Blaine antique dealer calls himself a 'born treasure hunter'
By Tara Nelson
For Blaine resident Bill Becht, gold comes in many forms.
Sure, the 40-something antique dealer and owner of Horseshoe Coins and Collectibles will sell you a nugget or discuss the precious metal's unwavering value while the U.S. dollar heads into a nosedive.
But for Becht, his business is a labor of love that's all about quality of life.
"It's not about the money, but doing what you love to do," he said. "As you get older you begin to realize how important that is. All the gold in the world won't buy your health or happiness."
Becht recently re-opened his long-time Blaine business after being closed for several years. Although he has downsized to a smaller space (the old space is now occupied by Petal Attractions floral and ice cream shop), he still carries many of the same items and appraisal services.
When he's not charting a course to dig for old hand-blown glass bottles at the dumpsites of former bottling facilities or traveling to obscure flea markets in foreign countries, Becht can often be found at his shop on 810 Peace Portal Drive, talking about a recent ground score or contemplating his goal to become certified by Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest antique shop in the world.
Becht said he began collecting antiques and coins at a young age when his grandfather would give him the change from his pocket. Later, he developed an interest in silver dimes, often referred to as "mercury dimes," that now sell for many times their original value.
At the age of 10, he bought his first metal detector and began reading treasure-hunting magazines.
"I used to go around all the parks with metal detectors. Then I got into doing research and finding old homesteads and old maps, taking my detector and my tools and go digging for stuff," he said. "I was born a treasure hunter If I see a construction site or a torn-up piece of land, I can't pass it up. You never know what you can find digging around."
A former pipe fitter and plumber in Whatcom and Skagit counties for nearly 20 years, he decided to use his pension to invest in starting his own business.
So in 1994, he quit his job and purchased a vacant 6,600-square foot vintage brick building with sweeping water views on Blaine's Peace Portal Drive.
"I had enough competence to quit my job and start my own business," he said. "I never looked back and my only regret is that I would have done it sooner. I'm a firm believer that with a little careful planning, you really can do what you want to do. You don't have to punch the clock 9 to 5."
At first, Becht looked in Fairhaven for a building with a water view but nothing was affordable.
Then he discovered Blaine.
The name was inspired by his reverence for the American west. Oddly, it was after he named the business that he found an old hand-painted sign he found at the base of the building's elevator shaft that read "Horseshoes."
"If that isn't a meant-to-be, I don't know what is," he said.
Among some of his more interesting finds is an old brass ship's signal cannon, used for signaling in the fog, and his collection of historic wooden nickels circulated by the former Blaine Relief Association during the 1930s to keep Blaine's local economy thriving.
The coins were issued to workers performing designated city work and were valued at par at local businesses.
"I also bought a confederate Spiller & Burr .36 caliber revolver in Birch Bay at a moving sale," he said. "Most high-quality confederate items are often found in the north because they were brought back by returning union soldiers as souvenirs much like WWII German memorabilia was brought back by returning U.S. soldiers."
Another find was a stack of 14 $2 bills from 1917 he found at a flea market in Poland last summer.
"They've probably been there since World War I, probably brought there by a U.S. soldier but to find that many in one place is unusual," he said.
Becht, however, said one of his favorite items to collect are trade tokens, which were used along with coins to supplement purchases and advertise each store, as they were only useable at the store printed on the token.
Becht said he likes to find them from different businesses and towns and is always looking to add to his collection. One of his favorites is a token from The Principal Barber Shop in Whatcom, a business that dates back to about 1902, when Bellingham was made of several smaller towns.
The shop was located in the Bellingham National Bank Building, which still stands and operates on the corner of Holly Street and Cornwall Avenue in downtown Bellingham.
"On the reverse it is 'Good for One Bath Except Saturday,' Saturday being the busiest day because all the lumber jacks and workers would come in for their once a week shave and bath, so they could go out honky-tonking on Saturday night," he said.
He has been a member of the American Numismatic Association, the Active Token Collectors Organization (ATCO) and TAMS, which is the Token and Medal Society, as well as a past member of the Hobo Nickels Society, an organization of Hobo nickel collectors. The nickels were produced during the depression when some people carved different characters out of the buffalo and American Indian figures on each side of the coin.
Becht said he performs free appraisals for customers who might happen across some unusual find in their own backyard.
He also said he is interested in buying old tokens, precious metals – especially gold – historical and local memorabilia, stamps, old post cards, photographs and old bottles, just to name a few items.
"It's nice to see all my old customers returning to look at my shop and I'm looking forward to doing business with new customers who have yet to discover this really neat shop full of history and treasures," he said.
Becht said for his unofficial new opening, he will arrange a coin guessing contest at $1 per guess with all proceeds benefiting the Blaine Food Bank. The winner with the closest guess will take home the old coins and the antique bottle in which they came. That contest will end the night before Halloween, he said.
Horseshoe Coins & Antiques is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. and is located at 810 Peace Portal Drive in Blaine. Becht can be reached by calling 332-1870. His website is www.oldwestartifacts.com.