On the Money

This shop does a brisk trade in coins, jewelry, gold, silver, and antiques

by Cindy Bernhardt

vtcoin_lead0006Steve Edwards, a longtime collector, buyer, and seller of coins, opened Vermont Coin & Jewelry in Shelburne four years ago, when the economic downturn caused his kitchen and bath remodeling business to slide.

Steve Edwards of Vermont Coin & Jewelry in Shelburne cheerfully insists, “It’s not about the money. That’s what we say, but nobody believes us!”

“Whatever happens is OK,” he continues. “We have fun here. Yes, the business has to make a profit but, at the same time, we don’t want to screw people along the way. We want to be fair, and we’re here for the long term.”

This is a man who puts his money where his strategic plan — or lack thereof — is, and that’s what makes Vermont Coin unusual.

Vermont Coin will buy or sell a wide range of items. That includes jewelry, coins, sterling silver, gold, antiques — everything from pocket watches to paintings — but Vermont Coin goes beyond mere transactional logistics, he says; it’s the customers and their tales that make this place interesting.

Since opening his shop in 2005, Edwards and his two associates, Judy Kirby and Joe Watkins, say they have seen and heard it all. “Everybody’s got a story,” says Edwards. “They’re different, but they’re all the same.”

Edwards has long had an interest in collectibles. He and Martha, his wife of 39 years, began collecting antiques in the late 1990s, frequenting auctions and buying from dealers. Back then his main selling outlet was the newly forged eBay. “That’s how we made sales without having a shop,” he recalls.

In the interest of full disclosure, Edwards will say that Vermont Coin is not his primary livelihood. “I have a different job,” he shares. “My real job is kitchen and bathroom remodeling.”

A lifelong Vermonter who grew up in Charlotte, he has been performing installation work since graduating from Shelburne High School and then earning his plumbing license in 1969.

The crossover to Vermont Coin came four years ago after the remodeling business slipped with the economic downturn, and consumer spending scaled back.

“The number of $20,000 to $30,000 kitchens dropped off as people made do with what they had and hung on till things look better,” he says. “I was always buying and selling coins, so when remodeling slowed down, I decided, ‘Why not open a shop?’”

His timing was perfect. The faltering economy had created a need for venues like Vermont Coin, where people could sell coins, family pieces, or antiques and convert them into much needed cash. Edwards’ knack for all things numismatic proved helpful.

“Coin grading is subjective,” he continues. “Sellers who don’t know much about grading can really get stuck by unscrupulous dealers, since one coin grade can mean several thousand dollars’ worth of difference — or more.”

“A lot of beginning collectors don’t do their research and buy like mad, only to find their coins aren’t what they thought they were,” he says. He advises that buyers “do their homework first by reading, learning about grading, and going to coin shows. A lot of people go out and buy what they like, which is shiny, and shiny’s not good in the coin world.”

Edwards’ decades-long coin-collecting expertise allows Vermont Coin to grade and assign value with confidence to the vast majority of their customers’ items.

As an authorized dealer for PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) and NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corp.), Vermont Coin offers customers the option of sending their coins to either organization if they desire further grade and price references.

“PCGS and NGC are considered the Number One and Number Two most respected third-party coin-grading services,” he says, “but it costs $30 to grade each coin, so customers need to determine if that additional cost adds value to the coin.” Prospective sellers can find the price quote accuracy via an industry “blue book” similar to that used in the car industry.

Vermont Coin will either sell graded coins to another dealer or make a sale on the customer’s behalf via eBay. “Coins do well there,” Edwards says, “as do unusual, unique, or historical things.”

Vermont Coin typically sells nearly $30,000 of merchandise a month on eBay. However, the bulk of Edwards’ business is in buying and selling jewelry. “The margins on coins are too narrow to make enough profit,” he explains.

His mastery at antique collecting has honed his assessment skills. “Having bought and sold jewelry for years, I know what things are worth,” he says.

About 80 percent of the jewelry he buys is melted into scrap. “We definitely have more sellers than buyers but we do have jewelry for sale. We try to make reasonably priced engagement rings available,” he notes.

With the current price of gold at over $1,000 an ounce, and silver over $17, Edwards admits that his business “has been enhanced by the problems out there today.” Indeed, Vermont Coin’s volume has consistently expanded, from over $800,000 during its inaugural year to the $1 million mark in 2009.

Whether a multi-coin transaction requiring more labor and sorting time or one large single coin purchase, says Edwards, “we treat everybody the same no matter if it’s a $10 or $80,000 deal. And we pay fair.

“We sometimes buy things we don’t want or pay more than we can get for selling them — it depends on the story. And I get some stories in here,” Edwards says.

Those stories have resulted in a lot of “stuff” filling two rooms’ worth of items — “mercy buys,” Kirby terms them.

Edwards cites an example of a woman who brought in some items to sell last winter because she needed to buy fuel oil.

Adds Watkins, “Right now we’ve got an African mask we paid $20 for that we don’t want. But that $20 will buy the person who sold it lunch and gas.”

“All three of us,” says Edwards, “are on the same page about how we treat people. That’s the tone we want to set, and our customers know that’s what we do.”

He continues, “We look at this business as a service. People need to convert stuff into cash. They don’t need things to sit in a safe deposit box, so they bring them to us. We get a lot of older customers with things that were handed down to them from their family.

They’re looking to simplify their lives and don’t want to leave everything behind for their kids to deal with, since the kids don’t want the things anyhow. These customers don’t know where to go with all that stuff, and they don’t know what their things are worth.”

Vermont Coin helps customers learn about their items and understand what’s valuable and what isn’t. “Sometimes,” Edwards says, “that means talking people out of things. If they’re on the fence, maybe they shouldn’t sell today, but go home and think about it. Once it’s sold, it’s sold and family things only come around once.”

John Forkey, a regular customer, acknowledges that difficulty. “It can be tough when a family sells heirlooms because times are hard; but Steve’s patient and understanding, and people like him for that. He’ll take his time, and he pays attention.”

Vermont Coin emphasizes its Antiques Roadshow–like role. Says Watkins, “If you don’t know what it is you have, bring it in and we’ll try to figure it out.”

He cites an example of a customer in his 60s who came in with six very old, partly rusted Jolly Scott beer cans he found in his grandfather’s barn. “We’d never heard of Jolly Scott and couldn’t find any information on it. We could have ‘winged’ a price, but wanted to be fair so we put the cans on eBay for the customer and said whatever price you get is what it is, and we’ll only charge a 20 percent commission.”

The cans fetched around $1,700 per can. “The guy was so happy,” Watkins continues. “His commission was half what he would have spent at other eBay places, so he and his wife took the money and went on a cruise. It was a win/win situation that was fair both ways.”

Edwards’ yin and yang mix of his remodeling and Vermont Coin businesses complement each other cyclically. “They’re inversely proportional,” he says. “Gold’s not always going to be over $1,000. And when the economy improves, the kitchen business will pick up, and the people who wanted to sell stuff at Vermont Coin will have already come and gone.”

He is quick to credit a team effort for Vermont Coin’s reputation. “In any business, it’s the people you have around you who make the difference, and I have Joe and Judy. They’re the reason for the success of the business, not me. Between them they can do everything I can. People feel good when they leave here, and that’s important to us.”

When not busy with his diverse enterprises, Edwards is an avid UVM hockey fan and a Victory Club member. He and Martha have two daughters and three grandchildren. Once in a while, they like to hit a casino and “play a little poker,” he says.

Playing the odds, just as in his business, where, he says, “We never know what’s going to walk in the door.” •