San Rafael’s Very Own No Non-cents Numismatist
November 2, 2017
There are twenty rare coin stores in the Bay Area, eight rare coin stores in Marin, and two rare coin stores in San Rafael. Rare coin stores are not as rare as I thought, but there is only one in all of the world — San Rafael Rare Coin — owned by Roger Tobin.
From across the street, there is nothing inherently striking about San Rafael Rare Coin’s storefront, except for the all gold sign. But as I moved closer the contents lying just beyond the three windows unfolded.
Behind the glass, there were cases with black and white photographs propped on top, each depicting different times and places. Below, were trays and trays lined with purple velvet, filled with expensive looking gold coins. Only a preview of what to expect once inside.
I pulled the door towards me, but it didn’t open. I looked up, there was a sign, which read, “Pull the door and wait for the buzz” and just as I read the word “buzz”, the door buzzed and startled me. I was not the only one who struggled with the door; a customer who came in a few minutes after me took around two minutes to get inside. When I asked how many people struggled with the door day to day Tobin laughed, flashing his perfectly white teeth and said, “More than a few.” This complexity around the entrance is warranted — why should it be easy to gain access to a time capsule.
The store is both sparse and overcrowded. In the center of the store is an L shaped display case. Inside the case were three shelves layered with a sundry of jewelry, banknotes, coins, military medals, belt buckles, microscopes, and books.
In front of the counter back by the windows looking onto the street was a spotless, all-glass case displaying an assortment of bizarre goods. On either side was a multitude of black and white photos, displayed the same way as records in a record store. Two shelves along the wall filled with every single type of coin container possible. Everything was meticulously organized.
Behind the counter was a different story. His “office” was directly behind the counter. His desk was covered in coin bins, stacks of books, papers, a computer, a receipt machine, and a plastic bottle of water with a red solo cup right beside it. Behind his chair, there were documents and a huge calendar pinned onto the temporary wall.The surrounding area is just as “organized.” It is as though he focused all of his energy into organizing what he was selling but then gave up on “the other” area.
The first time I interviewed Roger Tobin he wore loosely fitted black jeans with a belt, a dark plaid patterned flannel shirt with a tattered black t-shirt underneath, glasses, a carabiner holding at least ten different keys. The second time I interviewed him, a week later, he was wearing the exact same thing.
Tobin released personal information about himself the same way he displayed his most expensive items: rarely and only by special request. He is very taciturn when talking about himself, but he was more than willing to open up about the items in his store.
He explained to me how he became a numismatist, a coin collector, “Just kinda happened. Fate I guess. Just fascinated with the stuff as a kid. I used to borrow my mother’s grocery money and I would go down to the bank Friday afternoons and buy rolls of coins and go through the stuff and pick out things that were better. Then turn the rest back in and pay my mother back.” Which he later told me drove the people at the bank crazy.
All throughout high school and college he bought and sold coins. He graduated college with a chemistry degree, he thought that he was going to be a doctor. Then, “an opportunity arose in 1973 to get involved with somebody else and I did it and I have been doing it ever since.” Simple as that.
There is no licensing program to become a numismatist, it is “baptism by fire,” he said. Tobin read books and did homework on how to determine why one coin is better than the other, “Whether it was actually a scarcer coin or not. Age is the least important criteria in determining value. Just like any other thing, it is condition and scarcity.” When he explained to me why people brought in items to be appraised one of the reasons he used was to pay tuition. Ironic because he said that he has never used his chemistry degree.
The most surprising thing Tobin has ever encountered was, “crooks.” He has not been robbed, but a man came to him once, years ago: “He had a bunch of large size currency notes from the United States. He hands them to me and I’m looking through, there are about 15-20 notes.
I’m looking through and kind of adding up in my head what I can pay for them because he asked what I could pay for these and he wouldn’t shut up. He just kept yacking about his grandmother this. He never stopped talking. That usually tells me that there is something wrong, not sure what it is, but there is something wrong. So I just stepped back from the counter and said, ‘who do these really belong to?’ and he just turned around and ran.” Then he called the police department and asked if anyone had reported that type of merchandise stolen and,“Apparently it involved him. That was kind of fun,” he said with a boyish laugh.
It is no secret that Tobin is not young, his white hair has slight tints of yellow. His whole family works for him, and I assumed that he would pass his business down to one of his children, so it took me by surprise when he told me, “Don’t know. Nobody seems to be that interested. They work for me but that doesn’t mean they want the business,” with a laugh. Then nonchalantly continued, “I will cross that bridge when I get to it. If they are still not interested when the times comes I will probably just sell it to somebody else and let them continue on with it. Rather than me.” All the while the Christina Perri’s song, “A Thousand Years”, played in the background. I have died every day, waiting for you. The song seemed to convey Tobin’s real emotions on the subject of coins and his shop and life.
I learned a lot from Tobin: his trade is not as arcane as it may seem, he always has the customer’s best interest at heart. and I would trust him to appraise my goods correctly. Maybe that is a rarity in today’s world.