Coins more than business for dealer

Jim Laubach's coin shop brings his business career full circle.

As a 14-year-old, Laubach started making holders for coin collections out of his grandparents' basement, sometimes taking rare coins as payment.

Then he spent decades building Century Manufacturing into the country's biggest producer of Lucite-embedded products — those awards and promotional products beloved by the corporate world.

Now he's acquired Heartland Coin Gallery and moved it into the stately Century Manufacturing plant on North Webb Road. Heartland buys, sells and appraises coins.

"I like to be around it," Laubach, 65, said. "It's not just a business — it's kind of a challenge. It's interesting."

Laubach shifted the shop from Parklane Shopping Center on South Oliver to its new digs a month ago. He bought the business from Wendell Leavitt, a professor emeritus at Wichita State and professional numismatist — coin expert — who still works part time at the gallery.

"I'll never live to know as much as he does" about coins," Laubach said.

The gallery holds cases full of old or rare coins — Greek coins from 400 B.C., coins from a Caribbean shipwreck, coins from this country's infancy.

Interestingly, much of the gallery's current business comes from the buying and selling of gold and silver. The precious metals are usually in the form of coins, but the reason they're changing hands has less to do with collectors' values than financial concerns.

"On the one hand, you have people who are needing to sell," Laubach said. "They've been laid off and need to make their house payment. On the other side of the coin you have (buyers) who think everything's going to pot" and precious metals represent a good investment.

"I think people are scared, the times we're in right now."

A sign on the wall Wednesday listed gold's price at $1,161 an ounce and silver at $18.44 an ounce, which Laubach said is about double what it was five years ago. Often a coin's value is a mixture of factors, such as $20 gold piece from 1893 that contains nine-tenths of an ounce of gold and is priced at $1,400.

Laubach's passion for the historical aspect of coin collecting is clear. He started collecting again about four years ago, sometimes acquiring the same versions of coins he'd sold years before.

"Coins used to be real art," he said. "Now they're just stamping out lots of stuff."

Laubach's son-in-law, Ryan Spencer, is the shop's manager. Laid off from Cessna, Spencer said running the shop "is the best job I ever had. It's a treasure hunt every day."

Laubach said a coin shop's inventory might not change much for a couple of months, "and then all of a sudden somebody brings in what you call a hoard. Then bam, you're loaded for business."

Even though it's business, the collector in Laubach sometimes wins out.

One of his most valuable coins, worth about $20,000, is a 1916 "Standing Liberty" quarter, made before it was decided to cover Liberty's breast (a change you'd probably need a magnifying glass to notice).

"I probably will never sell it," Laubach said.