The Penny Lady Story

Charmy acquired her passion for coins late in life after inheriting a group of coins from her aunt.  Not knowing anything about coins, she chose one type of coin – Indian cents – and learned everything she could about them.  She eventually turned her passion into a full-time business known as “The Penny Lady®,” dealing in all things pennies and sets up at most of the major coin shows around the country.  

She is a member of numerous specialty coin clubs and currently serves as President of Women in Numismatics (WIN).  For five years, Charmy served as the Chair the ANA’s Dealer Relations Committee which provided the ANA Board with feedback and recommendations on improving the ANA’s National Money and World’s Fair of Money Shows.  She has written several articles for coin publications and forums and regularly publishes a photo travel-blog about her experiences and adventures as a dealer at coin shows. 

 Charmy received the prestigious ANA Presidential Award in 2014 for her outstanding service in the numismatic community. Also, her numismatic exhibit, “Penny Potpourri – a Collection of Penny Creations,” has won top honors, including Best of Show and People’s Choice awards at numerous coin shows throughout 2013-2014.

 The following is the story of how Charmy got started in numismatics.

 
The Penny Lady® Story
by Charmy Harker
 
 

When I was in my late 30’s I had no clue what a numismatist was.  I was a litigation paralegal in a large law firm in Southern California and always thought of myself as a typical working mom living on a quiet cul-de-sac with my husband, two teenage boys, and beautiful German shepherd.  I usually spent my evenings making dinner, helping with homework, doing laundry, attending school and sports functions – you know, the usual mom stuff.  Also, I had always been very active in the scouting program as a parent volunteer, and spent a lot of time encouraging and prodding our two boys on their path to becoming Eagle Scouts.  So my “plate” was pretty full and I never dreamed of becoming not just a coin collector, but also a coin dealer!

Ever since I was a young girl, I enjoyed collecting all kinds of things, including souvenir spoons, stamps, old tins, troll dolls, and numerous other trinkets.  My family was often on the verge of doing an “intervention” and sending me to “Collectors Anonymous” meetings when I inherited several boxes of coins from my aunt.  My kids just rolled their eyes and said, “Here we go again, more dust-gathering junk for Mom to hoard.”  I scoffed at their cynicism and was very anxious to see what might be in these ancient-looking metal containers.  So I dusted off the lids and began sorting through each box.  There were all denominations of U.S. coins spanning from the early 1800’s to 1970’s, and included everything from brand new shiny silver dollars to dark old tarnished half-dimes.  Then I noticed there was an entire box of what looked like pennies with a portrait of an Indian on the front.  I had seen a Buffalo nickel before but never had I seen or even known about an Indian penny – I just assumed Lincoln was always on the U.S. cent.  Wow, I thought these old pennies must be rare and valuable!

 As I flipped through the coins, I noticed a price penciled on the back of some of the 2 x 2 cardboard holders which I assumed was what my aunt originally paid for each coin.  Even though many of the pennies contained low-end price figures, I was amazed that she had paid up to $100 for some of them.  I even came across a 1914-D Lincoln cent that had $250 written on the back.  I thought, “Imagine that – one little old penny being worth that much money!”

 I reasoned, if one penny was worth $250, the dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels must be worth even more since they were a higher denomination.  So I showed the boxes to a local coin dealer to see what the whole collection might be worth.  After quickly thumbing through the coins and making some notations on a piece of paper, the dealer gave me the figure he would be willing to pay, and immediately my heart sank.  I thought, “How do I know if these coins are worth what this dealer is telling me? I didn’t know anything about coins?”

What I didn’t know I could learn.  So I told the dealer “no thanks,” and right there on the spot I decided I would study and learn all I could about these potential little gems.  However, having a family and a full-time job, I knew I wouldn’t have much spare time to learn about all the various U.S. coin series and figured it would be best to focus on just one series.  But which one?  I have always had a keen interest in Native American history and was quite enamored by the detail of the Indian pennies in my aunt’s collection, so I chose to study Longacre’s beautifully crafted Indian cent.

 Next, I devoured every book and article I could find about Indian cents, copper coins, grading, detecting counterfeit coins, pricing coins, collecting in general, etc., and quickly became an avid customer of the ANA’s website bookstore.  I also joined the ANA, subscribed to several coin publications, and began attending local coin shows and pestering as many dealers who would give me the time of day.

 I spoke with many kind and friendly dealers, but out of all the ones I met, I have to give credit where credit is definitely due and that is to my Indian cent mentor and friend, Alan Kreuzer of Castro Valley, California. 

I first approached Alan at a Long Beach coin show shortly after deciding to learn more about my “great inheritance” and began asking him everything I could think of about coins and, in particular, the Indian cent.  He had a lot of patience and spent a great deal of time that day (and many others since) teaching me the basics of grading and how to look for good quality Indian cents.  I also bought various grades of mint state common date Indian cents from him so I could learn to define the grade levels for myself.  In the coming months, Alan continued to teach me about detecting hairlines, submitting coins to a grading service, particular supplies I needed, key dates, and what I feel was the hardest thing to learn – differentiating between artificially and originally toned coins.

 Eventually, Alan began letting me work with him at the Long Beach show.  There, I could observe firsthand how the coin business was conducted.  I especially enjoyed watching all the “wheeling and dealing” that occurs, and I believe Alan is one of the kings – if not The King – of the coin wheeler dealers!  The time spent with Alan was truly priceless and indeed the best education I could ever have hoped for in my quest to learn about Indian cents and the coin business in general.

 After attending several shows, I began to trust and feel more comfortable with many of the local coin dealers I had met, in particular, Larry Hirsch who let me have a case of my own at his table.  

These dealers also helped me learn to buy quality mint state Indian cents.  I would find one I thought was pretty nice and show it to them and they would advise me as to whether they thought it was a “good deal” or not and why.  Pretty soon, I felt comfortable with my own grading skills and became fairly adept at tracking down nice mint state Indian cents at a decent price.  I eventually decided to put together a high-end Indian set of my own.  And, as many collectors will tell you, in order to support my newest collecting addiction, it soon became necessary to buy coins just for resale to help be afford to buy for my personal collection.

 First, however, I thought I should make my little expanding coin enterprise “official” which would also help me to take advantage of the tax benefits available to small business owners.  So I decided to start my own business and began pondering catchy names.  I finally came up with “CoinCents” since I had decided to specialize in only cents.  However, I later changed the name of my business to “The Penny Lady” since that is what I had become known as, and also trademarked “Penny Lady” in order to protect it.  I also opened a post office box, discovered how to get a business license as well as a retail sales license, filed a fictitious business name statement with the county recorder, and even purchased the domain name “coincents.com” (and later “thepennylady.com) so I could create my own website.  My sister, Corrine Bachman, who was a graphic artist in New Mexico, created a beautiful logo for my new company and designed my business cards and stationery.  Now, I felt like a real coin dealer!

 I decided to first try selling some of my aunt’s lower end Indian cents on eBay.  I learned by trial and error the best way to scan and create quality pictures of coins and how to write creative detailed descriptions.  Even though I could only work on my eBay auctions during the evenings and weekends, I was auctioning off many coins each week and building up a nice little reputation.  One of the most important things I learned was that following up and keeping in communication with my new-found customers was critical to maintaining long-term customers.  It always gave me a great thrill when a customer would write to say how much he or she liked the coin they had purchased from me and that they thought my grading was accurate.  To this day, some of my current customers are ones I originally acquired while selling on eBay.

 Even though you have to be very careful when buying coins sight unseen though online auctions, especially uncertified coins,  it can also be very rewarding, as I discovered early on.  I was scrolling through uncirculated Indian cents on eBay one day, and came across a coin that was advertised as a “BU” 1873 Indian cent.  I clicked on the auction listing for more details and could see from the photo that the coin was indeed uncirculated and looked to have original toning, but there was no designation as to the exact grade and whether it was an open or closed 3.  I decided to keep my bid closer to the low-end mint state open 3 price range.  I ended up winning the coin for a mere $110 which is less than AU money for an 1873 open 3, so I thought I got a pretty good deal.  However, within minutes of the auction closing I received an e-mail from a gentleman offering me $100 more than the closing price, because he said he especially liked the woodgrain toning of this particular 1873 Indian cent.  I advised him I would have to evaluate the coin when I received it and get back to him.  Now, this peaked my curiosity as to why he would offer double for this particular coin.  I thought, “Maybe he knows something I don’t?”

 When the coin arrived, I was quite pleased with its appearance and quickly determined it was the closed 3 variety and graded it as MS63RB with a good shot at MS64RB.  But, as a result of that gentleman’s curious e-mail, I made sure to examine the coin very carefully. To my surprise, I noticed that the letters in “Liberty” was doubled.  Not knowing much yet about Indian varieties, I decided to peruse my variety books to see if the doubling on this particular coin was mentioned for that year.  When I compared it to the pictures of 1873 cents in Flynn’s Indian cent die variety book, I determined that, although it was not the Snow 1 variety which exhibits strong doubling in all of the letters of Liberty, it was definitely the Snow 2 variety which had weaker but clear doubling in most of the letters of “Liberty.”  When I discovered the value of this variety was about $2,500 in MS63 and $3,500 in MS64, I couldn’t contain myself!  I was so excited to share this great find with someone that I showed the coin to my usually skeptical husband and kids and told them what it was potentially worth.  They stared at me like I had just landed from another planet.  They couldn’t believe anyone would pay that kind of money for a penny!  I showed them the article and photo of the 1873 in the book and had each of them look at the coin through a loupe so they could see the doubling for themselves.  I think that was the first time my family showed true respect for me as a coin entrepreneur and not as just a collector of more “junk.”

 I took the coin to the next Long Beach show and showed it to Alan, as well as the ANACS grader, and several other dealers.  They all agreed that it was indeed the Snow 2 variety and said it would grade at least MS63RB.  I decided to shop it around the show to see what someone would actually pay for it and received offers from $1,000 to $2,000.  I ended up selling it for $2,000 to a variety dealer who was very pleased with it.  From a $110 investment, this was quite a nice little profit for me, and the experience also made me a believer in the value of varieties.  As a matter of fact, I later received another 1873 from an eBay auction that also turned out to be Snow 2 variety.  Even though it was only AU, I paid less than $100 for it while its value was close to $900.

I now participate in as many coin shows as possible all around the country, including the ANA shows, Whitman Baltimore, and Florida FUN coin shows.  Also, about 12 years ago, I also joined a couple chat rooms so I could participate in online discussions about coins. At one point, I decided to create a post with lots of photos of one of the major shows I attended. It was so well received that I decided to continue posting a pictorial “report” of the various shows I attend all around the country, and was surprised at their popularity. At almost every show, someone would come up to my table and tell me how much they appreciated my posting these reports because they couldn’t make it and the photos and reports made them feel like they were there. One day I received a private message from a man who said his father was no longer able to attend coin shows which were a big part of his life. And when he came upon my show report on the PCGS message board, the man told me that his father got tears in his eyes because my show report was the next best thing to actually being at the shows that he loved attending. Well, this made me teary-eyed myself! So I’ve been posting my show reports ever since!

One day when I was perusing eBay, I came across an interesting looking teapot charm made from a penny. So I ended up buying it, and that started my passion for collecting penny exonumia – anything made from or using a penny. I had already been collecting encased pennies, but these tiny teapot pennies really intrigued me. So I did some research and discovered that they were made by prisoners and soldiers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I also found other interesting pieces like pie cutters, victory pins, capped cents, pocket mirrors, and all sorts of other things made from pennies and began collecting them as well.

Several years ago I attended Larry Sekulich’s class at the ANA Summer Seminar on creating an educational exhibit. I really enjoyed the class and decided to put together an exhibit of my penny exonumia, and entitled it “Penny Potpourri – Things Made Out of and Using Pennies.” I entered it into exhibiting competition at several of the shows I attended throughout the year, and was quite shocked and surprised at how well it was received, and how well it did at the shows. I was very pleased to have received several top honor awards, including the Best of Show, Best New Exhibitor, and People’s Choice awards at the FUN show.

 Looking back on starting out as a brand new coin enthusiast to having amassed quite an empire of nice small cents, I see how that little inheritance was the beginning of something very special and rewarding for me.  And because I am a woman who specializes in only cents, that’s how I earned the dubious title of “The Penny Lady” and made it my company name, and eventually trademarked it.  While I find being female is somewhat of an oddity among coin dealers, I have never been made to feel like an outcast or that I didn’t belong in this business.  On the contrary, most every coin dealer with whom I have come into contact has been more than kind and helpful to me and have become my friends.  Also, many dealers now even refer their Indian cent customers to me, which to me is the highest compliment since it means that I have gained the trust of my fellow coin dealers.

Even though I sell a lot of coins on my website, I find dealing one on one with customers at coin shows so much more rewarding. To me, it’s like buying a new outfit at a department store rather than ordering it through a catalog – you get instant gratification!  One of the side benefits that I feel is important in participating in coin shows is the comradery and “networking” that frequently occurs between the dealers.  Even if a coin show doesn’t turn out to be as profitable as I anticipated, I truly have enjoyed every show I’ve attended. There always seems to be something new to learn, some new variety to discuss, some rare coin newly discovered, or even just the opportunity to listen to the never-ending discussions about the inconsistencies of the coin grading companies or issues with how a show is run, etc. And for me, the best part of attending these shows is, after we wind down the last deal, put away our coins, lock up our cases, cover up our tables, put the chairs up, then wearily walk down the now-deserted aisles of the bourse floor, we know that soon we’ll be seated at one of the town’s exceptional restaurants sharing a bottle or two of fine wine, delicious food, and more entertaining stories with our fellow coin dealer buddies!