’s been a lot of good shows — because, you know, I see them in advance. There’s a lot of comedy scenes — three weeks from now there’s a great show and I won’t 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: Because the pawn business has been your family business for multiple generations, and you’ve been a part of it since you were seven, would you have been heartbroken if your kids didn’t 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, couldn’t deal with it. It wasn’t until his last year at the University of Michigan — he was in pre-medical school — and it wasn’t until his last year that he said, “You know, maybe this is for me.”
He called my wife Lili — we were out of town — 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, “Seth wants to come into the family business.” And I go, “Whose family business is that?!” 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, “What does your dad do?” “He’s a pawnbroker.” It wasn’t as exciting. It wasn’t as cool to be a pawnbroker as it is to be one 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 couldn’t 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. She’s got children and that’s 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: Do Seth and Ashley have the pawn business — the assessing and negotiating skills — 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. It doesn’t come easy; you have to work hard it. And I’m still not convinced that it’s Seth time to run the business.
And I would never retire. [laughs] That’s not even an issue. The day that I die is the day that Seth can take over fully. That’s part of this season’s issue — you know, how smart he thinks he is. So the excitement that you’re going to see this season is what I think of him running the store if I were to retire. Which is never going to happen! When the day comes — and it does for all of us — 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 — sort of like except at work.
LG: There’s no question! My grandkids absolutely love it. Every Tuesday they look forward to Hardcore Pawn because it’s Popsy — that’s what they call me — and Mom and Uncle Seth. So it’s great. It’s absolutely great. Hmmm, I wonder if I have to pay truTV for those?
CGM: 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 I’ve been in this business my whole life, so I’ve kind of seen almost everything.
Now the new technology that’s coming in, I leave that up to Seth and Ashley. I’m not that computer savvy — and I know that’s the wave of the future. Because of the Internet, you’re able to check on items when people bring in things that are very different from what people normally bring in — 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, there’s no difference from if they walk into 20450 Greenfield where our store is located — 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 don’t 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. That’s not what pawnshops are. Every deal, every transaction — even on our web site — is a negotiation. “Would you take X amount of dollars for that?” So it’s 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]. That’s what I try to tell Ashley — keep the emotion out of it. But she’s a pretty emotionally-charged young lady. To say the least …
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 don’t 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 — that’s what important. There’s scenes — when Seth got me the sign for my birthday that was the sign for Sam’s Loan where I used to work. I was cryin’ like a baby. There’s nothing more important to me that my family — that’s what I live for. That’s why I’ve worked as hard as I have, because I wanted to support them. And now that I have grandchildren — which was a big shock to me, because my friends have always told me, you don’t know how much you can feel until you have grandchildren. You don’t see them on the show and you don’t see Ashley’s husband and Seth’s wife on the show because we don’t want to get them involved.
But there’s nothing more important to me than my wife, my children, their spouses and my grandchildren. There’s nothing more important than that.
New episodes of Hardcore Pawn air Tuesdays at 9pm ET on truTV.