Pamela And Jack Wright: Houston's Pawn Stars

We know we're a little late to the game, but Hair Balls recently became a fan of Pawn Stars, the History Channel's beer-gutted, blue-collar answer to PBS's effete, pinky-sipping Antiques Roadshow. (Which we also love.)

Thanks to its Las Vegas setting, and of course the fact that it is, after all, on TV, the brand of reality on view in the Harrison family's Gold & Silver Pawn Shop is not quite the same reality you would find in most pawn shops.

For one thing, most of them, whether they are in Vegas or here in Houston, are no longer family-run. Chains like Cash America and EZ Pawn have bought out most of the independents in the last couple of decades.

And the inventory in most of these stores is nowhere near as exotic as what you see on Pawn Stars. Instead of Lou Gehrig autographed jerseys, jeweled Ottoman ceremonial daggers, and silver engraved personally by Paul Revere, the typical H-Town pawn shop will sport an array of battered power tools, shelves of TV sets and other electronics, a few cases of Jared-type jewelry, and usually a few electric guitars, most likely hocked by Little Joe Washington. (Kidding!) Often there will be more than a few firearms for sale too.

In Houston, mid-Westheimer's Wright Pawn and Jewelry Company is a big exception to that gritty pawn shop grind and the closest thing we have to a Pawn Stars-type store.

Hair Balls spoke with co-owner Pamela Wright about the 35-year-old business she has operated with her husband Jack Wright since 1992. Wright Pawn and Jewelry does not stock tools or guns; Pam says they like to keep the focus more on items like "jewelry, designer handbags, fur coats, upper-end electronics and musical instruments."

Exotica like that you see on Pawn Stars is not unknown there. One such was the antique skull of a Thai monk, she says.

"It was encapsulated in silver, and there were inscriptions carved in it in Thai that said something like 'If you drink wine from this skull you get the wisdom of the monk.' Of course my husband said 'With our luck, it would be a crazy monk.'" (While they never drank from it, Wright says the skull's purchaser has reported having done so several times over the years.)

On Pawn Stars, you often see enthusiastic host Rick Harrison fall in love with an item, though seldom to the point where he pays (much) more for it than it is worth at resale. Wright recalls one item that almost caused her to allow sentiment to overwhelm business sense.

"There was this large Victorian diamond and pearl necklace, and you could take the necklace apart and turn it into a tiara," she gushes. "It was fabulous, and I wanted to keep it, but it was early in our careers, and we just had to turn it."

Just as you see in Pawn Stars, Wright has been privy to a lot of stories over the years. One of her favorites: An 87-year-old lady brought in an heirloom ring at the beginning of every semester of her grandson's stint in dental school. "She would get a loan at the beginning of the semester, pick it up, and save it for the next part to help him get through. That was a wonderful, wonderful story. The love of a grandmother for a grandson...And he really appreciated it." Wright says.

As you might expect, not all of her stories are so heartwarming. "About ten times" over the years, she has watched as women found out their engagement rings were near-worthless fakes. She says she would usually then discover that these were whirlwind romances, often of an older man to a younger woman.

"It would always be a really large stone, too," she says. "Usually you can tell if they suspect it, but I've had women break into tears at the counter, especially if they are in the middle of a crisis and they've been holding that item to bail them out. It can be heartbreaking."

While she has an obvious profit motive, Wright seems to genuinely enjoy helping people out. She says the number one stressor in her job is when she can't help. Not only will she not make any money, but neither will the customer, and to make matters worse, she often finds herself in the position of having to tell people that cherished items are valueless. Chief among these, she says, are "collectibles" -- plates and stuff like that.

"Anything that is marketed as a collectible is not going to increase in value," she says. These things people have collected over the course of their lifetimes...They think they are the only ones, but when they go to sell the collection, they find out many people were thinking the same thing, and the market is flooded. Back before eBay, these people would think they had one of two plates in the whole world, but now they can see they have one of 5,000 plates. So eBay has done a great service valuing stuff."

The other is handbags, she says. "A woman will buy a Louis Vuitton handbag and just wear it out," Wright says. "She'll bring it in all scuffed and with gum stuck to the insides and then expect us to pay pretty much what she paid for it. It doesn't work that way.'

Wright says that today's tougher economic climate has been apparent in her business. More people are bringing in heirloom jewelry, but don't expect to see it on the store-room floor. She says most people are borrowing against that to fund things like payroll and/or health insurance for their businesses and/ or their mortgages.

"The amazing jewelry, the stuff that makes people go 'Oh my goodness, look at that!' like they do on Pawn Stars, the owners want to hang on to," says Wright. "They want to get loans on that stuff. So yeah, both our pawn inventory and regular inventory has increased."

So much so that Wright says they are getting ready to double their size, just like the store on Pawn Stars.

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