Pawn shops have become more mainstream in recent years — perhaps because of a struggling economy, perhaps because of the popularity of so-called reality TV shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Hardcore Pawn.”

Regardless of the reason, the pawn broker business has been good to Gerald Couture Jr.

Couture, owner of Jay’s Pawn Shops in Bismarck and Mandan, said the popularity of the cable TV shows has changed the public’s perception of pawn shops.

“I think it really has opened people’s eyes,” he said. “Now, I have a lot of different people bringing really interesting things.”

There are two other pawn shops in Bismarck and Mandan. Owners of those stores declined to be interviewed for this story.

Couture said the shows also have made his customers more educated about what some of their items are worth.

The difference between pawn shops in Bismarck and ones that have made names for themselves on TV is connections.

Couture said he is friends with Rick Harrison and the crew of “Pawn Stars,” the program that is based on a family-owned shop in Las Vegas.

He said the Harrisons have a huge network of collectors to whom they can market their pawn items.

“They deal a lot in collectibles,” Couture said, because the Harrisons can afford to sit on the items until they find the right buyers.

Couture said in the case of his and smaller pawn shops, they must rely on eBay and the Internet to sell some of their most unique items.

And as far as experts — whom TV shows call in to authenticate and set prices for items — Couture said that pool is relatively shallow in smaller markets.

“I do have the people from Vintage Guitar (a Bismarck-based magazine) and Bob Tekippe as my go-to guys for guitars,” he said.

Couture said his “go-to guy” for guns is his son, Nic. “Nic was 5 when we opened our first store,” he said, speaking of the Mandan location, which opened in 1986.

He opened his second store on Airport Road in Bismarck in 1997 and his third on Interstate Avenue in 2000.

This month, he bought the Airport Road building that he had been renting and has been remodeling and adding on, doubling the shop’s floor space.

The additions, work done mostly by Couture and his son, include a new room for storing pawn items and a new gun room. An indoor gun range should be open by the first of the year.

Couture is a second-generation pawn broker, an occupation that came about almost by accident.

Growing up in Mobridge, S.D., Couture said, he pumped gas and fixed tires at his father’s gas station. A customer who had his pickup in for repairs and couldn’t pay the bill up front left his tool box in lieu of payment until payday.

When word got around Mobridge that the Coutures were willing to do business on those terms, Couture said his father decided to turn the garage into a pawnshop.

While in the military in Europe, Couture said his first experiences with the pawn business came as pawn shops popped up around the bases.

“Some were amazing and some were pretty seedy,” he said.

Couture said his father passed on to him a philosophy of treating people fairly and with respect.

Some people don’t have bank accounts or credit cards and can’t make it to their paycheck without help.

“We are here to help,” he said. “We were the first in North Dakota to offer payday loans.” It was an idea Couture’s father offered to him a few hours before he died.

Couture said his shops’ pawn loans average $75 on a 30-day pawn, and before bringing items in, customers should know how much they need to borrow.

On Thursday morning, a few people came through the door of the Airport Road store. One wanted to sell a computer with a monitor.

Couture bought the monitor but won’t buy CPUs because it costs too much to get them checked out for viruses and the like.

One man came into see about selling his pickup, asking $3,000 for it. Couture looked it up and found the book value was less than half of that and no deal was struck.

Many of Couture’s customers are regulars and he calls them by their first name.

One, a young woman, came in for a payday loan. “I’ve already paid out $9,000 in payday loans this morning,” he said.

In the parking lot, there is a 1986 Jaguar that a man pawned and never came back to claim.

While the popularity of the reality TV shows has “absolutely” changed the image of pawn shops in his mind, Couture said treating his customers with respect has had a lot to do with his success.

“If you run a clean store and work hard, you survive.”

Reach reporter Brian Gehring 250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com.