By Marjorie Stradinger
Editor’s note: The following is the first in a three-part series.
It’s Donald. He prefers Don. “I don’t like my middle name, either,” Don Smith informed me, over carryout baked mostacolli from Roscoe’s Anna Maria’s.
He wouldn’t leave his shop, Don’s Coins and Collectibles in Rockton, long enough for lunch.
“What’s your middle name,” I goaded.
“Denton,” after his grandfather’s middle name.
I had lots of questions about his trend-sensitive business, at the Rockton location since November 2001, the year after his wife, Regina, died. In many ways, it was she who nurtured his love for collectibles.
“She worked with the newborns at Rockford hospital, and was known as the Beanie Baby lady,” Don said. “She’d sit in a chair, rock the babies and the girls, the nurses couldn’t get downstairs to the gift shop where the Beanies were. So she’d go get the Beanies for them. Pretty soon, we ended up driving around, picking up Beanies from different Ty wholesalers.
“Did you anticipate their future, or were you just being helpful to your wife?” I wondered at this tough-talking guy who obviously has a softer side.
“Just being helpful to my wife,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Your entrepreneurial wheels started turning?” I asked.
“Yeah—there’s money to be made in this,” he recalled, punctuating the memory with his distinctive belly laugh.
“I bought the meal to get the teeny Beanie—threw the food out,” I confessed.
“Yep. I did, too,” Don said.
“Are Teenie’s still valuable?” I asked.
“No. You can’t even get 50 cents for them,” he said. “They gave millions of them things out. I couldn’t drink that much coffee, so I’d go throw that in the Dumpster.”
He recalled seeing lines around the block to stores in Beanie’s heydays—people waiting just to get one.
“The people running these stores were selling out in about two hours; they wouldn’t have to worry about another Beanie for the rest of the month,” he said. “They paid the rent, the lights, your gas.”
That was before his Rockton store. From 1995 until the store, Don and Regina shopped for the collectibles three or four days a week.
“We knew when they were coming in and who had ’em, and who didn’t have limits,” Don said.
“Where did you sell them?” I asked.
“Our yard,” he said. “We put up a tent, Saturday, Sunday. We’d make anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000, maybe $4,000 on a weekend at about a 60 percent profit. Back then, we were paying $5, selling them for $15. Well, $2.50 is what a dealer pays. Then, some sold for $50, $60, $70. Now, they’re selling for $5 or less.”
“But were you always into collectibles?” I asked.
“I was working for my dad’s grocery store…on the corner of Brown and Cumberland in Rockford,” he said. “My dad told me I had goofed up enough at 11, so I became a butcher.”
“Aren’t there child labor laws?” I asked.
“Not when you’re working for your dad,” he explained.
But, it was at the store that Don began his appreciation for collectible coins.
“There was nothing better than (exchanging) coins out of the cash register, a penny for a penny, a nickel for a nickel, to fill all these books up,” he pointed to coin books in his shop.
“I had those, too,” I told him.
“This is good mostacelli,” I interrupted.
“It sure is, lots of mozzarella on the top,” he added.
“When I was 16, I found out my brother was taking me,” he said. “He collected Indian pennies that came through the store. Problem was, I would put a penny in the cash register, take it home to him, he’d give me a penny for it, and he’d run to the coin shop and get a quarter a piece for ’em.”
“How much older was he?” I asked.
“He’s six years younger,” Don said.
“Younger? Let me get this straight. Your younger brother was taking you for a ride?” I asked.
“Yep,” Don confessed. “Probably looked at one of my books that I never bothered looking at—the red book with the prices inside.”
“The price of ignorance,” I said.
“Yep. He didn’t get no more pennies!” he said.
“Did you like the grocery business?” I asked.
“I loved it,” he said. “There was only one little problem. I went to college. I was going to be another Castrogiovanni, Logli.”
“You wanted a chain of groceries,” I said.
“Umm hmm,” Don said. “I was going to move that store into a big store, get a bigger store, and more stores. Then, (after) one semester (away), he sold the damn store.”
“Right under your feet? Did he tell you?” I asked.
“No. He also decided to clean out the basement while I was gone,” he said. “He got rid of all the 5- and 10-cent comic books, which are expensive now. I had boxes of those.”
“That would make you a little bitter,” I said.
“Yep.” Don’s the stereotypical John Wayne male. A man of few words, but a lot said in the few.
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at stradingerm@dishmailnet.
From the Aug. 19-25, 2009 issue