The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist: Part 2

The move to Ottawa, and discovery of a Numismatic Fraternity

In my previous column, I detailed my childhood induction into the hobby of coin collecting as a solitary pursuit, driven both by my keen interest as well as need for grounding throughout a series of moves from one Ontario community to another. Our eventual move to Ottawa would evolve and forever change my cosmology (or “world view”) on the hobby, with the realization that there was actually an accessible fraternity that even a young collector could be a part of.

I cannot say that I came kicking and screaming to Ottawa, but I certainly wasn’t enthusiastic. The move made sense, though, as my mother’s musical agent – Elaine McKay – was not only based in the city, but also owned “Elaines” on Bank Street, one of the last of the great Irish taverns. The long-gone Churchill Arms at Carling & Churchill – with its renowned 3-storey-high outline of the British P.M. – was also a regular source of gigs for mom’s Irish-Folk talents, and thus we made Westboro our new home. Looking back, it was a great neighborhood in which to grow up, and my few life-long friends I very soon encountered in those early days.

My very first encounter with a “Coin Dealer”, however, occurred before we had even chosen an apartment to move into. I believe it was our first or second day of home-hunting when I persuaded my mother to take me to the “Coin Center of Canada” on Bank Street, across from Billings Bridge Plaza. I’m not sure what drew me there (perhaps the impressive name?) rather than to the other choices available at the time, but it was my very first encounter with one Mr. Thomas Swadron.

Imposing and intense are my memories of the visit, amid a virtual dreamscape of shelves and cabinets brimming with coins and banknotes. While initially welcoming, his interest and attention to my mother and myself very quickly changed to disinterest, once we declined an offer to rent an apartment he had somewhere in Lower Town and my limited teenager’s budget for coins became apparent. Only later in my life and career did I learn the full extent of Swadron’s “legacy” in the hobby, revealed through archived sordid news snippets of stints in the courts and behind bars for larceny, possession, molestation of his own staff, etc. While I firmly believe in speaking no ill of the departed, this individual’s profound damage to the integrity of numismatics continues to resonate in some quarters to this very day. Certainly it would cloud my own success when, over a decade later, I would open Billings Coin & Currency directly across the street from his old store.

Fortunately, on settling in Westboro, I was then at an age where it was possible and safe to make my own way around the west end, either by bus or bicycle. This limited independence, together with the relative safety of the City, quickly led me to further numismatic encounters of a much more positive nature. Somehow I heard of a hobby display event taking place at Lincoln Fields Shopping Center, and with my mother’s help, I rented a table to display a couple framed collages of my world coins and banknotes (the notes being attached to velvet matting using sewing-pins, in my blissful ignorance!).

Nearly 35 years later I still clearly remember a gentleman somehow involved in the event soon coming up to me with genuine interest and words of praise in what I was setting up. This was my first encounter with Frank Fesco, whom I would come to know as one of Canada’s greatest numismatic minds, and – in later years – my mentor. Through Frank, I was introduced to the venerable City of Ottawa Coin Club, which included a wonderful group of “old-school” numismatics such as Johnny Johnston, Ed Burt, Andy Wynn (already retired, but the former long-time owner of the venerable “Wynn’s Coins & Stamps” on Bank Street) , and others.

As is the challenge with many clubs, young blood was a problem so I was at the extreme end of the age-scale, and the “taking of the minutes” formality wasn’t especially inspiring. But it was a fraternity, I was welcomed, and it was great. I attended as often as I could, although later in my early twenties (when I had my first vehicle), Frank cleverly primed me to take over the presidency of the club. I served for two or three terms, and looking back, credit this experience with helping (ok, forcing) me to shed the terror of public-speaking.

Needles and oral presentations were my earliest phobias, and I had been remarkably accomplished at avoiding both until that point. The needle issue solved itself through common-sense and necessity, while the secret to becoming comfortable in speaking before others was all about sharing something in which you are genuinely impassioned. In my tenure as President, I also strove to promote the writing of newsletter articles by members – with mixed success – although for me, the monthly bulletin provided a great outlet to explore my own love of writing.

Eventually I also discovered the Canadian Numismatic Association, the even larger “national” fraternity of collectors (of which the Ottawa club was a founding member), with their monthly Journal and 1,500+ members. I joined as a junior member, would go on to later serve a couple terms as Ontario Director, and will soon, I suppose, be receiving a 30-year certificate.

Beyond the pleasure of connecting with the wider numismatic community, however, the true thrill of the hobby for me was only a bike or bus-ride away. This, of course, was the trip to a coin shop.

Ottawa: a coin collector’s haven

In the early 1980s, Ottawa was very much in its hey-day for coin and stamp collectors, with no fewer than eight retail venues throughout the city. So much was collecting a part of popular culture in those days, even Eaton’s had a coin counter in their downtown Rideau Centre store! I still have the 14th Century Venetian Silver coin I bought from them as a teenager, after saving up my gardening money.

Just a few blocks down Rideau Street could be found Capital City Coin, within whose fortified iron gates could be found the proprietor, Terry Frost, and arguably Ottawa’s finest selection of ancient and world-wide coinage. True, many if not most of the more interesting pieces were not actually for sale in what many teased was “Terry’s Museum”, but Capital City Coin was an important fixture in the Ottawa numismatic market for many years. He could easily come across as gruff, and let his health eventually suffer through the stresses of steadfastly remaining a one-man-show, rather than opening up his business to some supportive staffing.

Around 2001 or so Terry began contemplating retirement, and warmly welcomed me into his shop to discuss the possible sale of his business. Two issues quickly came up, however: the first being that he placed a very high value on his existing inventory, yet would not permit anyone to actually conduct an evaluation on it before purchase, and – quite naively of me – I mentioned the fact that I didn’t actually have any financing. The door could not have hit me quick enough on the way out. Shortly thereafter, his store closed and I heard his inventory hit the auction block. Remarkably, his final years were spent finding peace among the great caribou herds of the North (his wife, I believe, serving as a counselor in the NWT government), and his friends gathered to bid him farewell at an Ottawa service in 2008.

And yet I digress. Back to my early days adjusting to life in Westboro, my most significant coin store epiphany was the discovery of the Sears Coin & Stamp department in Carlingwood Shopping Centre. Just a short bus ride away from home, this became “my haunt”, to which I would make regular weekend visits. Money was very tight for us, so I had to spend both wisely and frugally. In the summer-time I worked the garden of a very crotchety elderly lady around the corner from our apartment (peace be upon her), who was not amused at my constant panic around bees, and who seemed to favor her garden above all others.

I would earnestly save up my gardening earnings and keenly look through the albums at Sears many Saturdays – anything pre-Victorian in the English section would just thrill me – and in the winter, I had the occasional snow-shoveling gig. To my discredit, I clearly remember abandoning one lane-way in the middle of a snow-storm, so strong was the desire and excitement to get to Sears before they closed to buy my very first “Krause” Standard Catalogue of World Coins – for which I had saved up a huge $45 or so. I got the book – but was fired from the snow shoveling job. In hindsight, a useful lesson in judgment – in my case, balancing one’s enthusiasm with responsibilities.

I became a regular at Sears, no doubt pestering Lorna and Marina to the point of breaking sometimes (two fine and knowledgeable ladies whom, in a later quirk of irony, I would spend more than a decade working closely with). With many years now as a dealer myself, I can identify with the fine edge that separates precociousness and annoyance. Those with common sense, patience, and an appreciation of future business health learn to appreciate and manage this – not always an easy task. Eventually in my mid-teens, I began asking about the possibility of a part-time job – whether this was spawned by a genuine interest in the business of things, or simply a desire to get my hands into the material that people on my side of the counter never got to see, I don’t frankly remember. What did become clear is that a young keener without any material working experience or business knowledge likely had a better chance at becoming an Archbishop than landing a coin-shop job, and eventually I gave up asking.

At age 15 I landed my first real job at the McDonalds a few blocks up, and learned discipline and punctuality. I became the “breakfast specialist”, and put in crazy hours, driving my bike to work each day down the middle of an empty Carling Avenue at 4:30a.m. This, naturally, gave me some good spending money, and permitted great flexibility in my favorite hobby, even allowing me to explore a bit of the mail-order and auction worlds.

Getting out into the world

At the age of 17 I took leave from my job when my good mother sent me on a “voyage of discovery” to England, Ireland and the Channel Islands for a month – my first significant cultural experience. Coins on the journey captured my interest as they always did, however on a shoe-string budget most numismatic souvenirs would come from the variety of coinage that passed through my pockets (with the exception of a 1928 Irish Half Crown I bought in Dublin coin shop). Half-way through my adventure I received the surprising and exciting news that I had been accepted as a participant in a Canada World Youth exchange to Indonesia. Exciting because I had been through all the stages of selection earlier in the year, only to be told at the very end that there were no spots left for me. And surprising, because I had originally applied to go to Sri Lanka – and had only vaguely heard of Indonesia.

I returned to Canada in July, resigned from my lengthy 18-month career with the Golden Arches, and left the next month for the first four-month component of the exchange program which saw our diverse group of young Canadians and Indonesians living in Nanaimo, B.C. To put it succinctly, the overall program – most especially the four months we spent in a remote village in Sumatra – was a profound cultural experience, and very much shaped my world view of things. Yes, I managed to find coins – the lingering Dutch colonial influence led to pleasing finds of 19th and early 20th century Silver coinage, as well as one of the most “fish out of water” pieces in my current collection – a large 1776 Silver Bolivian 8 Real piece found in a famous market village high in the Sumatran mountains, and covered with multiple Chinese chop-marks from having circulated through the Orient. Most profound of my take-aways however, was the friendship I developed with one of my two counterparts – whose lovely sister would, several years later, become my wife.

Returning to Canada with an awkward sense of both enlightenment and continued naivety, I obtained a job in the men’s shoe department of the Rideau Centre Eaton’s department store, which I enjoyed for the next two years. Not being a “downtown” dweller, the Rideau Centre was a happening place, and my customers included the political elite (House Speaker, Ed Broadbent, The Prime Minister’s wife, etc.), diplomats, as well as interesting common-folk. One of my most poignant memories involves seeing a veteran in handsome uniform, standing at the edge of my department, looking somewhat confused. In speaking with him, I learned that he was a WWI Flying Ace, and that he was lost. I helped him to find where he needed to go, and now reflect that there are no longer any flymen of his generation left in our world. Some day down the road, there will also be no-one remaining who can tell their children that they actually had the chance to meet one.

During this time I completed my high school education through the then-fledgling “Adult High School” system, and began studying history at Carleton University. What I would actually do with history I don’t recall having the foresight to contemplate at the time. With no obvious direction, however, my life and interests were still very much “numismatic-centric”, and thus what else would one logically study other than history? I excelled at selling shoes, both enjoying and understanding them, and eventually was offered the one and only full-time position in the department. In a fairly rare moment of clarity, I chose school over the position (I did not have the discipline or fortitude to do both), and soon-after transferred to the Sears at Bayshore Shopping Centre in the west end of the city, for reasons I can’t actually recall.

I quickly realized this to be a mistake, as this new shoe department incorporated all three shoe classes – men’s, ladies, and children’s – within a single department. At the then age of 21, however, I determined to stick it out while I worked my way through school. I still lived with my good mother in Westboro, and quitting on either front was neither a responsible nor viable option.

In one of the great ironies of my life, however, in the fall of 1988 I noted a small ad in the rarely-used “Stamps & Coins” section of the Ottawa Citizen classifieds, promoting a clearance sale on world stamps at a newly-opened shop in Lincoln Fields Shopping Centre. Though not especially interested in stamps, with my newly-invigorated interest in all things Indonesia I thought it worth seeing what they might have in the way of philatelics at their advertised “huge discounts”. I didn’t have a clue that responding to that small ad would profoundly change the course of my life.

Next Month: Crossing the Counter

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