The money connoisseur

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RAVENNA, Ohio – You’d think with all Robbin Quinn knows about money, he’d be a banker or stockbroker or at least outrageously rich.
But he’s not. He’s just a regular guy with a passion for collecting money.
And not the valuable kind.
He prefers round, wooden tokens with the names of little festivals or parades. Most aren’t even worth much more than the couple dollars he paid for them. And they definitely aren’t worth as much as the 16 binders holding them.
That doesn’t matter to Quinn, though. He’s been a collector at heart since his baseball-card days, whether it was marbles or milk bottle caps.
Besides he loves thinking about the stories behind each wooden coin.
What is it? Wooden money, usually called a wooden nickel, is just what it sounds like: thin, flat pieces of wood stamped with advertisements for businesses or events, and given away for free.
Sometimes they’re redeemable by a certain date. For example, bring in a dairy bar’s wooden nickel and get a free cone. Other times they commemorate a town’s bicentennial or Ohio’s first gasoline-powered vehicle or the Cherry Blossom Festival’s ninth anniversary.
But wooden money first became big when it lived up to its name.
Back in 1931, a Washington bank was going bankrupt so the local chamber of commerce issued wooden money. The money was printed on rectangular “slicewood” in 25-cent, 50-cent and $1 denominations until April 1933. People used it like real money, to pay their bills and buy groceries. Their salaries were even paid with wooden money.
In those two years, $10,308 worth of wooden money had been issued. Only about $40 was ever redeemed.
Instead, collectors scoffed it up.
Quinn is one of them. Several years ago, he paid $25 for the 25-cent wooden rectangle.
An Indiana fireman. For Quinn, this fascination began with a fireman and a boot out in Indiana.
He was driving truck through the small town of Hope when a fireman stopped him. A family had lost everything it owned in a fire. Quinn’s heart pulled and he shoved a $5 donation into the man’s boot.
The fireman handed him a wooden nickel in return.
Quinn’s collecting nature took over and soon he was ordering wooden nickels from Coin World. In 1985, he found International Organization of Wooden Money Collectors and was happy to meet other people with the same hobby.
By 1990, he was the club’s secretary. For the past eight years he’s been the editor of its newsletter, Bunyan’s Chips.
Limits. Quinn says his collection of 15,000-18,000 wooden money pieces isn’t much compared to other collectors who have upward of 400,000.
But it’s still plenty to consume his spare time when he isn’t working as a material supervisor at Shur-Co tarping systems in Ravenna, Ohio.
To limit himself, Quinn focuses on theme collecting. He collects Ohio festival and fair nickels, 1956 nickels because that’s when he was born, nickels from bowling alleys, Hawaiian nickels because he lived there in his Army days, and nickels featuring sailing ships.
Who knew? Quinn spends countless hours searching the Internet, writing to chambers of commerce, and e-mailing collectors to find wooden nickels. But many wooden nickels he discovers are ones he never knew existed.
For example, several years ago his hometown celebrated its bicentennial. Wooden nickels were issued, and although Quinn lived in the town, he didn’t know about them until five months later. It took him several more months to track down a copy to add to his collection.
Many events issue wooden nickels but the public doesn’t know, he said.
And many festivals issue a new one each year. This means a lot of work for Quinn who has to hound organizers annually to get a copy.
Easy, cheap. Quinn is the first to admit his hobby is easier and cheaper than most.
All the wooden money goes in plastic sleeves inside binders. Nothing to sit on shelves. Nothing to dust. No reason to add an extra wing to the house.
Plus, the wooden nickels aren’t expensive. Just a few months ago he bought bamboo money used in China in the 1920s and ’30s. The two pieces cost him $8.
This makes wooden money a good hobby for people with little space or for young collectors who don’t have the money to invest in collectibles, Quinn said.
“You can get as crazy as you want or control yourself. It’s up to you,” he said. “That’s the great thing about it.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)
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