Much has changed in Alhambra over the decades. But at the Alhambra Coin Center, which was founded 40 years ago at the corner on Main Street and Chapel Avenue, much has also stayed the same—a fact that is reflected in the coins, pocket watches and gems lying in the display counter.
Malcolm Varner and his elder brother Jay Varner founded the Coin Center in 1975. Long-time residents in Alhambra have whizzed by and noticed the store, but many have never stepped inside. It fits so well at the corner of Main and Chapel—by the side of bustling traffic—that people don’t always pay attention to it. Nevertheless, it has been there for decades, which makes it one of the oldest shops being run by independent entrepreneurs in Alhambra.
The Varner brothers were born and raised in San Marino. Malcolm developed an interest in rare coin collections at 10 years old. At the beginning, it was just his personal hobby, until it lead to his business. “I had been in this business for seven and a half years myself before I opened this store with my brother,” said Malcolm.
Since the 1950s Alhambra has undergone a period of rapid development. The population increased from 30,000 in 1930s, to 50,000 in the 1950s, which resulted in the flourishing retail business in the area, according to Alhambra Chamber of Commerce. Alhambra had been leading the retail business in the San Gabriel Valley for decades until other areas started taking over during the 1980s and 1990s. “When we opened in 1975, it was still a booming retail forest on Las Tunas, which is Main Street, as well as down on Valley,” said Malcolm. It was logical for them to open up a retail store on Main Street.
The Varner brothers started out by buying and reselling rare coins and pocket watches. They gradually developed the store to encompass a wide range of valuable collectibles, including paintings, diamonds, and luxury purses. The annual sales rose in leaps and bounds from a few hundred thousands of dollars in 1975, to millions of dollars. “The record year is 50 million dollar in sales,” Malcolm told Alhambra Source. In spite of their growth, there is one thing that has never changed: the Coin Center has always been on Main Street, through the good times and the bad.
“I have been through five great recessions since 1975 and those have been crippling for many businesses, ” said Malcolm. He added that the recession from 1982 to 1983 was the worst one for the store. Due to the great economy inflation, gold prices skyrocketed from $226 an ounce in 1979, to $682 an ounce in one year. Then, it collapsed. In 1982, gold prices plunged to $310.25 an ounce, according to the World Gold Council, a market development organization based in London. “That was probably the slowest time we ever had,” said Jay.
The Coin Center prides itself in being an establishment that people can trust. In buying and selling rare coins and other valuables, most customers’ main concern is the dealer’s ethics. “You can bring in something that's worth tens of thousands dollars or could be worth a dollar, and you don't know that,” said Malcolm, noting that customers should be careful while buying or selling goods. One of the Varner brothers’ priorities is the integrity of customer service. “Our reputation is unmatched in this country,” said Malcolm.
Evolving with the changing society is another priority. “A great percentage of our clientele are Chinese and other ethnic groups. It didn’t exist when we opened up in this area,” said Malcolm. When he graduated from San Marino High School in 1966, there were only three Chinese students out of 255. “We had more Latino clients back to years ago, because there was a stronger Latino base in El Monte,” said Malcolm. However, the influx of Asian immigrants in the 1980s changed the makeup in Alhambra and other cities in the San Gabriel Valley.
“I was in Hong Kong in 1992, a few years before it was returned to China from Great Britain. Even at that time, people there knew the name of Monterey Park,” said Jay. The new Asian immigrants have been beneficial to their business, because owning gold and silver has been a part of most Asian cultures for thousands of years.
“Fresh money from China brought investments here from around 2007,” said Rita Li, who grew up in a Chinese antique store in Pasadena and joined the Alhambra Coin Center three years ago. “We still have a lot of Latino clients here,” she noted. The Varner brothers have adapted to the trend. Now the Coin Center not only provides services in Spanish and Mandarin, but also includes more Panda coins, jade and Asian antiques to cater to Asian clients. Li told the Source that a dealer contacted her this week via WeChat, a popular instant message app among the Chinese community, about buying more inventories from the Coin Center and another coin shop in Long Beach to resell them in Shanghai.
Technology has also played a big role in evolving the business. “Our Internet sales have gone up dramatically during the last two years,” said Malcolm. “Last time I checked, we shipped to 40 different countries around the world.” As the Varner brothers near retirement, they hope their daughters and other family members—some of whom work at the Coin Center—as well as the company's employees, will continue to expand the Internet business. “We have got a lot of new areas that we will continue to evolve,” said Malcolm.
There is one thing that won't change about the Coin Center, however. It will still be at the corner on Main and Chapel, and a new location is not on the to-do list. “The products we sell are very valuable, and you want to limit your exposure to staffs and other problems that would provide opportunities to the bad guys,” said Malcolm. “We are very secure here. And we can do anything from this location, there is no need to expand to more stores,” he added.
Main Street may look different from what it was 40 years ago. But the Coin Center has withstood the times; a fact that is even more amazing when considering that it began with collectible coins—a childhood hobby. “We have been very lucky, we have been making a living from a business that basically is a lot of people’s hobby, and something we both enjoy,” said Jay. He added that it's just like the old saying: “find something you love to do and you'll never have to work a day in your life.”