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Hawaii's Pawn Stars

Pawnshops are a nearly recession-proof businesses. We decided to find out more about the way pawnshops work, and what’s behind the counter in Honolulu’s best-known outlets.

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Kamaka ukulele at Liliha Pawn.

Photo: Olivier Koning

“It helps them through that bad stretch between paydays,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by others I talked to, including Richard Cornell, whose family has been running Bag’s End Pawn II on Kalakaua Avenue for more than 20 years.

“We have customers we’ve been dealing with for over 10 years, every other month,” he says. “We don’t ask them too many questions about why they are pawning something. Some people have extra expenses that they need money for and when they get their paycheck, they come in and pick [the pawned item] back up.”

Customer loyalty is also rewarded when the collateral item isn’t as good as gold, but rather iffy, such as a year-old laptop computer.

“If we like the person, we’ll let them do a loan a few times even if it’s for electronics, like laptop computers,” he says. “We’ll give them the same price we’ve given them over the past several months even though the value of the laptop isn’t as high. Because we know they will pick it up.”

Bag’s End Pawn II is one of the larger pawnshops in town  and mainly deals with gold, platinum and diamonds.

“We want things we know we can sell or melt down,” Cornell says. The meltdown rate for gold is publicly available online daily, making gold easy to sell on the open market.

What he and his mother, Thuan Brechler, don’t want in the pawnshop are things that are going to sit around, taking up space on the shelves, like construction tools. In a bad economy, everybody wants to sell power tools, not buy them.

He also sees a lot of iPods, DVDs and cameras. For the most part they don’t sell, and,  once pawned, don’t get picked up.

I asked Cornell how he’ll know when the economy is picking up.

“Once we start getting some space to walk around in here,” he says.

Ironically, Cornell said he would like to buy a real samurai sword, but they just aren’t available. If he bought one, he’d keep it on display in the store for tourists, much like his prized Russian, triangular-shaped guitar, called a balalaika.

Cornell said quite a few tourists visit Bag’s End, but the store is nothing like what has become the most famous pawnshop in the world, Gold and Silver Pawn in Las Vegas, home of the hit History Channel TV show Pawn Stars.

Pawn Stars features store owner Rick Harrison, and his father, who is simply called “the Old Man,” his son, Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison, and a goofy shelf-stocker named Austin “Chumlee” Russell.

Pawn Stars has attracted an audience mainly because of the exotic items people bring in to sell and pawn, from race cars to Civil War rifles to treasure maps.

John Spiker, owner of the store All Hawaii Gold and Silver on Waialae Avenue, and president of the Hawaii Pawn Brokers Association, is happy that Pawn Stars shows his industry in a good light, but points out that a certain amount of artistic license is taken in producing it.
“Pawnshops in Hawaii don’t have people walking in trying to sell hot-air balloons and boats like they do,” he said.


Liliha Pawn is one of the largest pawn shops in Honolulu. Part-owner Dale Ichishita says gold—which was worth $380 an ounce in 1996, but now commands more than $1,200 an ounce—is king for pawnshops.

Photo: Olivier Koning

I love the TV show and doing this piece for HONOLULU gave me the questionable justification for getting hold of the guys from Pawn Stars. I was hoping to hear some bawdy stories from the bald-headed, bouncer-looking Rick, or the curmudgeonly Old Man, but the PR person for the show hooked me up with the sea manatee-like Chumlee. Chumlee’s job on the show is to appear witless, and he does it well.   

Chumlee says Hawaii tourists and Island transplants to Vegas are frequent visitors to the shop. Before Pawn Stars became a hit, the Vegas pawnshop got about  70 visitors daily. Today, it gets 700 people a day, mostly tourists just wanting to see the inside of the place. They start lining up outside the store at 8:30 a.m., a half hour before it opens.

“We probably see 40 to 50 people from the Islands here every day,” he says. “They come in and some buy stuff. Some bring us gifts like Maui onion potato chips, mac nuts and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, which is always great.”

Some Hawaii visitors who have bad luck in the casinos do pawn things, like Hawaiian bracelets and jewelry. Other Hawaii items that have been pawned or sold at the shop over the years include vintage Hawaiian shirts and Kamaka ukulele. The items pawned by Hawaii visitors often have sentimental value and usually are reclaimed, Chumlee says, but not always. Sometimes, what’s pawned in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.

The question that comes up watching Pawn Stars or talking to Hawaii pawnshop owners is, “Why sell your personal possessions to a pawnshop for half of what they are worth when you can sell them on eBay or Craig’s List for their actual value?”

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,November

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