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Why Would You Renovate a Coin Shop Anyway?
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(September 4, 2005) We just finished ‘freshening up’ our showroom and offices, including paint, tile, carpet, and rejuvenated fixtures. History was uncovered, numismatic debris boxed and hauled out, and like a lot of painful experiences, it feels so good to stop.
Our physical work environment has undergone an aesthetic improvement, and all of us feel better for it. Parquet-wood was replaced with a rather stylish Sedona Red tile. The walls are now a lovely gold-yellow shade that the paint manufacturer designated “Pasta,” so of course we call it Macaroni. The carpet is a fashionable 21st century commercial weave that replaces one that I will shamefully admit was laid down in 1983.

Other makeover components will go without mentioning, although I will say that a number of fake wood panel surfaces more fitting for the rumpus room of a mobile home no longer darken our door or other any other visible surface.

The whole project was an enormous effort spanning three weeks (and two lost weekends), including my actually having to be on hand to haul, box, clean, paint, and perform other muscular exertions, often under uncomfortable conditions for sustained amounts of time – you know, real work.

But with the inspiration of this bright new setting, no doubt our clients will hear a more chipper and enthusiastic tone to our voices on the phone, and local customers coming into our showroom will no longer have to patronize what had come to look like a slightly ratty second-hand store.

Of course, a coin shop IS a second-hand store, a place to cash out unwanted treasure, as well as a hobby shop. It’s also, for good reasons, an endangered species in the family of small businesses.

For instance, here in Phoenix, our Coin & Stamp Gallery is one of only four coin shops in this metropolitan area of a 3 million plus population. By contrast, during the height of the coin collecting boom of the 1960s, there were more than a dozen coin shops in the Phoenix area, back when this Sunbelt boomtown had a population of less than a half million people.

When I was growing up in Atlanta in the early 1960s, I often took a bus downtown and could browse four different and well-stocked coin stores within a half-mile of each other. Today, there is not one in Atlanta’s whole downtown area, and fewer than a half dozen scattered among its suburban outskirts.

In the totality of American business, coin shops were never that large in the best of times. They are part of a micro-fringe of modern retailing, independent businesses now as rare as those specializing in shoe or watch repair. But the collector coin business has not fallen victim to ‘chain’ store competition (the field is too narrow, specialized, and capital-intensive to attract corporate interest), but rather to the shrinking of what was once a popular hobby, pastime, and investment venue.

The last heyday of the free-standing bricks-and-mortar coin business was during the precious metals boom in 1979-1980. At that time, silver and gold prices skyrocketed, trading volume in physical precious metals soared, and coin collections came to be considered by their owners more of a precious metals holding rather than a hobby. At that point, when times just couldn’t get any better in the coin business, the writing was already on the wall for ‘popular’ coin collecting.

It was about 1970 that old fashioned pick-it-out-of-pocket-change coin collecting died out, and from that point, about a generation and a half was lost to the coin collecting hobby. With all the ‘good’ coins locked away (or melted down for their silver value), what was left to collect from what you might find in coins of everyday commerce? There were no longer any silver coins, no buffalo nickels, no Walking Liberty half dollars or “Mercury” dimes to catch the eye with their old fashioned emblematic designs.

The numismatic field was fading, its participants aging and becoming less active. The old joke around 1990 was that the age of the average coin collector was about 72 years, and that of the average stamp collector was “deceased.” Our store dropped its philatelic department in 1989, when the salary of our stamp expert came to exceed the gross sales in his department. The last two decades of the 20th century saw many coin shops morph into pawn shops, or second-hand jewelry stores, or take up other collectible areas such as baseball cards, or simply go out of business.

Today, coins are booming again, with new (and younger) collectors entering the hobby every day. Paradoxically it took the ubiquity and user-friendly trading of eBay and other Internet venues to actually revitalize this old hobby. And for the coin shops still standing after a 20-year slump, business is good.

But enough chatter about America’s least-known micro-business. In a month or so, I’ll report on what we found during the renovation…

In the meantime, we’ll go back to the gold business, where things are decidedly heating up.

-Richard Smith

 

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