NIGHT AT THE PAWN SHOP
It’s Pawn & Co’s 10th birthday! When the iconic venue opened Forbes Magazine headlined Pawn as one of “Five Dazzling New Bars Across the Globe.” Ten years on and the Pawn & Co. team reckon they are gonna out-dazzle their past selves with a four-day celebration big enough to spark new headlines.
‘For our birthday we have created a pawn shop that comes to life,’ says Mikey CT, Pawn’s longstanding GM. ‘Like all the iconic toys, dolls, and figurines the venue has had for sale alongside our cocktail list, people can expect real-life toys coming out of 7-foot-tall toy boxes. But it’ll be with the Pawn sense of creativity and fun. There will be Transformers performing and, who knows, maybe latex Barbie and Ken will come out to play! And, of course, all the usual gangsta gold watches, jewellery, trumpets, and antique replica guns will all be for sale at Pawn’s 10th birthday.”
‘Our tagline “The only bar in the world where everything is for sale” has always been at the heart of who we are,’ says Josh Lefers, one of the seven owners. And, as far as the owners are concerned, “everything” doesn’t only mean vodka sodas, martinis, jewellery and random objects like trumpets and bikes, it even includes themselves. As quirky as ever, the owners have placed a price tag on themselves. ‘We are putting your money, where our mouths are. Over the course of the four-day festivities, patrons can bid to buy a day with each of the owners of Pawn!’ Lefers says with a grin. ‘Don’t confuse the spelling though. No one is getting that kinky. But people can bid to have each owner as their butler for a day!’ All proceeds from the auction are going to X charity.
Along with the owners, the only other item getting auctioned will be the portrait of Kramer. ‘This has been our most sought-after pawn item since our launch. We have always placed a lofty price tag on framed artwork so no one would buy it. You’ve no idea what a pain in the arse it was replacing our Baby Grand Piano when it sold at 5 am, one Saturday night! So, for the first time ever, Kramer is going to auction,’ Keti said, the only female of the 7 owners.
She might be the sole female representative, but her business partners say she has all the support in the world from them. ‘Keti continues to be a great driver in our business,’ says Stephen Wools, another of the owners. ‘She’s in the thick of the action. She ensures that Pawn gets marketed according to the plan that she works on with the team. And, in any case, she’s not a woman alone. She is surrounded by the creme de le creme of female company at Pawn,’ Wools continues. ‘We’ve hosted so many female superstars; not least of all Dita Von Teese, for a secret burlesque party during her highly successful Australian tour, and the world-beater DJ Nora en Pure has headlined several sell-out weekends.’
The iconic venue has been a regular playground for celebrities such as Dylan Alcott and Buddy Franklin over the years. At the end of the lockdown, UFC featherweight champ Alex Volkanovski jumped behind the decks in celebration of his fight. He had his work cut out though with previous world-class DJs including Miguel Campbell, Riva Starr, Luigi Madonna, Detlef, Latmunn and Dom Dolla. ‘We’ve been an institution for international and local celebrities that want to get down and really party over the years,’ Wools says. ‘I can’t say more than that as we do pawn, but we don’t kiss and tell.’
Melbourne My Style chats to Josh Lefers.
Where did the idea/concept come from to call the club Pawn and Co?
Steve Thomas, Keti Kezonovic and Andrew Travers who were business partners at a venue in St Kilda were recommended to find Stephen Wools and myself (and our business Big Dog Creative) to help them create a brand-new concept and brand for their venue. They were great operationally but didn’t know much about design, concept, and brand. And so, I took the lead with Stephen Wools and the Big Dog team to design 29th Apartment for them. When the opportunity came, we decided we would all make great partners for a new venture. Stephen and I didn’t know about the operational side of things as much and so we went about our roles:
Pawn & Co. is a brand and concept Stephen Wools and I created. The first trigger for the idea was that Steve and I had discussed a cafe in New Zealand that sold all the furniture you sat on. It stuck in my mind for many years. Sure, maybe I got a bit obsessed with the thought. And then years later it became a fit as I started considering what this new bar/club could be. Steve and I had been travelling a lot for big brands we were doing strategy and creative for around the world. We had seen enough clubs, especially in LA and New York. We were shooting docos for one of our clients, some in the illegal tunnels under New York’s subway system. We became obsessed with prohibition, even travelling under the entire city in long discarded tunnels that were used to smuggle booze.
Locals showed us more current versions of prohibition bars like Please Don’t Tell, where you had to walk through a hotdog stand to get to a stunning cocktail bar. At that time, it was totally incredible to us. Now of course it’s more common. Back then, we knew that’s what Melbourne needed. But we didn’t want to make it just a two-dimensional concept. We didn’t want just the idea of a pawn shop you walk through and then it’s a club as normal. We wanted to have patron participation. Make it a night of curiosity to see what they would find that they could play with on the night. That they could take away and remember their time at the pawn shop. We wanted to be the ‘Only bar in the world where everything is for sale… at all times. You could buy everything from the chair you sit on, to the bric-a-brac around the venue to the drinks themselves and, for the right price, even the venue! People were buying barbie dolls and pulling their heads off at 4 am and gold-framed paintings of a melting Mona Lisa at 5.30 am and a lawnmower shortly after and then we would hear them belting out their best Louise Armstrong on a banged-up trumpet to signify last drinks at 7 am!
From a design point of view, I wanted a door that wasn’t hidden in a naff way. More like a sort of puzzle that people would solve the first time and then enjoy watching their friends fumble around on their return. It was a badge of honour to know how to get into this crazy pawn shop where you could drink, dance, and buy things.
And I had wanted to do a bar front with second-hand pianos because they hold so much memory in their timbers and a tree of trumpets up the DJ booth to signify the organic nature of music and our belief in that as the core of who we are.
We then built the venue with the full Pawn & co-ownership team. Steve Thomas was quite great with understanding how to build creative concepts and we worked with a small build team and with a great designer Aaron McKenzie who painted the walls with his unique style. And then all seven owners including the above as well as Gaz Kempster and Luke Forte got amongst things like decorating the shelves of the pawn shop with crazy bric-a-brac. And I went to so many weird country second-hand shops and bought stuff like dentists’ chairs and ride-on lawnmowers and an albino stuffed wallaby. It gave the place a quirkiness. The feeling of creative freedom.
How do you want people to feel when they enter the club? I mean the atmosphere is quite movie-like.
Well for sure. We want everyone to feel like they are the lead role in their own crazy movie when they come to Pawn & Co. We have created a brand and design where people can feel open to be creative and adventurous. To be the escaped version of their desired self. It’s a place where people feel expressive. And let’s never forget, it’s a place where people come to dance to incredible music.
How do you keep Pawn and Co interesting?
The concept lends itself to continually reinventing itself through the idea of everything being for sale. Beyond that though, we have always placed a focus on music curation. The weekly and special event DJs we have are brilliant. And the time and care the team takes to book them; is paramount. Also, our marketing team with Keti and our GM Mikey continue to reinvent what we do. From that great weekly music curation, to drag bingo through to international acts like Miguel Campbell.
And beyond that, we have created some iconic long-running themed days and nights that changed the landscape of partying in Melbourne. People dressed in different themed costumes every week like Circus Under the Sea or 80’s Active Wear. We built a new themed set every week to create a new environment. That was 20 hours of dance party every Sunday. I’ve never worn more fantastic costumes or danced more effervescently or met a more wonderful community and had more enjoyable times seeing creatives have time to flourish in my almost 20 years as a Creative Director.
Also, the name and brand have so much to play with. It’s total pawn. Great to lean into. A phonological ambiguity that naturally makes it salacious. I mean we do have some great hoodies from a while back… PawnHub. People feel wild when they buy a pawn item from the shelves in the middle of a massive night out. We had a guy buy a baby grand piano at 5 am. Others a Lovehoney fresh in its box. What bar have you ever heard of where you can do that?
How do all 7 of you work together to keep the club constantly relevant and loved by your patrons? I think it’s about our club alchemist’s blend of 1 part slick operationally to 1 part reinvention to 2 parts iconic brand and concept… all with a focus on how we can aid people in having an adventurous night! And to create that pawn and co, alchemistic blend, it has taken the might of pawn alchemists over the years. All the staff and managers and owners who got around the concept. To create with us.
Steve and I were particularly key in the opening years of pawn, where we created the concept and brand and had 40 super pumped staff from Big Dog creating that bubble of excitement around the venue.
Gaz Kempster and Dan Gallagher ran our Saturdays and brought all the vibe with an incredibly fun and adventurous crowd and other contributors like Stasi (the now music-award-winning Stace Cadet) and Ben Harrison (sending love to this great soul who sadly passed away this year) and Tom Kennet helped to kickstart the culture because we were running dance parties like Ministry of Sound and Hed Kandi and Pacha and we brought that expertise to the party.
And whilst that was happening our other partners, Keti, Luke, and Andrew set up the incredible way the venue ran. All under the incredible leadership of Steve Thomas, owner, and Managing Director. As time went on Steve Thomas and Keti were joined by Mikey and these guys became the new heavyweights. From marketing and promotion to running the venue. And they are so great at extending the brand and concept, we had created.
So, it is refreshed by fresh excitement to create. To be part of developing the brand to where it goes next. And of course, there are endless DJs and an entire pawn community, in fact, a few different communities that have made Pawn & Co. an iconic venue.
How many drinks have been served at Pawn and Co? Oh, that’s a great question. But I’m going to have to change it up! We have served over 100 million hours of joy between us and the people who have come to play with us at Pawn. We have served a trillion miles of dancing on our well-worn floors. And we have even served up long-term loves and even some marriages and probably a few breakups too… but who’s talking about that right now. So, let’s raise a glass to all the flow of beautiful energy on our 10th anniversary. With the greatest of love and appreciation to all the peeps who have made us Pawn & Co!
Also, to actually answer the question… 13 million give or take!
Interview by Melinda Sullivan
Words by Josh Lefers
Photography Sam Tabone
Creative Director for the Photo Shoot by Josh Lefers
Keti Styled by Melinda Sullivan
Gentlemen dressed by Joe Bananas
Photography Sam Tabone
PR Helen Reizer