Box of Nickels

Copy­right 2009 Ben S. Pollock

My rela­tion­ship with money some­times irri­tates peo­ple. It would be none of their busi­ness of course, except when it comes up in con­ver­sa­tion. I’m one who avoids specifics, but I try to be sup­port­ive of stuff that peo­ple say casu­ally. Yet every once in a while I bite my tongue when peo­ple talk about what things ought to be worth or how much their col­lectibles will bring, should they sell them.

His­tory and lit­er­a­ture are full of sto­ries of peo­ple exchang­ing a gold ring or an unset dia­mond, sewn into a coat hem, just for a meal. We for­get than when we’re des­per­ate, the peo­ple around us are, too. The worth of an object is what peo­ple offer when you want to sell it. Price tags in stores is rather new, and Western.

We must have been in junior high when my neigh­bor Dana and I were talk­ing about the rel­a­tive value of things. At that time, the early 1970s, Radio Shack sold remain­der cas­settes. It’s where I bought jazz tapes, to teach myself what hap­pened after Big Band, which is what Dad still played. I had read about John Coltrane and Dizzy Gille­spie, and found tapes of them there. (Dana liked Newhart and Cosby com­edy LPs.) So the cas­settes there on Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith were a cou­ple of bucks and buy­ing new ones at Elmore’s (locally owned) or Mad­cats (a mall chain), three times that easily.

What struck us is how for the price of lunch for both of us at Sandy’s (which became Hardee’s) you could buy cut-outs. With care, albums could last for­ever. The burg­ers, fries and shakes last until din­ner time. I still don’t under­stand why a hot meal costs the same as a 44-minute tape, but one inci­dent as an adult helped.

Some 15 years later, in about 1988, I decided to sell my dad’s coin col­lec­tion. This was not the plastic-mounted set of a col­lec­tor. We’re talk­ing about a shoe­box full of mainly buf­falo nickels.

From the late 1940s to 1967 when bank­ruptcy was declared, my dad man­aged a dry clean­ers owned by his big brother. After ‘67, Uncle Al retired, and Dad took a series of jobs includ­ing office man­ager, Real­tor and income tax pre­parer. As part of the Model Laun­dry & Dry Clean­ers of Fort Smith, Dad and Uncle Al owned two coin-operated washa­te­rias. When Dad saw an inter­est­ing coin while emp­ty­ing the machines he pock­eted it and put in a newer one in its place. A shoe­box full of these was in his desk, and Mom gave it to me after he died in 1985, at age 69 of emphy­sema from smoking.

After a while, I decided to sell most of them, for prac­ti­cal and emo­tional rea­sons. If Dad had no sen­ti­ment for them, why should I? I did the home­work and didn’t just go to one of those peo­ple who set up in hotels with ads in the paper for Cash for Gold or Col­lectibles. I made an appoint­ment with a legit­i­mate coin dealer in down­town Lit­tle Rock, near my news­room. I first cleaned the coins in a sink of suds.

The man­ager looked at each coin, quickly and with an obvi­ously prac­ticed eye. He con­firmed that the con­di­tion of the coin makes all the dif­fer­ence, and these nick­els — this was long before you had to feed all those quar­ters at Laun­dro­mats — had long been cir­cu­lated (1938 was the buffalo’s last year). A few, how­ever, were decent, and were worth — get this — five times their face value.

Five times their face value. That’s right, 25 cents for each 5-cent piece.

The rest, the dealer said, were worth dou­ble. Dou­ble! If I agreed to the sale, he would toss my worn coins in a bucket he kept for chil­dren get­ting started in coin collecting.

The rest he offered me what I have esti­mated at $34.70. If there were 300 nick­els, then 270 were worth dou­ble their value, $27, and 30 times five, or $7.50.

I could have kept the box. Maybe the smoother coins now could get four times their price and the sharper ones 10 times. Still not even $100.

Ever since, when some­one says their 300 $5 Beanie Babies are each worth $40 on eBay because they never took the stuffed crit­ters out of the pack­ag­ing, well, I just think they’ve got their first mort­gage pay­ment, 359 to go.

The box of nick­els logic applies to every­thing. Win­ning a lot­tery? My friend Don McNay has advice for you. If you sell your house for cash, you’ve bought your­self two or four years of income, if man­aged well. Then what?

Besides rel­a­tive worth, the shoebox’s main les­son turned out to be the value of work. A job with its reg­u­lar pay­checks is what pays for stuff more than some one-time wind­fall, or even 20 jack­pots. If I fin­ish a novel and sell it to Hol­ly­wood, I’ll revise this core belief.

The dealer back in 1988 did point out two coins, one a like-new old nickel and a Nazi Ger­many coin. The lat­ter wasn’t worth much, but for his­tor­i­cal value I kept it and the one great nickel. Ten bucks for both; call me.

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