Wooden Nickel in Los Altos a potential treasure for coin collectors

Wooden Nickel, the little coin shop in downtown Los Altos, is replete with new and vintage coins, secondhand jewelry and military memorabilia. The collector's paradise has been there since 1975.

Owner Bill Miller, an enthusiastic collector of coins and military items since the age of 7, was an eager customer and good friend of the previous owner, Tom Manhard. In 2002, Miller bought the shop, kept the name and aims to uphold its reputation for fairness and its commitment to research on authenticity.

One of Miller's favorites from his personal collection is a wooden nickel from the 1970s with the name and address of his shop on the back. Wooden nickels were first used during the Depression when banks closed. With metal coins unavailable, towns issued their own wooden coins with an expiration date on back. An expired wooden coin could not be cashed, likely giving rise to the old adage, "Don't take any wooden nickels."

If Miller were to sell you a wooden nickel, he would take the time to explain its history - he enjoys the shoptalk.

An enthusiastic history buff, Miller described his shop as the "original and only remaining hole-in-the-wall shop in Los Altos." Small it might be, but the crammed space is a collector's heaven. Military collectibles - hats, medals and pictures - adorn the walls.

"Patches are very big now," Miller said, pointing to some samples. An extensive collection of coins from rare antiques to more modern collectibles fills his cabinets and spills onto the countertops.

Like many coin dealers, he has a pawn-shop license to buy and sell coins, jewelry, silver and gold. But military, aviation and airline collectibles are among his favorites. He does not deal in guns or military weapons.

"In a cute little village, who would want a gun shop?" he asked.

Miller is a licensed appraiser who buys and sells mostly items of historical value. He is always game for swapping goods and collecting stories. He closes up early on Saturdays to attend shows or estate sales to acquire his ever-changing inventory.

"Helping children start a coin collection is great for their minds and introduces them to a lot of American history," Miller said.

He suggested collecting commemorative quarters as an inexpensive and easy way to start. One way to celebrate the Fourth of July is to begin a collection of U.S. Liberty Quarters. The eagle on the back has been replaced with engravings celebrating five states each year.

Each state chose artwork illustrating regional images, so there is plenty to discuss or research with each coin. He sells books designed to display the coins. They come in two volumes and sell for $10 a set.

You can buy the quarters at his store, but Miller said the fun is in the search.

"Why would you (buy) when you can just collect them out of your change?" he said.

Miller now enjoys second-generation customers. Adults sometimes comment that they visited his store in their youth or they bring along a child. Miller talks and enjoys visiting with his customers - he is a collector at heart. When asked what he likes most about his business, he looked toward the shop door.

"Well, you never know what is going to walk through that door. People are great, but it is the memorabilia that raises my interest and gets me dealing," he said.

Wooden Nickel is located at 365 First St., Los Altos. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call 948-8202.

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