How TLC’s ‘Pawn Queens’ came to Naperville

May 24, 2011 – Daily Herald – By Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff

You never know when a Naperville connection will come in handy.

In 2009, reality TV producer Jason Morgan was in town for his 20-year Naperville North High School class reunion when a friend told him about a local pawnshop that bought and sold high-end women’s items like Tiffany jewelry and designer handbags.

Morgan stopped in at Naperville Jewelry & Loan to meet owners Nikki Ruehl, Minda Grabiec, Greg Holloway and Tom Brunzelle.

He liked what he saw.

“Their personalities jumped out immediately. (Nikki and Minda) are complete opposites, and they’re both very, very funny,” said Morgan, who’s produced shows like the History Channel’s “Deep Sea Salvage” and CMT’s “Trick my Truck.”

When Morgan returned to Los Angeles, a production assistant who had been scouring the Web for unique pawn shops came across Naperville Jewelry & Loan and asked Morgan, “Have you ever heard of Naperville?” but she pronounced it “nap-erville.”

Soon, cameras were filming the daily business of the suburban shop for TLC’s new show, “Pawn Queens,” which airs two back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

One previous episode featured a customer who’d left a diamond ring as collateral for a loan. She came back to pay up and collect her ring — but became furious when it couldn’t be found. Customers also can sell items outright at the shop, leading to another episode where Nikki and Minda discovered some gold jewelry they bought might have been stolen property.

The season began May 4, and the season finale airs Wednesday. The show regularly features cutaway shots of Naperville’s water towers and signs.

Next month, the network will decide whether to renew “Pawn Queens” for a second season. More than 1 million viewers have tuned in each week, Morgan said.

“That’s very good for cable,” he said.

The show focuses on the aspect of the business the owners like best — seeing the strange items people bring in. One day it could be a zebra rug, the next day a human skull (from a science lab), a Judith Leiber purse, a 1930s refrigerator or a box of “Slammin’ Sammy’s Frosted Flakes,” featuring former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa.

“It’s the thrill of what’s going to be next,” said Holloway, of Naperville.

At the end of the show, viewers get an update of how much the shop paid for the item, and what it sold for (if it did).

Ruehl’s a former stay-at-home mom who loves shopping. With the economy still wobbly, she said people are unloading expensive items. Once in a while, she ends up buying the items for herself.

“While there used to be a stigma about pawn shops, now there’s not,” added Grabiec, a former dental hygienist turned co-queen. “It’s actually kinda cool now to say, ‘I don’t pay retail for my things.'”

Morgan, a University of Illinois graduate who fled a job in engineering to found a Hollywood production company, was enamored with more than just the pawnshop when he returned to Naperville. The trip reminded him what a great town Naperville is to raise a family, so he and his wife bought a house and plan to move back, he said.

“We hope to be back there soon,” he said