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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2001

Coin collectors take shine to penny

BY RACHEL ZINN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Seeing a penny laying Lincoln's face up on the sidewalk yesterday in downtown Toledo, Mrs. Walczak bent down to pick it up.

"It's a lucky penny," she said matter-of-factly. "If it's heads up, it's good luck."

Minutes later, she emerged from a corner store $25 richer. She used her newly acquired penny to scratch off a winning lottery ticket.

"It was a lucky penny!" Ms. Walczak said, holding it up in triumph.

Lucky or not, pennies are under attack from Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.) He has introduced a bill to Congress that would mostly remove pennies from daily use by rounding prices to the nearest nickel. Prices that are one or two cents over would round down, while those three and four cents over would round up.

People walking around downtown yesterday didn't charge a penny to give their thoughts on the proposal.

"No-o-o!" cried Amanda Camp, who works downtown for Lucas County, when she learned pennies might be removed from currency. She said she always picks up pennies when she sees them on the sidewalk.

"It goes back to my childhood. When you're little and walking around, it's such a big deal to find a penny."

Phil Collins also bent down to grab a penny from the sidewalk yesterday as he headed to the McDonald's restaurant at Adams and Huron streets.

"Pennies seem like a waste of time, but I did pick one up, so they must be worth something," he said.

Diane Friend of Temperance said she thinks getting rid of pennies is "a good idea."

"I hate pennies in my purse," she said. "There isn't anything you can buy now for a penny."

Even "penny candy" now costs 2 cents at the Beer Dock convenience store, 932 N. Huron St. The store raised the price several years ago, manager Adam Weiss said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Weiss said the proposal to eliminate pennies as currency is "nuts."

"From a business standpoint, it would make things much more confusing. Think about sales tax. Everything in society uses 99 in the price. Even gas uses pennies in the price."

Many people use their pennies at toll stations on the Ohio Turnpike. Toll collectors must accept pennies because they are legal tender.

A worker at the turnpike's Maumee Exit 4 interchange said lots of people passing through pay several dollars worth of tolls in pennies.

"They have to be counted by hand. They're an annoyance, and there are so many of them," said the worker, who would not give her name.

The U.S. Mint produced 14.3 billion pennies last year, but most of them traditionally end up squirreled away in piggy banks, jars or under the seat cushions of couches and driver's seats.

Most pennies may be worth a dime a dozen, but a few kinds of rare pennies sell for far more. Clyde Englehardt, the owner of Toledo Coin Exchange, Inc., spent $260 this week to purchase an 1870 Indian head penny.

He explained that pennies used to feature a picture of a Native American's head until 1909, when they began using Lincoln's profile. The tail side of the penny switched designs from wheat stalks to the Lincoln Memorial in 1958.

Patriotic pennies contributed their copper to the war effort in 1943. That year, all the country's pennies were made of steel. Since 1982, though, all pennies have been made of zinc with a thin copper coating, he said.

As a coin expert, Mr. Englehardt offered his two cents on the proposal to get rid of the penny: "I think they'll drive the price of the pennies up that they're trying to eliminate."

Opponents of Mr. Kolbe's bill worry that charities will suffer because they will receive many less penny donations.

Many malls and shopping centers collect change every month from their fountains to donate to various charities. On average, Franklin Park Mall collects $600-$800 of fountain coinage each month. About half the coins are pennies, general manager Scot Vallee said.

"However big your wish is, that's how much you throw in there," he said.

Dr. Alan Haight, a professor of economics at Bowling Green State University, said Mr. Kolbe's wish to reduce the penny's use could send a harmful message to the world about the strength of the American economy.

"Nobody likes having a big jar of pennies at home, but you could be sending a signal to the world that you're currency is about to be devalued," he said. "We would be sending a message that we think our money's worthless, at least the penny, and that's not the message we want to send."

Dr. Haight said eliminating the penny would probably make business transactions more difficult. He may be on to something there: what happens to 99-cent sales and the falling prices at WalMart?

"It doesn't simplify things," Dr. Haight said. "It actually complicates things in the transition."



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