Nikki Ruehl and Minda Grabiec
These Naperville Pawn Queens are taking over TLC
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Lately, just about every cable network is seemingly obsessed with retail treasure-finding. American Pickers and Pawn Stars have done great things for the History Channel, but they often focus on oil cans and Civil War swords, or what the Pickers call “mantiques.” There’s a huge gap in the “TV shows about buying neat stuff” market for women.
Enter Nikki Ruehl and Minda Grabiec, stars of TLC’s new Pawn Queens, who buy and sell everything from wedding dresses to suits of armor. As the owners of Naperville Jewelry And Loan, the two aim to make pawnshops non-shady, female-friendly environments. As to whether they succeed, that’s up to TLC viewers, who can find out when the show debuts tomorrow night. Before that, though, The A.V. Club talked to Ruehl and Grabiec about old refrigerators, knock-off purses, and fancy-pants suburban moms.
The A.V. Club: Why does making pawning lady-friendly matter?
Nikki Ruehl: It’s important because women shop a lot more than men, and they like being able to find merchandise at a discount even more.
Minda Grabiec: Women have a ton of stuff sitting around the house, and outside a garage sale or passing it along to a friend, there’s no way to unload it and recoup expenses. We’re friendly gals, and we wanted to make sure that we had a comfortable shop for Naperville women.
NR: Naperville women, including myself, tend to have a lot of expensive stuff. It works well for me, because I love all that expensive stuff, and then I love to have somewhere to unload it when I’m done with it. I can only hold on to so much stuff.
I have 12 purses, and I’ve spent $500 to $2,000 on them. What am I going to do with them? It’s nice to have a pawnshop for that. I can get what I want, carry it for a season, and not feel bad about getting rid of it.
AVC: How did you get into the business? Did you grow up in pawnshops?
MG: We have no history of being a pawnshop family or anything like that. Nikki’s a big retail shopper, and we were having a lot of garage sales and recycling her old stuff. I’m a big garage-saler and estate-saler, and so we came together and thought, “Hey, what better time than now—with the economy the way it is—to open this kind of shop?” It’s done well, and we’re very lucky. We just moved into a bigger space, and we have more merchandise.
We started it with primarily Nikki and my stuff, and our stuff was focused on women, but now working with the guys [Greg Holloway and Tom Brunzelle, who also appear on the show], we’ve been able to expand and hold more inventory.
NR: Before we opened in January of ’09, we really started getting hardcore into estate sales and Craigslist, just really trying to gobble up all the stuff that we could so we could open the doors with a bunch of merchandise.
MG: Before we opened, we did a lot of gold parties as well. They’re still popular now, but they were very popular at that time, especially in the Naperville area.
AVC: It certainly looks like you’re doing well now.
NR: TLC picking up our show has increased our business; it’s the best advertisement you can get besides word of mouth. We’re extremely grateful for that. It’s stressful at the time when we’re shooting, but we’re grateful to have a show on TLC, which is one of the biggest and most watched networks.
AVC: How did you land the show?
MG: Jason Morgan is one of the owners of the production company, and he’s from Naperville. He came back for his 20-year high school reunion, heard about our shop, and came to see us. We shot a pitch tape at the end of ’09, and it’s all snowballed from there.
AVC: Naperville is a little fancy-pants, suburb-wise. How have you made it socially acceptable for ritzy moms to come out and look for used items?
MG: Well, that’s what Nikki and I wanted. We’ve been really welcoming. We’re out and about talking about it. We tell our friends. We go to our kids’ activities and talk about it. The TLC attention doesn’t hurt, either. Most of the people who come in have never been to a pawnshop before, and we try to be friendly and personable. We’ve been accepted warmly.
NR: I think that being female residents of Naperville and having that caliber—well, it’s like not like we’re slimeballs and this is some slimeball place. We’re approachable-looking—that totally helps. You don’t walk in, and our hair’s slicked back, and you think, “I’m going to get ripped off.” No one would walk in and think we’re going to rip them off.
MG: I think, also, that everyone knows gold is at an all-time high. There’s nothing wrong with going into your box and getting some junk gold from the ’80s that no one wears and bring it in. You’ll walk out with a few hundred dollars—no one’s ashamed to do that. If you come in for that, you’ll see the merch is great, and you’re going to want to stay and shop.
AVC: On the pilot for the show, you have people from Chicago coming in to sell you stuff. Do people really drive out to Naperville to see you guys?
NR: People come from North Virginia, now that we’re on TV.
MG: Since the pilot aired, we’ve had people come from every state surrounding Illinois. We have women coming in from the North Side of Chicago and all over the place. It’s just great.
AVC: I’m sure a lot of people are bringing in neat things.
NR: Even if we don’t know what something is, we have the means to investigate what it is and find out what it’s worth, so we get all this cool stuff we haven’t seen before. I need to write things down, because I cannot possibly remember everything that comes through the door, what it is, how much it’s worth, whatever. So, I write stuff down and keep track.
We’re starting to see really cool stuff, though. I mean, we’ve always seen cool stuff, but we’re definitely getting very expensive stuff in now.
AVC: How expensive?
NR: Greg has a story about a guy coming in with $100,000 worth of coins. We’re not financially prepared for that yet, but we’re getting there. It’s fun, you know. It’s an experience. We’re growing, and the more we grow, the more we can take in.
AVC: Do you ever just want to buy everything that comes in?
MG: Totally, totally. It’s the root of some of our biggest arguments.
NR: It does get hard. I’m a shopper. I like things.
MG: Once in a while, we allow ourselves a little discount, but to be fair to each other, we try to keep the business the number one priority and shop later.
AVC: What’s the biggest treasure you’ve found—the thing you paid $1 for that was worth $10,000?
MG: We got a call to check out an older fridge. We didn’t know if it ran and we were checking it out in a person’s garage, so there’s not too much research you can do. We got it for around $100, and it was worth thousands. Surprise!
A lot of people bring in gold teeth, believe it or not. Gold is gold, though. It sells.
NR: That’s Minda’s expertise. I won’t touch teeth.
MG: A lot of women and men bring in knock-offs, and that’s more Nikki’s department, spotting fake purses. We don’t deal in fakes. That’s important.
AVC: What happens when you break the news to someone that their item’s a fake?
MG: 50 percent of the time people get really sad. The other 50 percent of the time they think we’re not going to know.
NR: They know it’s fake, and they’re all, “Oh, really.” Yeah, really. I think that the people who bring in fake stuff that know it’s fake, there’s no sympathy there, and they’re really easy to spot.
AVC: So, what’s the ultimate goal for Naperville Jewelry And Loan, other than to make a lot of money?
NR: We totally want to grow. That’s the idea of any business, to grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. We want to keep doing a good show, too, to get more episodes. That’s the best advertisement you can have.
So, we definitely want to have more shows and more business. We want to get into a Walmart-sized building because we have so much business.
MG: I don’t know about Walmart-sized, but we’ve already moved from our original location four months ago into this place that has four times the square footage. That’s been great.
I guess we have to wait and see how the show goes and if we have to bring on more staff. We won’t really know until it happens how big we’re going to grow, but it could happen fast. We’ve gotten a lot of foot traffic from the show, and it’s exciting. We’ve already been able to grow quite a bit, and we’ve spent zero dollars on advertising.
NR: Absolutely. We have not spent anything on advertising. That’s just awesome.