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Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2002 11:00 pm

Dale Williams tells his customers up front if they're thinking of collecting coins or stamps as an investment, they're on the wrong track.

"Often I'll tell a potential customer that and he'll walk out the door and I'll never see him again," said Williams, owner of American Stamp and Coin at 7225 N. Oracle Road.

Williams believes it's something that has to be said when one professes to have a business based on service and honesty. "I'd love to make money, but it's not important enough for me to tell people things that aren't true," he said. "I'd rather have a solid base of customers who have been told the truth than a whole bunch of people who have been told lies."

Collecting should be viewed purely as a hobby, Williams said. "Most dealers won't tell you that. If at the end of the process you make a profit, swell, I was wrong and you were right, but if you didn't, you can still be satisfied because you collected for the right reason. You did it because it was something you wanted to do.

"I'm not saying you're flushing your money down the toilet," Williams said. "There is a value there. But even if you hold on to your coins or stamps for a long time, the market would have to move dramatically for a collector to make up for the difference between the wholesale and retail price."

For at least the past 20 years that just hasn't happened, he said.

One of the biggest swings in stamp prices occurred in 1979 when a group got together and drove up the price of Graf zeppelin stamps by buying them up in huge bunches and creating a shortage. The price soared from about $1,500 for a set of three to as much as $10,000, Williams said.

But gradually as the group began dumping their stamps back into the market, collectors quit buying them and the price returned to earlier levels, Williams said. Within a year the stamps were selling for less than what they sold for at the start, he said.

When you've purchased a coin or stamp for $100 and years down the road it's selling for $105, you can say you've made a profit, Williams said. But there's a big difference between making a profit and being able to send your kid off to college, he added.

Williams sells more coins than stamps, but he makes more of a profit on the stamps. Supply and demand are what determine price, but with coins as an example, that also takes in when the coin was minted, the mint it came from and the condition it's in, he said.

The age of the coin or stamp rarely has anything to do with its value, he said, noting that some coins minted in the 1980s may be worth $1,000 or more while others from the 1880s may sell for 25 cents. Among the more valuable coins Williams has on hand are an 1895 silver dollar worth $11,000, a 1793 half cent coin, the first ever minted by the U.S., worth $3,500, and a 1955 double die penny on which the five appears as a double figure, worth $950.

On average, from 300 to 400 collectors spend a total of from $30,000 to $120,000 a month buying stamps, coins albums, mountings and other accessories in Williams' store. Albums alone can cost from $15 to $20 to as much as $1,000 and the supplements, pages for the latest issues, run from $5 to $200.

It's a business Williams has spent a good number of years expanding rather than working to build it from scratch.

"When I bought it, the business was a going thing," Williams said. The only things he had to worry about were making enough to pay off the loan he took out to purchase the business and having enough left to take some home.

Williams worked for 15 years as the catering manager for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but while doing so also worked sorting stamps for a man who owned a stamp and coin business there as well as in Tucson.

Williams had gotten to know the owner of that business through his father who was a collector. He worked for that owner sorting stamps in his home and was paid in stamps.

When that owner left, Williams decided to fill the gap and become the new coin and stamp dealer in Provo, which he did, operating out of his home. He moved to the Tucson store in 1979.

The Tucson store had been doing business since 1973, but catered primarily to the higher end customer. Williams decided one way to make himself indispensable was to build up a trade among low and middle end customers, which he's been able to do.

"From the time I walked in the door my goal was to one day buy the business," Williams said. It took 16 years for him to accomplish that goal.

"I felt first that I had to get to know the business better and be able to expand it to the point where I could afford to own it," he said.

Williams didn't set out to do business nationally, it's just turned out that many winter visitors who stop in don't have coin or stamp stores in their home town. He encourages visitors to do business with their local dealers whenever possible.

One of the secrets to Williams' success is the ability to find out what people want to do and to make it happen for them.

"They make the decision," he said. "Our purpose is to help people do what they want and to do it in the most sensible way."

One of the biggest mistakes a beginner can make is to start collecting with too narrow a focus, Williams said, because by doing so collectors are more likely to miss the items they'd really love to have.

As an example, if a customer were to say he wanted only stamps that showed bugs sitting on flowers, Williams would try to dissuade him. Collecting such stamps could be an insurmountable, overwhelmingly frustrating task yielding little satisfaction, he said.

Instead, Williams might suggest a somewhat broader area, such as U.S. stamps, giving the collector a chance to make some significant additions to a collection, but leaving open the opportunity to narrow the scope as the collector becomes more familiar with what's available.

Williams' stamp inventory is arranged by country. A new issues service furnishes these as well as stamps to meet the needs of customers with specialized collections.

"There are a fair number of collectors out there looking to make a profit," Williams said, "but there's no one I've talked to who has any concept of sending their kids to college. You'd probably spend three times as much on your collection as you'd spend for college."

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