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.