by Tom Chambers
photography by Jason Cooper
Don Hauser, owner of La Verne’s Coin Depot, loves to save money. He’s been doing it ever since he was 7. His store, cubbied between a coffee shop and tax office on D Street, captures his business, displays his passion, employs his family, and provides a home for an irascible cat ironically named Angel.
The entrance to the store is an inviting large glass window, which seems to separate the store from reality. Through it, passersby often glare at 55-year-old men who turn into young boys as they examine long lost coins, while wincing in the sunlight pouring through the magic window.
As with anything old, there is dust creating a musty attic smell. And the same front window, magnifying the sun, makes the dust in the air look like a million constellations floating in movement. Customers in the back, who must be regulars as they all seem to know each other’s name, discuss several coins older than the U.S. Constitution. These coins will not change history. Instead, they are a component and teacher of history. This is why a grown man collects coins. They are a tangible manifest of history. A story of another place and time. It is the allowance Julius Caesar placed in the hand of his son. The paper that gave a Confederate southerner the ownership of a slave. It is the change a father gives his son while they are at the circus for the first time. Currency tells the romantic tale of history.
Hauser’s life has been connected to this romance since he was a young boy. At the age of 7, he began collecting coins, and his career began. “I didn’t choose coins for a career. They chose me,” grins Hauser. More than 40 years later, customers travel from as far as San Diego to seek the expert advice housed at 2240 D Street. “Housed” is almost a literal term for Hauser as he can never seem to leave the store. The Coin Depot is open five days a week, and Hauser works there seven days a week with his wife and one assistant. He has developed more than a rapport with his customers; many are his friends who depend on his knowledge. This is what makes it impossible for Hauser to take time off. No one has a fraction of the knowledge he does. No part-time student could fill his role at the Coin Depot. His timeless commitment to the store is a tribute to his love of coins and people.
Hauser’s love of coins parallels his luck in life. Growing up in Alhambra, he tried to go to college several times, but could not finish. “I tried to finish school, but was just too lazy. The only classes I took were electives,” laughs Hauser.
He settled for the Air Force, and, after four years, he decided that instead of dodging the future, he would make it. He opened up his first coin shop in Rosemead. The store lasted only two years there before he moved it to San Gabriel in 1977. Three years later, he personally moved to La Verne, keeping his business in San Gabriel. “I wish I would have moved to La Verne sooner. I love the small town atmosphere. My wife and I have made our home here for more than 20 years now,” says Hauser.
On Jan. 2, 2000, the millennium brought the Coin Shop to La Verne. “I wanted to have the opening on the first day of the millennium; I figured you don’t get that kind of chance too often, but my wife said she was worried about it so we opened on Jan. 2,” says Hauser.
Whether he is saving, selling or trading money, his inventory of collections likens itself to a bottomless pit. “I collect anything I find interesting. One of my favorites is my phonograph collection. I have a few here, but most I keep at home,” says Hauser.
While his collections are rare, the value of them varies. A coin or artifact is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. This is what clouds the worth of collecting. So many variables can determine a collection’s worth; the age, condition and rarity are just a few factors that weigh heavy on a collection’s value. A set of Lincoln pennies can be worth as little as $1,000 and as much as $50,000 if they are brand new.
“A coin from the ‘U.S. Large Cents,’ which was made between 1793 and 1857 when the mint was first formed, sold for $1.5 million. On the other hand, I sell some coins from that collection. They go for about 10 bucks,” smiles Hauser.
The rarity of coins is not the only thing bringing in customers. A popular attraction is the “bidding wall” Coin Depot offers. It has created a cult following for the coin shop. Every Saturday, “followers” pack in for their sacred meeting. Along the east wall are hundreds of coins on which people can bid. Ninety percent of these coins belong to private individuals. For one week, people make bids on these coins. Come Saturday, the bidding is closed, and the Coin Depot takes 12 percent of the transaction. The passion that many of these people have for their coins usually brings them back each day to check on their bid.
“The process is fun. It can get competitive too. When Saturday rolls around, this place is standing room only,” laughs Hauser. When the process is over, hundreds of coins go up again for the following week, and the process repeats.
The clutter of Coin Depot is a slap in the face of mothers everywhere, but Hauser is known for laughing in the face of entanglement when looking for obscurity. While he is not super man, his customers do see him as super natural.
“I’ve never met a man who knew more about currency and the history behind it,” says Manny Castro, a regular customer of the Coin Depot.
While Hauser knows just about all there is to know about coins, he did not learn it from school. He learned it through immersion, his life of collecting, searching and researching the history of his and other’s coins. The hubbub of the store is logical, as the instincts of a collector are to save and hoard things. Although Hauser is not saving old junk, the significance of what he saves is substantial. “Every piece in this store has a story behind it. And you’ve got to be careful when recreating it. History can be powerful,” he says.
Hauser is considered a local expert on history. As people sift through the large amount of artifacts in his store, he delicately recreates the history of the items his customers take interest in.
His point is made clearly through the front counter display of World War II memorabilia. Old helmets, patches and coins lie idle as a swastika races to the eye. Upon inspection, one can see an authentic swastika and a holocaust prisoner’s armband lying next to each other. Just the sight of them has ignited some people to demand their removal. Despite the criticism, Hauser refuses to move them or even separate them. He placed them next to each other as he sees them being locked together in history. His refusal to remove this powerful symbol is his belief that it is a period of time that cannot be forgotten. In a historical time dominated by consumerist symbols, Hauser’s symbols sell knowledge.
It is this depth of knowledge and variety of collections that has turned the coin shop into a synagogue for collectors. His motive for collecting coins is not financial, rather personal. The passage money has made fascinates him. The travel and history of money is storied 10 times longer than Tolstoy’s view on “War and Peace.” Hauser has coins from as early as the 1400s. He learns about the history of the things he collects. He knows the history of that 1901 penny that one passes on the street. He says a recollection of history helps the buyer identify with the coin. And part of the romance in collecting is that one may never know the true history of a coin. “This coin here may have journeyed with the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled on the Mayflower or fell out of the burning sky from the Hindenburg,” says Hauser.
While accurate history is not always attainable, truth can be found. Each coin in the Coin Depot comes from somewhere and sometime. These coins are history books, teachers telling their holders about culture, politics and events of another time and place.
Hauser not only appreciates the travel of coins but also is a part of it. His shop is a library of the past and vehicle for the future. As coins move in and out, he takes solace in the thought they have moved from somebody else’s collection, to his, to another’s, and this process will repeat throughout the history of time and forever cement him, even if just in story, to the romance of coin collecting.