COLUMBIA — A man bearing an AK-47 walks through the door of a pawnshop, strides purposefully across the room and raises the barrel.
The broker behind the counter grabs the weapon. He pulls the bolt, and a round goes flying.
ON TV: RICHARD HARRISON, 72
After getting in trouble in his late teens, Harrison was given the option of joining the military or going to jail. He chose the Navy. Then, after losing millions of dollars in the real estate market, he moved his young family to Las Vegas.
He opened the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Vegas with his son in 1988 and was forced to quickly learn the business. Now, after more than 30 years of experience, he is a master at pegging a price and purchasing underpriced merchandise. He is known on “Pawn Stars” as “Old Man” Harrison or “The Appraiser. ”
Hometown: Lexington, N.C.
Family: He and his wife, Joanne, have three sons: Joseph, Rick and Chris; and a grandson, Corey.
IN COLUMBIA: PAT McCOLLUM, 49
McCollum manages Family Pawn on the Business Loop. With 26 years of experience in the pawn business, he is a match for “Old Man” Harrison. Both also rock the long gray hair and have the same cynical sense of humor.
Workers at Family Pawn know McCollum runs the show. They refer to him as their “fearless leader” and look to him for guidance and advice.
Hobbies: Cooking and fishing for bass, trout and paddlefish. He likes to barbecue, and his best recipes are his pot roast and short ribs.
Family: He and his wife, Teresa, were high school sweethearts. They have two children, Elizabeth, 22, and Meghan, 27.
Favorites on TV: Missouri sports
ON TV: RICK HARRISON, 48
Rick Harrison is co-owner of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop with his father, “Old Man” Harrison. He earned the nickname "The Spotter" because of his ability to spot fake or stolen items.
He was trained in the business by his father from the age of 13 and dropped out of high school to work in the shop. With a top-ranked reality show and thriving business Rick said he has no regrets.
In the show, jokes are usually made at his expense.
Hometown: Lexington, N.C.
Family: Rick has two sons, Corey and Adam, with his first wife, Kim, and one son, Jake, with second wife, Tracy. He is now married to DeAnna Burditt.
Of interest: He suffered from epileptic seizures as a child and developed a love of reading, especially history and physics books.
IN COLUMBIA: STEVE WEISE, 50
Weise manages Family Pawn on Paris Road. He point out that he has more hair than Rick Harrison, and he is also the butt of the jokes at Family Pawn. Steve says his coworkers make jokes at his expense because he is boss and the biggest target, the “top dog.”
Like Harrison, he has mastered the skill of pegging the value of an item.
Time in the business: Seven years. Before that, 27 years in hotel and restaurant management.
Hobby: Used to shoot pistols competitively and now shoots shotguns and pistols recreationally.
Family: Celebrated his 20th anniversary last August to wife. Teri. They have two children, Bret, 19, and Catelyn, 5.
Favorite TV show: “Dora the Explorer,” which he watches with his daughter. “I know Boots,” he said. “He is part of our family.”
Of interest: Weise regularly visits Las Vegas and has been into Gold & Silver Pawn, where “Pawn Stars” is shot.
ON TV: COREY HARRISON, 30
He is Rick's son and is known on “Pawn Stars” as “Big Hoss.” Corey is in charge of the daily operations of the shop. He began working at the pawn shop when he was 9 and hopes to one day take over the family business.
Hometown: Lexington, N.C.
Family: Corey is the son of Rick and Kim.
Of interest: He is the author of "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals and Life at the Gold and Silver," published in 2011.
IN COLUMBIA: DAN TRIM, 41
Trim manages Tiger Pawn on the Business Loop. Like Corey, he learned the trade of by working with his father. While a student at MU, he worked at the store with his dad, then took it over in 2003.
Time in the industry: 23 years.
Hobbies: When he isn’t taking care of his three dogs and two daughters, Trim likes to play fantasy baseball and Xbox 360.
Family: Trim has been married to his wife, Mickie, for 11 years. Their children are Bella, 6, and Taylor, 4.
Favorite TV show: "Breaking Bad"
Of interest: Trim is the star of the YouTube video Tiger Pawn created in 2011.
Stunned, the customer sputters a string of excuses, but the broker doesn't even flinch. After 10 years of working in a pawnshop, nothing surprises Josh Keller.
Keller has smashed old teeth to extract gold casings. He handled a customer who wanted to pawn stinky catfish bait.
Once, a woman came into the shop trying to unload a bulky bag of goods. When Keller reached inside to check, he felt something warm and mucky. Raw chicken parts.
“You never know who or what is going to walk through the door,” said Keller, a broker at the Family Pawn off Business Loop 70.
His job is dynamic, he says, and he likes it that way. On any given morning he might sell a Rolex watch, a prosthetic leg or a 20-gallon tank still full of tropical fish.
“What makes it, is the variety,” Keller said. “You are dealing with people, and all of the people are different, and their stuff is different and their needs are different. If it was the same thing every day, I literally couldn’t take it.”
The pawn business
A pawnshop has an unusual place in American commerce. It can be a discount store for shoppers, a bank, a dump for surplus junk or a collector's dream.
Columbia has three — the Family Pawn on the Business Loop, a Tiger Pawn two blocks down the road and another Family Pawn on Paris Road.
Some of these shops have been around for more than three decades, but in the past five years, business has been boosted by a set of reality TV shows that are both outrageous and compelling.
“Hardcore Pawn” and “Pawn Stars,” both hits since 2010, have not only altered the image of pawnshops but have been a factor in their steady expansion nationwide.
The National Pawnbrokers Association estimates that the number of pawnshops grew from 6,400 in 2007 to 10,000 in early 2012.
“More Americans are turning to pawn stores at an increasing rate," said Ben Levinson, president of the National Pawnbrokers Association, a trade organization based in Texas.
Keller and other pawnbrokers say they appreciate the attention the reality TV shows have brought to their business.
"They took away the intimidation factor and provided free publicity," Keller said.
A pawn is the collateral exchanged to secure a loan. Customers bring in items, and a pawnbroker offers an amount based on a percentage of their value.
The store keeps the item for up to 90 days. If the customer returns and repays the loan plus interest, the item is returned. If not, it is moved to the floor to be sold.
Customers can also sell items to the shop or buy pawned merchandise. Often, a customer can work out a special deal, payment or extension with the broker.
"The process here is just easier," Keller said. "You don't have to look at a credit score, and we don't report to the credit bureau, which for a lot of people may be a positive thing."
The two most popular reality shows have played a role in educating a new generation of customers about the way pawnshops operate.
"Pawn Stars," which debuted in July 2009 on the History Channel, showcases the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. It has made stars out of pawnbroker Richard "Old Man" Harrison, his son Rick and Austin Russell, the baby-faced assistant known as Chumlee.
In one episode, a customer brings in a straitjacket allegedly worn by illusionist Harry Houdini in 1915. Rick Harrison calls in an expert to verify its authenticity while his father plays with a loudspeaker described as a relic from Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers until the stadium was demolished in 1960.
The New York Times has called the Harrison family "mercantile folk heroes."
In its review of the series, the Times cited Rick Harrison on the revenue generated after one year on the History Channel: "He estimated that sales, which average $750,000 a month, were up 20 percent to 30 percent since the series began."
The second TV hit, "Hardcore Pawn" appeared in August 2010 on TruTV. It is set in a warehouse in suburban Detroit called American Jewelry and Loan, and it features members of the Gold family with their inventory of 45,000 items.
"Hardcore Pawn" presents a rougher picture of the business. Brother and sister Seth and Ashley Gold are in ongoing competition for sales, and obscenities routinely fly between customers and employees.
"A customer bringing in a cannon to the 'pawn stars' would trigger an examination of its history. TruTV has a customer with a homemade cannon that Gold just wants to see blow up in his parking lot."
More entertaining than TV
On a recent weekday at the Family Pawn on Paris Road, “Fat Bottomed Girls” is playing over the speaker as customers fill the store with their chatter.
The room is bright and the door is in constant motion as people come and go, searching for a deal or a treasure. The phone rings frequently, and laughter sometimes trumps the music.
David Buxman, the newest employee at Family Pawn, claims local shops aren’t duplicates of the TV shows, but the behind-the-scenes fun is similar. Employees poke fun at each another as if they were siblings.
On this particular day, Buxman had run inside the shop after sprinting from his car during a downpour. His light blue shirt is drenched from the heavy rain.
“Dave, I think it’s raining outside,” says fellow employee Andy Mack, smirking over his Jack Daniels mug of hot coffee.
“Yup,” Buxman answers with sarcasm.
“But the love is still there,” Mack replies with a smile.
Mack and Buxman have known each other for at least six years. They met at a Christmas party, and their wives are best friends.
“You don’t know what I slipped in your coffee,” Buxman continues.
“Yes,” says Mack, “and you’re fired from the band."
Still, Keller said, Family Pawn employees care about each another. When one had a sick child, another worked six days in a row so he could be with his family.
“We are together so much we are kind of a family,” Keller said. “A lot of customers assume we're related.”
James Cozad, 46, who has been on disability since 2002, is a regular. In mid-afternoon, he walks into the shop and puts a white gold ring on the counter.
"Can you check this out?" he asks. "My eyesight isn't as good as it used to be."
"It's because you are old," the man behind the counter tells him, cracking a smile.
"Bite me," Cozad exclaims. "You're older than I am."
Pat McCollum, manager of the pawnshop, examines the ring with a jeweler’s loupe. He tells Cozad, whom he has known for more than 25 years, that the ring is 14-karat gold.
The two men work out a deal: Cozad will trade this ring for a yellow gold ring he pawned earlier in the month.
"They help me out every once in a while when I need it," Cozad said as he places the yellow gold ring back on his finger. "The economy is so terrible, and the government doesn’t seem like they want to take care of the average man.”
Like other customers, he turns to pawnshops for quick cash. It is also his first stop when shopping for electronics, jewelry and firearms.
"I usually check here before anywhere else because it's less expensive," he said.
A safety net for many
Pawnshops were introduced to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, according to "A Brief History of the American Pawn Shop" on bloomberg.com.
They have long been a source of financial assistance for Americans. During the Great Depression and other periods of hardship, pawnshops often carried families from paycheck to paycheck.
They were especially crucial financial centers in cities where workers in manufacturing jobs were paid such low wages that they pawned items routinely for food and other necessities.
This position on the economic fringe, however, often set the pawnshop up as a dubious enterprise. A number of movies and TV shows, including "The Pawnbroker," "Pulp Fiction" and "Law & Order," have portrayed them as back-alley places full of stolen merchandise and criminal activity.
Brokers in Columbia acknowledge the delicate balance between the desire to help customers and the need to run a successful business. They recognize that some customers assume they are trying to deceive them, but they say customers must also understand the profit imperative.
Brokers like Joe Swartz of Tiger Pawn insist they are fair when determining an item's value. Swartz, who has been working at his shop on the Business Loop for two years, said the more time he spends in the shop, the better he gets at gauging a fair price.
He takes into account the original sales price, how the item has been used and how many are like it in the store.
"I have to think about what we can sell it for if you don't come back," he said. "We always hope for the best but it's more about helping people out with a short-term loan."
Pawnshop owners say the reality shows on TV have helped reverse some of the negative stereotypes. They say they have also worked to improve their image with friendly service and strong customer relationships.
"We just do what we can do make a great first impression," said Dan Trim, owner of Tiger Pawn in Columbia. He managed the store with his father for 10 years before assuming ownership 11 years ago.
Ronnie Long, 32, has patronized all three pawnshops in Columbia. Long said he has been pawning for more than half his life.
"I only pawn if I need the money right there," he said. "It's a week at most, then I'm back in to get my stuff back."
On one recent day, Long was in to pick up two tool kits he pawned for cash. He claims they are worth $300, but he only got $2o. Sometimes he complains about getting too little, but he said it's usually "exactly what he needs." It's easier than trying to sell it, and he can get his stuff back.
Keller said he sees customers who are trying to get rid of goods and other who need cash for groceries or rent. Some shoppers might stop at a pawnshop first to see if they can get a better deal than buying from a department store.
Nikki Reynolds, owner of the End of the Rainbow Childcare Center in Columbia, patronizes pawn shops to buy supplies for her business. Reynolds said she has purchased computers, vacuums, refrigerators, cameras and DVD players at Tiger Pawn and other shops.
"You can't go to any other store that has everything that we have for the prices we have," Keller said.
"Anytime you have microwaves and hand guns in the same room, you know you are in for an interesting day."