Statesman Journal - Salem, Oregon
November 7, 2003
Clients say coin collector is rare find.
Monte Mensing has two shops, and customers come from as far away as St. Louis, Missouri.
Mensing, 44, has collected coins since he was in third grade, when he saw an article about a penny worth $90 that sometimes could be found in pocket change. His rarest find as a child was a 1931-S penny. In fact, he found seven in one roll and sold them for what he considered a fortune.
BY CAPI LYNN
STAYTON - Monte Mensing steps back and listens as Steve Swearengin examines an Indian- Head penny. Swearengin reports that he can see the fine details of the feathers and all four diamonds. "I know what he means," Mensing says. "I feel like I can see it."
Mensing, a coin collector and dealer, is legally blind. He relies on associates like Swearengin to be his eyes in the business. "Steve can see them," he says, "and I can figure out what they're worth."
Mensing, who has shops in Stayton and Silverton, is on the Oregon Commemorative Coin Commission, which is working on a design for the state quarter. Members have turned to him for advice on what will fit on the coin, what will look good and what has worked for other states. "Monte's been a great asset to the group," Oregon State Treasurer Randall Edwards says. "He brings a lot of experience and knowledge about coins and people who collect coins."
Mensing, 44, has collected coins since he was in third grade, when he saw an article about a penny worth $90 that sometimes could be found in pocket change. Tales of the 1909-S VDB got him hooked. "I started looking for that penny," says Mensing, whose mother paid him a weekly allowance of 50 cents to do chores around the house. He didn't find the coin until he was much older, but he found his passion.
His rarest find as a child was a 1931-S penny. In fact, he found seven in one roll and sold them for what he considered a fortune. "I paid a penny apiece and they were worth $15," he says. "I made more money that day than my mom and dad did working." His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father and stepfather were in construction.
Mensing gradually lost his vision when he was a teenager. He wore glasses as a young child, but it wasn't until later that he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes deterioration of the retina. About 100,000 people in the United States have RP, according to statistics from the University of Washington Department of Ophthalmology. It is a genetic disorder that can be hereditary, but none of Mensing's siblings have the disease and neither do his children.
Mensing was told he would be blind by the time he was 19. At 16, he couldn't see well enough to get a driver's license. He has never driven a car, to which he says: "I've never had to pay for a license or car insurance." Mensing uses a walking stick, although he can see shadows. In his shop, for instance, he can tell where the back wall is. "I can see a lot for a blind person," he says. If the lighting is adequate and he turns his head at a bit of an angle, he can see other things when he gets real close. He can distinguish the dark hands on a clock with a white background. "It's hard to tell what I see and what the brain knows," he says.
Mensing can see some details on a coin with the aid of a 16-power loop. He can make out the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse of a penny, for example, but can't read the date. Being blind does not appear to hinder him in the business. He maneuvers around the shop like someone with 20-20 vision and knows exactly where everything is. Without hesitation he reaches under a glass display case and pulls out two 2003 silver proof sets. In a flash, he sorts through a plastic bag full of silver dollars and half dollars and stacks them accordingly.
His work would be easier if he could see. Heck, his life would be easier. But he rarely complains to family and friends. "He appreciates what he has and works with what he has," says Paula, his wife of 14 years. "He doesn't let his vision stop him."
Mensing relies on help from his family and assistants like Swearengin. When Mensing buys coins from a customer, for example, Swearengin fills out the check and shows him where to sign. Mensing jokes with that same customer about pricing some of his coins on his next visit. "I'll turn off the lights and screen them real carefully," Mensing says. He touts his shop as one that caters to collectors. "A lot of days this room out here is my living room," he says. "It's where I entertain my friends."
The telephone rings constantly at the shop. One caller inquires about the value of an 1864 Confederate note. "It's probably worth $20," Mensing says. "I wouldn't want you to waste your time and gas to come to Stayton." Mensing then gives the caller the number for a coin shop in Salem. "I don't think it's fair to have somebody spend an hour to drive out here for something that might be worth 20 bucks," he explains after turning down the business.
Customers have come to expect that kind of treatment from Mensing, visiting the shop from all over the Mid-Willamette Valley and beyond. During one recent visit, people from Salem, Dallas, Lebanon and Albany stopped by. One customer from Bend makes a weekly trip to Stayton. Another travels every three months from St. Louis, Mo. Mensing knows many of his customers from his involvement in local coin clubs. He is an officer for several in the area.
Coin collecting is a family affair for the Mensings. Monte and Paula have two sons, James, 9, and Sean, 7. The boys often sort silver dimes for their dad, and they also belong to coin clubs. James was just one month old when his parents signed him up for his first membership. Earlier this week, the whole family attended the monthly meeting of the Salem Numismatic Society. "Right now, they're more interested in G.I. Joe's and Yugio," Monte Mensing says, "but they know a lot about coins."
Mensing never intended to become a coin dealer. After getting a degree in political science, he had planned to go to law school. If not law school, he had hoped to use his Spanish-speaking skills and be an interpreter. But coins were - and still are - his passion. For several years, he sold at flea markets and out of his home. But two years ago, with the support of his wife, he decided to open his first shop in Stayton. In August, he opened another one in Silverton. His shops deal in more than just coins. He also buys and sells stamps and jewelry.
A stamp specialist is available each Wednesday and a foreign coin specialist each Saturday. But coins are the bulk of the business. The commemorative state quarters have created countless new collectors. "Even people who don't collect are looking for their neighbor or their grandson," Mensing says. Silver dollars are always popular among collectors. He sold 39 in a matter of minutes last week at $10 a pop.
While Swearengin was across the street running an errand, Mensing let one of the customers run her own credit card. He knew the woman from one of the coin clubs.
"It's a self-service coin shop," he jokes. In all seriousness, that's one reason he chose Stayton as a location. "I figured I'd be put out of business in a hurry in Portland," he says.
Swearengin is the first to say that Mensing trusts people a lot more than he would.
Paula doesn't seem to worry about people taking advantage of her husband. "I think he's a pretty good judge of people as they come in," she says. "He wouldn't do that with a total stranger. "That's part of the appeal with his shop, too."
One of the things Mensing enjoys most about the business is getting to handle rare collections like the one he purchased from a blind man in New Hampshire. Someone had suggested to the man's caretaker that she sell the coins to the blind dealer in Oregon, and she did. The collection contained mostly rare gold, which Mensing couldn't afford to keep. "I have them for a few hours, a few days," he says of the coins worth thousands of dollars.
Swearengin, a collector for 47 years, also enjoys the thrill of the rare find. He has been working with Mensing for nearly a decade, volunteering in Stayton a couple times per week. His reward, every now and then, is getting first dibs on a coin. They make a good team, with Swearengin doing the grading and packaging and Mensing the pricing. "He knows the values and the die marks for rare coins," Swearengin says. "I have to look it up. "He can remember everything."
Even what the fine details of an Indian-Head penny look like.