I recently embarked upon the unenviable task of cleaning out the bottom of my closet. In the middle of the seemingly endless excavation of shoes, old Beatles magazines, and wooden tennis rackets, I came upon a large, dust-encrusted shoebox. I immediately knew what it contained.
My coin collection. The one I had commenced at the tender age of 7, at the behest of my Great Aunt Hattie, whose Jersey City apartment seemed anchored in place by immense paper bagfuls of pocket change she had set aside over the years.
I got my start at her kitchen table, sorting through those bags. "You can keep anything that interests you," she told me. For me it was, in H.L. Mencken's words, like being in a candy store and having two stomachs. I spent countless hours at that table, sorting, stacking, and paging through my "red book" - the one that told me what the coins were worth. And then, at the end of the day, I'd stumble the three blocks home, my bulging pockets jingling with the largess.
Coin collecting has changed in so many ways. When I was a kid it was much more democratic, an activity for children as well as adults. A number of local parents and grandparents were collectors, and they would often seed our interest in the hobby with a single coin - perhaps a 1909 Lincoln penny or one of the silver nickels minted during World War II. That was all it took for us to get our own cardboard albums and begin to press the coins into those vacant slots, year-by-year, mint mark-by-mint mark, in the hope of getting the whole collection of Mercury dimes (all but impossible) or Jefferson nickels (quite doable).
The thing was, back then any child, if persistent enough, could find an interesting coin in pocket change. I remember, at the age of 10, going to the bank with two crumpled dollar bills, which I exchanged for a roll of nickels. I high-tailed it home to the front porch, cracked the roll open, and rejoiced when I found a 1905 Liberty nickel, the predecessor of the Buffalo nickel.
Such a find would be unlikely today. Coin collecting, like almost everything else, has become an industrial-strength pursuit.
Well-heeled businessmen line up at banks to buy newly minted rolled coins, which they immediately warehouse for the duration. And older coins are almost never found in loose change anymore - they are somehow filtered out before they work their way down to a kid's allowance. Even the so-called "wheat" cents, last minted in 1958 (not so very long ago), are a rarity, even though most of them are worth little more than face value.
As I sat on the floor by my closet, sorting through my collection, a whole chapter of my life came alive through those coins. There was my 1964 proof set - brilliant, flawless coins packaged in plastic, the last of the country's silver issue; a Walking Liberty half dollar, given to me by my father; a complete set of Jefferson nickels from 1938 to 1970 (the year I stopped collecting); Indian-head pennies; Franklin halves: Morgan silver-dollars; a roll of uncirculated 1968 pennies; and one of my great prizes - an 1818 large cent (about the size of a modern half dollar), which I had attempted to shine with baking soda against the advice of Great Aunt Hattie. She liked coins to be left the way one found them.
After rediscovering my collection I went out and bought the latest red book to see what I had. After four hours at the kitchen table sorting through several pounds of coins, I tallied a net value of $187.98. Not a lot of money. But as a child, when I was a collector, I didn't think in terms of value so much as the coin hunt itself, the chance of finding that old penny or rare mint-mark. Every so often this is exactly what happened, the find serving as a fresh invigoration to groom my collection and fill those album slots.
What did coin collecting give me? An opportunity to hone my organizational skills; a hobby that kept me, for the most part, out of trouble; running contact with family, both immediate and extended, as I begged for a look at their pocket change; and a solid knowledge of when these coins were minted and why, who designed them, and who the figures on the coins were.
When I showed my teenage son, Alyosha, my collection, he showed a momentary interest but soon yielded to the call of a soccer game. He doesn't collect and probably never will. None of his friends collect, either. But neither do they know which president is on the nickel or which monument graces the back of the penny. I knew these things when I was 7, and in some small, numismatic way, am better for having learned.
My collection is barely worth $200; but when viewed with my child's eye, I realize that it is, in fact, priceless.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society