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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rapid City coin shop owner rolls into retirement

Chris Huber, Journal staff
Jack Meyer, owner of Silver Mountain Coins in Rapid City, says his small coin shop is shutting down after 35 years of business.

November 25, 2013 6:30 am  •  Bart Pfankuch Journal staff
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Jack Meyer had a great career as a nurse with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 1979 when he pitched his wife on a plan to take over a local small business. She was less than enthused.

Meyer had been a fan of coins and coin collecting since he was a boy, and suddenly that year his friend and fellow numismatist Jay McBride moved to Florida and put his small coin shop on Mount Rushmore Road up for sale.

Meyer wanted the store, but he would leave his steady job, cash out his retirement and take out a loan to buy the shop and much of its paper and metal inventory. The entire concept went over at home like a wooden nickel.

"She was actually dead set against it," recalled Meyer, whose mother long ago had also tried to deter his love of coins by proclaiming "how can a penny ever be worth more than a penny, and who'd be that foolish to buy it?"

But Meyer had a secret weapon in the form of a 1971 proof set of coins that had been mistakenly pressed without the traditional mint mark, making them rare and valuable. "I sold that set and carpeted the whole house with the money," Meyer said with a sly grin. "That helped change her mind."

Meyer bought the shop, and has spent the last 34 years buying, selling, collecting and admiring coins, paper money and other trinkets at Silver Mountain Coins at 909 Mount Rushmore Road.

But now, he's hosting an extended going-out-of-business sale and will close the store this week and give up his retail career for good after an auction of his inventory in December. 

At 70, Meyer said he's very much ready to retire. But his hand was forced some by the coming construction that will tear up Mount Rushmore Road, and the desire of his landlords, Jack and Debra Jensen, to tear down the small concrete block building to make more parking for their Black Hills Bagel shop next door.

"The only reason I've been doing it the past few years is that I like it so much," Meyer said. "The most enjoyable thing? That you can just never tell what's going to come through that door. There's all kinds of different stories in these coins."

There was one time when an elderly lady came in to price out some coins she'd had for years, including a $4 Stella gold coin, of which only 400 were made in 1880. Meyer appraised the value at about $250,000 at the time (he did not buy that one.)

Or when he was flown on a private plane to an area near Faith, S.D. where a man he described as a "hermit" who lived without electricity or running water had died and left behind a stash of money. Meyer was flown in to appraise a collection of coins, including a roll of half-dollars valued at $6,000, that was found on the man's property that also was home to hundreds of thousands in cash.

The ability to recognize rarity and place a value on coins requires a lifetime of experience, Meyer said. While he and other coin dealers use monthly tip sheets, attend regular coin shows and keep close watch on gold and silver values, it takes commitment to become a true expert.

To illustrate his expertise, Meyer points out a counter-intuitive element of coin collecting: "Just because a coin is old doesn't mean it's valuable." For example, he peers into a case with rotating shelves and dials up a coin that looks like it is from Biblical times — a Parthian Vologases III drachm from 105 to 147 A.D.
It has a price tag of $132. "For a coin that's 2,000 years old, 100 years after Christ, that's not much, is it?" he said. "Rare coins are rare mostly because they didn't make many of them."

McBride, Meyer's longtime friend who sold him the store, said Meyer's knowledge and quiet demeanor allowed him to flourish in a small town like Rapid City where coin buyers are few.

"He's a little bit of a quiet type, and it's probably to his benefit because customers always think they're going to get the world for their coins," said McBride, a Rapid City native who recently retired from his coin shop in Daytona Beach, Fla. "Anybody that has survived as long as he has in Rapid City, in such a small building, is doing a great job."

Spending a couple hours in the cramped shop, it seems unlikely anyone could make a living there since only one customer arrived during that time frame and did not buy a single coin. Customer Susan Michaels of Rapid City said she is a committed amateur collector who has gold dollars from the birth years of all her children, and has enjoyed collecting the recently released state and national monument quarters.

She said she'll miss Meyer and his store, even if she often just browses. "I guess I'll have to order online now or go someplace else," she said.

A couple other coin shops still operate in Rapid City, Meyer said, and he expects they've seen the same market changes as him, including the consistently high value of silver and gold, and a shift in customer base away from classic collectors and more to investors looking to make a quick buck.

Through the years, others have tried to make some fast money at Meyer's expense. Burglars have pushed in his air conditioner, throw a cinder block through his door and even shimmied down the chimney to gain access to his coins and cash. The most unique crime came when a burglar took his big black safe and replaced it with a cardboard box painted black thinking that no one would notice. 

Meyer's two sons, Scott and Steve, live in Rapid City and his wife Patricia works at Black Hills Surgical Hospital. He is a calm, somewhat stoic man, but when he tells of his combat experience as a medic in Vietnam, his demeanor changes and his eyes well with tears. Meyer was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor after he dodged bullets to treat and then rescue an American soldier who was shot on Hill 55 in DeNang.

"I patched up a guy and dragged him back out of the line of fire," Meyer said. "He got hit eight times, and I gave him morphine and plasma and put his leg in a splint, and it was only 15 minutes from the time he was hit until he was in the hospital."

But Meyer is unlikely to shed a tear over leaving his beloved business behind. That may be because coin dealers never really retire, according to his pal McBride. "I retired two and a half years ago and I played with coins all day today," he said last week.

Indeed, even as he stood among glass cases filled with silver certificates, and shelves stacked with bags and rolls of coins all around him, Meyer said he'll auction off most of his stock but not his entire collection. And he'll never be far from currency or coin.

"I'm sure I'll miss it, coming to work every day," he said. "But I'm just freeing up some time, really, to go to more coin shows."