Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison has a wooden phone worth more than an iPhone

The Pawn Star talks about buying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's goggles and living off-grid.

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Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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  • Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Patrick Holland
6 min read

Rick Harrison talks about high-tech gadgets from the past.

John Kim/CNET

I'm at the world-famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas surrounded by displays of guns, decorative knives, Hollywood memorabilia and the most rings I've ever seen in one place. The framed Nirvana In Utero album and its $859 price tag catch my eye, but not my wallet. I've come to meet Rick Harrison from the popular TV show Pawn Stars. He's going to show me some high-end technology that dates back to the 1890s.

Pawn Stars premiered on the History Channel in 2009 and is now shown across 150 countries in 38 languages. Its formula is straightforward. A customer wants to sell a rare object. The Pawn Stars determine whether it's worth anything and then negotiate with the customer to get the best deal.

What makes the formula work so well is the Harrison family, aka the Pawn Stars. Rick Harrison, his son Corey Harrison and Corey's friend Austin "Chumlee" Russell are the main cast. Perhaps the most beloved of the Pawn Stars was Rick's late father, Richard Harrison, nicknamed The Old Man.

The close-knit family is argumentative, funny and renowned for getting the best deal they can on any item that crosses their glass counters. Pawn Stars is Antiques Roadshow for the everyman. 

"One of the reasons people like my television show: You learn history from your uncle, not a professor," Harrison tells me.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Harrison twice over two days in early January. The first time was at his shop (you can watch video of that chat above). The second was a segment during CNET's live show at CES you can view below.

We talked about topics ranging from wooden phones and Darwin to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and what makes an item collectible. Harrison just opened a second Las Vegas location of his shop in the Venetian Hotel and Resort. He'll also be part of the inaugural HistoryCon hosted by the History Channel this spring. Think Comic-Con for history nerds.

One of the reasons I visited Harrison was to figure out what makes something valuable.

"Here's sort of a rule of thumb on what will be collectible," he says. "What was really cool for a guy when he was 16, 18 years old, when he's 50 years old, has money and wants to relive his youth, that's when that stuff goes crazy in price." 

That would explain the unopened copy of Super Mario Kart for the SNES with a $1,950 price tag on it. Here's a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Let's look at some of the old tech you have that's actually worth money.
Harrison [pointing to a small printing press]: This was high-tech when it came out. This was like the first home personal printer. It's a consumer product from the 1890s, and you could make business cards like postcards, things like that. You're talking cast iron here. And to get cast-iron precision parts wasn't technically feasible until the 1890s when more technology was coming out on casting temperatures, casting materials, everything else like that.

Cast iron printing press from the 1890s

This small cast-iron printing press is basically the original home printer.

John Kim/CNET

Nowadays, people look at stuff like, "This is so high-tech." But remember, in the 1890s they were still sitting around like, "The amazing time we live in! This technology is absolutely amazing." The same thing was said in the 1930s and 1950s. In the 1970s, when you can actually get a Pong system at your house, I mean, like, "Whoa!" Every year, every generation, every decade, we think we're living in the most technologically advanced time. And we kind of were. Stuff like this was a big deal back then.

Slide projector from the 1920s

This old slide projector used a lightbulb and glass slides to project images onto a wall.

John Kim/CNET

This is a 1920s slide projector. It used glass slides, but it was high-tech for the time. It took an electric lightbulb, had great optics. It seemed like every 10 years all through the 20th century they got better and better with lenses and stuff like that.

The telephone, right here [points to a wooden telephone the size of a shoebox] -- this was really cool because it was a compact model. You didn't have to have a giant thing on the wall.

This is like their version of a smartphone.
This was high-tech when it came out. The high-tech stuff that's at CES will probably be really cool collectibles 50 years from now because it'll be old-school tech.

Wooden wall phone

This wooden wall phone was considered compact in its day.

John Kim/CNET

What role do technology and gadgets play in your life outside of Pawn Stars?
I live off the grid half the year. I power three houses, a machine shop, a well and all these other things off the grid. I have some weird technology that I have to constantly deal with like regulating permanent magnet alternators and windmills. I actually had to build diode banks and deal with buck-boost transformers and all this other crazy stuff. I mean, once you're talking three houses and everything is spread out ... that means a lot of weird old-school tech and new tech.

A big part of your show is your master negotiation style. Could you give us any tips on how to negotiate?
Be willing to walk away. Because if you're not willing to walk away, you're just going to pay what the other person tells you to. I get asked all the time, "What's that one thing you didn't buy that you wish had?" And I say, "None of them." Deal's not right, the deal's not right. Walk away. The best advice I can give anybody.

Making art out of old typewriters

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I hear one deal you didn't walk away from is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's goggles.
He had a bunch of stuff going up for auction. I found out about it and was able to get to the auction before and talk to him. And then I ended up buying the goggles off him. I had one little caveat, though: He had to bring me to a Lakers game. Which was like ... I'm just telling you, one of the most baller moments of my life. I'm sitting like three rows up and it's me and Kareem watching a basketball game together.

With his goggles?
Well, he didn't bring the goggles with him.

That might be a little weird.
But I got them on display right over there. You have to understand, too. It's not like today. Players today would have a new pair for every game. He bought like one or two pairs a year. In my opinion, he really is the greatest basketball player. You know, everyone says [Michael] Jordan. I really think Kareem was the greatest basketball player ever. Remember, college basketball outlawed the dunk because of him. And then after he was out of college, they were like, "OK, we could bring it back now."

Watch this: Pawn Stars shows us an old wood telephone worth as much as an iPhone

Do you see gadgets and stuff today like a smartphone that's actually worth holding onto?
What, Apple came out with face recognition? How else did the phone change? I don't think phones change that much in the next year. Maybe download speeds or something like that. But I think in a few years, like a lot of different things, they'll start making them with more bling.

Electronics seem to have a short lifespan. If I had a laptop from the '80s, the battery's not going to work, or the software. Does that affect the value?
Not that long ago, I dealt with an Apple I computer. And those things can go up to half a million dollars. It's got to be cool to begin with and it's got to be pretty rare. There's a lot of cool collectible technology stuff that's starting to go for a lot of money. I know one guy wants half a million dollars for his original, sealed Mario Brothers. I actually sell video games for thousands of dollars because those are collectible now. Everything changes. It's Darwinism. You always have to change because if you stay stagnant, you're going to go out of business. Plain and simple.

I see my childhood behind you. Zelda. Mario 3.
Old Nintendo games sealed in the package can be worth a lot of money nowadays.

Are people buying to just have them or are they playing them?
People collect things. Helps relive their childhood. That's what they get into. Just about everybody collects something.

You're participating in the inaugural HistoryCon. Tell us a bit about that.
History Channel is going to have HistoryCon down in Pasadena. And they're going to have all the celebrities that are on the History Channel. Plus, there's going to be a lot of speakers on history, there's going to be some events, too. It'll be fun, man. It'd be great because you could nerd out and learn something.

Watch this: Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison talks retro tech live from CES

Originally published last month.