Cathie Anderson

Waitress’s tip mints her son a career as rare coin dealer

Most children want toys or a new bike for Christmas or their birthdays, but Steven Feltner had visions of vintage coins dancing in his head. Maybe his mom and dad would get him an 1898 Morgan silver dollar or a 1914 Barber half-dollar if he was a very good boy.

Knowing this history, it comes as less of a surprise when you find the fresh-faced Steven Feltner, now 29, manning the counter at the rare coin store he opened in July with his business partner, 61-year-old Glenn Holsonbake.

Americana Rare Coin, based at 8887 Folsom Blvd. in Sacramento, deals mostly in vintage and ancient specie, but you’ll also find guidebooks and some newly minted proof sets. Feltner’s mother inspired his interest in coins, and he’s living proof that parents can have a profound impact on the careers their children choose.

“My mom was a waitress at a place called Ruby’s Inn down in Bryce Canyon National Park down in southern Utah,” said Feltner, the minority partner in Americana Rare Coin. “One day, she was at home counting her tips after a shift, and she was looking through all the change and stuff, and she saw a 1920 dime that was made in Denver.”

Minted from 1916-45, the so-called Mercury dime takes its name from the image of Lady Liberty stamped onto the coin, Feltner said. In this representation, Liberty wears a cap with a wing going across it, making her look like the Roman god Mercury.

Feltner had never seen anything like it before, he said, and he asked his mother whether he could take it to show-and-tell at his grade school in Tropic, Utah. After he presented it to the class, his teacher told him that the coin was made of real silver, Feltner said, and he was certain that his family had struck it rich.

He later learned that, at the time, the dime was probably worth 50 or 60 cents. Feltner did much of his research on his own. At age 9, he found a copy of “The Official Red Book,” considered the bible on U.S. coins, in the bookmobile library that came through his hometown once a month. He was the first one to check it out, he said, and after his parents tucked him in, he grabbed his flashlight and the book, pulled the covers over his head, switched on the light and gorged on the history and symbolism of U.S. coins.

“I was the very first person to check that book out,” Feltner recalled. “Nobody had ever checked it out before me. ... My parents would walk in and say, ‘Steve, you need to go to bed.’ 

He began to use his allowance and any money he earned from odd jobs to buy coins that fascinated him. Because the closest coin dealer was hours away, he said, he would often call shops on the telephone, explain what he wanted, tell them his budget and discuss what he could afford. He would then give the money to his father, who would write a check and mail it to the dealer. Feltner would wait excitedly for every delivery.

In high school, at age 15, he took a life-skills class, he said, and the final project required students to job-shadow someone. By then, Feltner’s family was living in Panguitch, Utah, and he had joined a coin collectors club.

Bob Campbell, the owner of All About Coins in Salt Lake City, was also a member, and Feltner hung back after the club meeting was over to ask Campbell if he could shadow him. He was thrilled, he said, when Campbell agreed. His mother drove him into Salt Lake City on a Saturday for his big day.

“We opened up the shop,” Feltner recalled, “and the very first thing he has me do – no lie – is clean the bathroom. ... I think he was seeing what type of person I was, if I was a complainer or whatnot.”

He also had Feltner clear the bookshelves, make a bank run to deposit $10,000-$15,000 and then serve some customers. Feltner ended up selling a number of coins, he said, and at the end of the day, Campbell called him into his office and said, “Steve, I’ve never hired anyone under 21, but do you want a job?”

Feltner’s response: “Well, yeah, but I’ll have to ask my mom.”

His parents, Tim and Kris Feltner, heartily approved the idea. There was a time, Feltner said, when he was in middle school and buying coins for $50 or so when he felt his mother had grave misgivings about his hobby, but after she saw that her son knew how to turn a profit on the purchases he made, she worried less. Around the time he got the job in Campbell’s store, his father pulled him aside and told him that since he loved coins so much, he should just immerse himself in numismatics.

By the time Feltner was 18, coin dealers felt comfortable sending him to shows to buy for them, giving him thousands of dollars in cash and blank checks. He went to college but eventually left without a degree, taking a position instead at the venerable Professional Coin Grading Service in Irvine.

Feltner, who moved to Sacramento for the chance to open his own coin shop, worked at PCGS for three years before going out on his own. Collectors would give him their prized sets and tell him how much they wanted for them. If he sold the coins for more than their asking price, he kept the difference as his commission. Feltner also was buying and selling coins on his own, sometimes earning a profit by buying an undervalued coin from one dealer at a show and selling it to another one who better understood its worth.

Holsonbake, who worked as a banker in Sacramento for much of his life, has sold coins on eBay and via various websites as a sideline. Even now, Feltner said, as much as 75 percent of Americana’s sales are made online. The business already has a positive cash flow, he added, but the two partners are plowing much of the profit back into inventory.

The two men also share their love of coins with young people, teaching annually at the summer seminar run by the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, Colo.