Blame it on the economy or conspicuous consumption. Whatever the reason, TV these days is brimming with shows about people buying, selling, appraising or pawning their stuff.
"Stuff" encompasses a lot of territory, from a rusted gas station sign on American Pickers or a pinball machine on Auction Hunters to a half-million-dollar piece of art on Antiques Roadshow or evidence from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping on Pawn Stars. And then there's just plain, everyday used stuff, from old costume jewelry to childhood toys.
People are searching their attics, basements and garages for hidden treasure to turn into cash. Scavengers are searching them (with permission), too, as well as abandoned storage lockers, barns and out buildings on farms or large properties.
In the '90s, shows that appraised items were as rare as discovering a $10,000 chair left in the attic by your home's previous owner. Most people are familiar with PBS's Antiques Roadshow, a staple on the network since 1997. But back in the days when we actively went to garage and estate sales, we watched Personal fX: The Collectibles Show, which began airing live at midday on FX in 1994 and lasted a couple of years.
Today, a whole genre exists. You can take your pick from History's Pawn Stars and American Pickers, A&E's Storage Wars, Discovery's Auction Kings, Spike's Auction Hunters, TLC's Auctioneer$, truTV's Hardcore Pawn, the aforementioned Antiques Roadshow, or even reruns of Cash in the Attic on HGTV.
Though the shows have similarities, each has its own flavor. Our clear favorite is Pawn Stars on History.
(A marathon airs against the Super Bowl this Sunday, Feb. 6, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. ET.)
The action takes place at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where the shop's customers can be as quirky as the items they bring in to sell or pawn. They meld perfectly with the show's "stars," three generations of the Harrison family who oversee operation of the store.
The shop was established in 1988 by Richard Harrison ("The Old Man"), who was looking for a fresh start after losing a million dollars in the real-estate market. The savvy senior Harrison moved his family to Vegas, opened the store and through crafty negotiating turned his initial $10,000 investment into a multi-million dollar business.
The shop is run by Richard's son, Rick, who learned the business at his father's knee from age 13. Though he dropped out of high school to make his "fortune" selling Gucci knockoffs, Rick is astonishingly knowledgeable on a variety of subjects, which he attributes to his passion for reading. His keen eye can spot a fake that would fool most everyone else.
Rick's son, Corey ("Big Hoss"), started in the business at age 9. Though he and his best friend, the buffoonish Austin "Chumlee" Russell, get stuck with a lot of the grunt work at Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, Corey is also in charge of hiring, firing and managing eBay clients. But at this point in his career, Corey has more attitude than knowledge, and knows just how to push both his father's and grandfather's buttons.
Yet between the assortment of items that comes in off the street to get bought, pawned and appraised, and the divergent personalities of the store's staff, this show may have single-handedly changed the image of pawn shops from cheesy establishments where sleazy patrons hang out to the next best place to shop after the outlet mall.
Of course, while most pawn shops deal with mundane electronics and jewelry, Pawn Stars focuses on the fascinating. No doubt due to its high profile from TV exposure, viewers have been privy to seeing items such as a Grammy award, documents with John Hancock's signature, a chessboard made with wood from the Titanic, and Civil War fractional currency being offered for sale. And there seems to be a never-ending supply of antique weaponry, classic cars and classic guitars. In an interview with TV Guide last summer, Rick Harrison said that the coolest stuff in the store at that time included a flag that had been on the moon and the first issue of Playboy magazine featuring Marilyn Monroe.
Because this is the History channel, Pawn Stars is more than just a reality show about making a profit -- you actually learn things. To that end, there are experts the Harrisons consult to ascertain the authenticity and worth of objects brought to them for sale. Perhaps the most recognizable, because of the large amount of weaponry shown, is Sean Rich, whose specialty is antique arms and armor. Rick Dale, who has been shown restoring everything for the Harrisons from an old gas tank to a salesman's sample of a Coca-Cola cooler, has actually scored his own show on History, called American Restoration. There are also experts on western props, signatures, fine art, car restoration, historical artifacts and Early American history.
But mostly the show is just fun, an everyman's Antiques Roadshow, without the didactic pomp and circumstance. It allows itself to be both informative and goofy, and feels like a more organic way to learn about something you might not have known about. And with its half-hour running time, it always leaves us wanting more.
New episodes of Pawn Stars premiere Mondays on History at 10 and 10:30 p.m. ET. Check listings for repeats of current and previous seasons' shows.