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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Rick Harrison, Pawnbroker

“The lawyer eventually said, ‘Give him his license. He was the first one there.’”

I always bought and sold stuff. My dad had a shop and a secondhand license, and so I wanted to do this too, but I was a naïve 22-year-old kid. So I go down to the city and say, “Well, I want a pawn license,” and they say, “Well, no,” and I said, “Well, why not?” They hand me the city code, and apparently what happened was in 1955 the good ol’ boys got together an ordinance saying they’d issue one more pawn license when the city population got to a quarter of a million. In 1955, there was 25,000 people living in Las Vegas, and so I ask her what’s the population now: “I don’t know.” I called the city statistician, and it was 200-and-something thousand. I started calling the city statistician once a week, and then in April of ’88, he told me, “Yeah, we think it’s a quarter of a million now.” So as a naïve 23-year-old, I went down to the city saying, “I want my license. I’m the first one here, right?” And they wouldn’t give it to me, and I got a lawyer, the lawyer eventually said, “Give him his license. He was the first one there.”

Probably around 1990, a lady comes into the shop. I was always like a super book nerd, and, remember, in 1990, there’s no internet, so I had piles of books in the pawnshop for research, and I would literally have a pile of notes to go into the library and look stuff up on the weekend. This lady has got some photogravures of American Indians. Photogravures were the most precise reproduction right around the turn of the last century, 1900. Instead of having a glass plate and a camera, you would actually have a copperplate and the light would photo-react with the copperplate, then you could print directly from the copperplate to paper as opposed to through glass negatives, into a copperplate, and then print. You have one less layer where you’re not losing resolution. But the thing is with photogravures, you only get like a little over 100 prints out of them and they’re gone. These were photogravures of American Indians, but they were really, really cool. I thought they were worth money, but I had no idea. So I gave her 50 bucks for them. Then I went to the library. I found out they were done by Edward Curtis. In the world of American photography, No. 1 is Ansel Adams and No. 2 is Edward Curtis, and all the negatives were in the Smithsonian. I got over $20,000 for them.