License to Pawn
by Rick Harrison with Tim Keown
Published by Hyperion
272 pages, 2011
Tale of a Pawn Star
Reviewed by Brendan M. Leonard
Rick Harrison, one of the owners of Las Vegas’ Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, is an unlikely television star. But the History Channel’s Pawn Stars, a blue-collar Antiques Roadshow and advanced negotiation seminar, is one of the most successful reality television shows. It’s also one of the most enjoyable, and it would be easy for Harrison to cash in on his newfound fame by writing a book that’s mostly fluff and filler. Tell a few good stories, make a few jokes, recap some fan favorite episodes, and deliver it to you, the reader, for $24.99. In and out -- from your wallet to his.
The book Harrison wrote with Tim Keown, License to Steal, is not that book. Many of the aforementioned tropes appear, true, but they’re wrapped within a story that is as unlikely as Harrison’s television fame. When it comes to TV show tie-ins, this is one of the better ones in recent memory.
Credit must go to Harrison for being honest about himself and his family, several of whom appear on Pawn Stars. In the very first chapter, you learn that Harrison suffered from grand mal seizures and was doped up on barbiturates for much of his childhood. A math whiz who wasn’t good at school, Harrison dropped out in the tenth grade, fathered a son at 18, and worked a series of odd jobs before starting the Gold and Silver with his father, Rick Sr. (“The Old Man”). Even then, the company fought to keep its head above water -- Harrison’s description of how he got the shop’s pawn license is a highlight of the book -- before television success made them world-famous.
Despite these struggles, Harrison sees value in them. For example, the seizures left him bedridden as a child, but imbued him with a love of reading and thirst for knowledge. Not only would this passion prove invaluable when appraising an item at the Gold and Silver, but it also puts to rest the question of all Pawn Stars fans: “Does he really know all that stuff?” (OK, not entirely to rest.)
Many of the stories in License to Pawn come from the days before the show. As Harrison reveals, the success of the series leaves him unable to work the floor when not filming, and the reasons why are pretty surprising. These stories, however, are just as fun as an episode of the show, and even if you’re not a fan of the series, you’ll learn something about the wacky, sometimes sad, characters who have come through Harrison’s life.
Readers of License to Pawn will learn about the day-to-day operations of a pawn shop; what it is, how it works, and the services it provides. While these sections of the book are informative and entertaining, they sometimes feel repetitive. Harrison has a chip on his shoulder, and rightfully so. As he points out, the image of a pawn shop owner in our culture is a pretty sleazy one. He considers himself an honest guy, providing a service to people who can’t or won’t go to a bank. It seems like his charming, argumentive nature (he confesses that he loves to argue) goes just a bit overboard here. Thankfully, these sections -- as well as Harrison’s brief tirade against government-run health care -- don’t weigh down an otherwise very enjoyable book.
Harrison and Keown are clever guys, and they know that if you’re buying this book, you’re probably a fan of the show. They also realize that Harrison is not the only star of Pawn Stars, and so his father, son Corey (“Big Hoss”) and store mascot/village idiot Austin “Chumlee” Russell all get their own chapters in License to Pawn. While Rick Sr’s tales of how he made a buck or two in the Navy are hilarious and his devotion to his wife is touching, Corey’s chapter is what sets License to Pawn apart. His narrative of meth addiction and recovery lingered with me for a good while after finishing the book. Corey doesn’t shy away from his less-flattering actions during his years of addiction, but his “cure” eating In-and-Out every time he felt the urge to get high put a big smile on my face, even though I was shaking my head. Chumlee, also a recovering addict, displays the same good-natured attitude that he shows on the show, but his chapter really doesn’t stay with you the way Corey’s does.
License to Pawn is told in a conversational style, so there really isn’t anything special about the prose to quote or tease you with. But if you’ve ever wondered how a pawn shop works, are a fan of Pawn Stars, or are looking for a quick diversion that’s both engaging and informative, this book will exceed your expectations. The Harrisons are unlikely television stars, but time and time again, License to Pawn shows them to be a classic American success story. | August 2011
Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City. He is a January Magazine contributing editor as well as a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet. You can also find him blogging in Here’s the Thing ... with Brendan M. Leonard, or follow him on Twitter.