The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist: Part 3

Coins from the “other side” of the counter

In my first two columns, I wrote of my early emergence from the solitude of coin collecting with the discovery of a larger numismatic “fraternity” in Ottawa, after moving to the city at the age of 13.  In recalling my encounter with a tyrant or two, I realize I neglected to give a nod to some esteemed members of the local collecting community who supported and enhanced my activities. Most I met through the [then] City of Ottawa Coin Club, and included the familiar names of Graham Neale and Allan Davies – both of whom were seasoned vest-pocket dealers. I appreciated their guidance, and some of my very first early English coins I acquired from Al in those days.  Both gentlemen I consider friends and colleagues to this day.  A third name to add here – and one that would have a profound influence on my transformation from collector to dealer – would be Paul Nadin-Davis.

I had already met Paul a few times.  An English-born former lawyer, he had embraced the field of numismatics after traveling across Europe in the 1980s, spinning small coin deals into ever-larger coin deals. He first hung out a shingle about 1985 or so, in an upper floor of a Metcalfe Street office building in downtown Ottawa.  Essentially an office to accommodate his mail-order business, it also offered a walk-in opportunity for local collectors.  I made occasional trips down by bus and purchased a couple of very nice (once again) early British pieces, in the process being introduced to the fairy uncommon concept of trust between customer and dealer. For example, I purchased a lovely 18th century Half Crown on lay-away, and was invited to take the coin with me while I continued to make payments. I also attended one or two of Paul’s local public coin auctions, and seldom left empty-handed.

Thus, I was only somewhat surprised when I attended the grand re-opening sale of a new west-end shop called Lincoln Heights Coin & Stamp, and found Paul standing behind the counter.  This was the early fall of 1988, and Paul had seized the opportunity to have a full retail presence in the city by purchasing the existing business from Peter Degraaf, a long-time coin dealer who once had four outlets in Ottawa (including the venerable Sears Coin & Stamp locations).  It was a fateful day for both of us. I think we chatted about the new business for a few minutes, I looked through some of his inventory, and then he simply asked me if I wanted a job.

I remember being somewhat stunned; having years earlier given up pestering the Ottawa dealers for a job, it hadn’t even occurred to me that such an opportunity would actually present itself. I said yes, of course, and spent the next day or two trying to figure out how to combine some new coin-shop hours with my existing Eaton’s schedule.  That is, of course, until I suddenly slapped myself in the head and realized this was the open-door I had so long been waiting for – there would be no ‘accommodating’ my job in the coin shop, it was now hopefully my future.  I gave my notice at the Bayshore Eaton’s, and showed up the Lincoln Heights shopping center for my first day of work in the coin business.

Stepping behind the counter was an exciting moment, but also brought with it the sobering realities of being part of a retail business.  For all my enthusiasm and self-taught knowledge of the hobby itself, I had virtually nil business experience in terms of appreciating fairly basic concepts such as cash-flow, overhead, and the time-value of money, etc.  Indeed, it would take some frustrating time to fully appreciate how taking a collection purchased at twenty-five dollars, investing two or three hours of time into it, and then selling it at fifty dollars would still result in a money-losing devotion of resources.  In this respect, the ‘business’ part of the ‘coin business’ was my Achilles heal, however fortunately the expectations of Paul and his staff were in keeping with reality when it came to my abilities on this front.

When I speak of ‘staff’, I refer to the ladies that Paul ‘inherited’ as part of his take-over deal with Degraaf.  And, ironically, as I foreshadowed in my earlier writings, Lorna and Marina were already seasoned sales veterans of the coin and stamp business, having worked with Peter at his Sears Carlingwood location (yes, the same coin shop and pair of ladies I had pestered every Saturday for most of the 1980s).  As a result, there was some awkwardness in the early days of my new job, as I learned to temper my precociousness and become part of a team at Lincoln Heights. Eventually we all grew to respect each other’s strengths, and Lois Hedley soon joined the team as the defacto admin and shipping backbone of the company.  We were quickly a happening company, with both a national and international presence.  Paul mentored his prolific production of price-lists, we provided numismatic components to some of the largest direct-marketing companies in both Canada and Europe, and I was soon introduced to the pivotal trade-show circuit.

Much could be written about Paul himself, but suffice it to say he was an imposing and almost exhausting personality.  Quite brilliant, and always ahead of the curve, his personal DNA was also seemingly hard-wired with an inextricable layer of deep narcissism.  I suppose I should have clued into this during one of our very first discussions on the future, in which he expressed encouragement for the development of my own world view and business philosophy, “as long as it was the same as his”.  It goes without saying, however, that in terms of a high-adrenaline introduction to the coin business and all the exciting facets it comprised, there would have been few individuals indeed who could have offered a comparable apprenticeship experience to that of Paul Nadin-Davis.

I spent the next three year or so working out of the Lincoln Heights location, as the scope and level of business activity grew steadily in terms of both volume and diversity.  Just over a year after first starting my new numismatic career, Paul invited me to join him for a trip to the New York International Coin Show – my first major show outside the country.  It was December 6th, 1989,  a date I sadly remember so clearly only in that we were driving through the mountains of New York State when news broke of the Montreal Ecole Polytechnique tragedy.

The New York show was both a collector’s and dealer’s dream, right in the heady days of the late 1980s coin market. Dealers from all over the world descended on the show with their retail and wholesale goods for barter. In those days, you could actually buy ancient coins by the bagful, and I clearly remember being entertained while watching as Paul entered into loud and aggressive haggling with the Germans over a thousand-piece sack of Roman Silver Denari. Remarkably, they were only 50 Pfennig apart on each coin (then equivalent to about .30 Cents!), yet neither side seemed keen on backing down.  I don’t recall which side ultimately caved in, though we returned home with a thousand pieces of ancient Roman Silver in our trunk.

As exciting and stimulating was the show, equally exhilarating to me was the Big Apple itself.  It was my first visit, and the frenetic pace of the sights and sounds made even Toronto look subdued.  I was also introduced to the venerable Carnegie Deli, home to absurdly large meat sandwiches and the world-renowned rudeness of their staff.  In fact, looking back on those many years, perhaps my fondest memory of Paul being properly put in his place occurred at the Carnegie. After our excessive feed at their plain wooden tables, Paul lined up at a counter to pay the bill.  Some minutes later, he got to the till and was told that he had to go to another counter to pay. He lined up again, got to the counter, and then was told to return to the original counter since he wanted to pay by charge. Paul lost his weaselly cool, and huffed that he was never coming back to the place.  Leaning over the top of the high counter, the male cashier stretched out his arm, gesturing to the long line of patrons waiting at the front door for seats, and responded in classic Bronx arrogance, “Do we care?

The resulting look on Paul’s face delights my memory to this very day.

Sean Isaacs

Next Month:  Intercepting Canada’s largest philatelic heist, and playing Good-Cop/Bad-Cop in Old Havana

Watch for the next instalment in July. Until then, a couple of photographic teasers:

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