70 Years in Business... Littleton Coin Co.
Photo by Robert Blechl. David Sundman with a 1799 U.S. Dollar and Pres. James Garfield commemorative bank note.
By Robert Blechl – Caledonian Record Staff Writer
January 31, 2015 – Littleton, NH – It was a modest beginning by any standards – a business that began in a one-room apartment for $50 a month in the Tilton Opera Block.
But out of that apartment grew a boyhood dream.
Today, 70 years later, Littleton Coin Co. is one of the largest employers in the North Country and one of the largest collectibles firms in the country, offering a wide array of U.S. and world coins and paper money through a myriad of mail-order services to each of the 50 states and beyond.
"We've been successful in finding talented people who have helped make this bigger than we ever imagined," said company president and coin collector David Sundman.
Littleton Coin Co., which has several hundred thousand customers across the nation, owns its inventory and sells mostly U.S. coins to U.S. customers largely through catalogs and direct mailing.
"We sell coins and bank notes to people who are collecting for fun," said Sundman. "Everything we sell, we own."
But behind every coin is a story of a time, a place, sometimes a person.
"We are selling stories," said Sundman. "Coins and bank notes are a lens into history. They are something tangible, something exciting to hold in your hand."
Sundman, who grew up around coins and stamps, enjoys those stories. They inspired him to earn a bachelor's degree in history, and after graduating from Gettysburg College in the early 1970s, he returned to Littleton to work full time for the company.
The company – first called Littleton Stamp, then Littleton Coin and Stamp and now Littleton Coin Co. – was founded in 1945 by Sundman's parents, Maynard and Fannie Sundman.
But the passion was born nearly 20 years before, in Bristol, Conn., when a 12-year-old Maynard Sundman was introduced to his friend's stamp collection after rain had forced them inside.
A few years later, in high school, the entrepreneurial Sundman began collecting stamps at his parents' home in Bristol and after graduation, was ready to launch a stamp business with $400 in savings.
"His dream was to eventually get into the coin business," said David Sundman.
Littleton Coin Co. founders – Maynard and Fannie Sundman, during the war years.
That dream would have to wait a few years as army service called Maynard away and then called him back after the United States' entry into the Second World War. During that time, while Maynard was in North Africa and Italy, Fannie saved their collective salaries to the tune of $4,000.
Credit for the company's Littleton location goes to Fannie, who in 1944, while lodging at the Thayers Inn, looked across the street at an impressive post office, central to the business.
"She said this is the place," said David Sundman. "My father had such confidence in my mom."
The growth of Sundman's stamp company caught the eye of Bostonian H.E. Harris, then owner of the largest stamp company, who noted the Littleton enterprise was achieving "the fastest rate of growth in the history of the stamp business."
In the succeeding decades, the company grew even more and moved several times around Littleton, from the Tilton Opera Block to offices across Main Street at the Jax Jr. movie house and then to Union Street.
"My father always said to stick with the things that are government made," said Sundman. "You know how many were made and know they're not manipulated."
In 1999, the company moved to its present location at the Littleton Industrial Park, where it expanded from an initial 65,000 square feet to its current size of 85,000 square feet.
The four original employees in 1945 have now grown to just over 320 employees working two shifts.
Today, most of the good coins are already in collection, said Sundman, and the company works hard to find good coins, putting out the word through print and digital mediums and sending its acquisitions employees all over the country.
"We're the eyes for our customers and the filter," said Sundman. "We're picking out coins that are right for the grade. Grading is very important."
The study of currency, including coin currency, is called numismatics and every coin that arrives at Littleton Coin Co. is graded so it fits the company's high-quality standards.
Learning the trade of coin grading is not a quick process – the initial training is six months, and it takes several years to become proficient.
The company primarily buys and sells U.S. coins, but also acquires coins from across the world. Some of the oldest date back to the sixth-century B.C., said Sundman.
American currency runs the gamut and includes Colonial coins, 1799 U.S. Silver Dollars, and a commemorative bank note featuring U.S Pres. James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881.
Each coin must be evaluated, which can be tricky as each U.S. mint and even year has different characteristics, said Sundman.
"It's very nuanced," he said.
Littleton Coin Co. sells its inventory on approval, which means coins are sent to customers who can inspect them in their home, buy the coins they like and send back what they don't.
"Our business is built on trust all the way through," said company public relations manager Jill Kimball.
The company also offers continuity programs and clubs, which include U.S. dollar, half dollar, ancient coins, and world money clubs, that make it easier to collect a particular type of coin, said Kimball.
Many collectors begin as youngsters, but put their passion on hold, sometimes for decades, before picking it up again later, she said.
A resurgence in coin collecting that spawned a new generation of collectors occurred in the late 1990s through the federal 50 State Quarters Program, which circulated a series of commemorative coins by the U.S. Mint.
It ran from 1999 to 2008 and on the 50 quarters for each state is a unique design on the reverse side.
To maintain operations and meet customer demand, Littleton Coin Co. has more than a dozen departments that include marketing, creative, grading and information technology.
Employees constantly monitor the results of direct mailings.
"It's a business where you have to take chances to acquire things and determine how you sell what you've got," said Sundman. "As for acquiring product, you don't know what's going to come through the door."
Making it work is the company's hundreds of employees.
"Our staff is very engaged and highly competent and works well together," said Sundman.
In the 70 years in Littleton, some families have been employed for generations, and the company prides itself on being able to provide opportunity for people of the North Country, he said.
Maynard Sundman, who died in 2007 at the age of 92, came to work every day until just a few weeks before he passed away.
David Sundman continues his father's vision and said slow, steady growth is the key to the company's longevity.
"If you want people to come back, you have to deliver consistent product," he said.
Photo by Robert Blechl. David Sundman and Jill Kimball on the floor of Littleton Coin Co.