“Buy the book before the coin…even if you never buy the coin!” John Burns
If you’ve ever attended a major coin show such -- the annual ANA Summer World’s Fair of Money show, or FUN, or the thrice-annual Baltimore shows -- especially in the Northeast, you may have noticed the portly, gruff but affable bespectacled gentleman selling books. His table was usually in a back corner of the bourse floor -- surrounded by shelf after shelf of numismatics books and typically, a small crew of friends discussing the usual numismatic gossip.
Big John Burns was an opinionated and vocal sort of guy who was as quick to praise a friend as he was to dun an antagonist. His girth was large to say the least, and on one occasion he told me he lost 40 pounds, but I really couldn’t tell; he was that big and then some, packing plenty of pounds onto his six-foot frame.
An avowed bachelor from Pennsylvania of Scottish-American descent, John was proud of his heritage and he often spoke openly of it. I once laughingly told him the last thing in the world I ever wanted to see was him in a kilt twirling to a Highland jig! We had dinner many times over the years, and since I worked for a major company and John was always complaining about how bad the book market was, my employers usually picked up the tab.
One night at a somewhat fancy and very satisfying Mexican restaurant in Rosemont, Illinois (honest, it was in Rosemont, go figure), I reminded John he could have anything on the menu. We were both famished from a day on the bourse so we loaded up the table with goodies and began to feast. After dinner, John asked if the offer was still open and I told him “as long as we’re sitting at the table, yes.” John signaled for the waiter and ordered the house’s best brandy and best cigar, magnanimously asking me while he had the waiter at our table if I would partake in the same; I had a beer.
John passed away a few years back at a coin convention while asleep in his hotel room; good for you John, I’m on the waiting list for the same sort of quietly in-my-sleep sort of demise though hopefully at home. As with so many departed friends, stories of John Burns are plentiful in my mind. So are the names and stories of other friends from the coin business who are now departed.
Rather than have the NBAR blog series become an obituary column running for weeks and weeks, I’ll simply say here that people like Tom Becker, my first-ever boss at Bowers and Merena in 1987 and a one-time player for the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team; Leonard Saunders, exonumia genius par excellence and all-around decent human being; Norm Talbert with his twinkling eyes and ever-present unlit pipe, who knew more about Buffalo nickels than James Earle Fraser; Steve Tanenbaum, whose bearded smiling face was the façade for deep numismatic knowledge that was so much deeper than “token;” Garry Fitzgerald, who befriended me decades ago and regaled me with stories from back in the day while selling me too-nice coins for too-cheap prices; and Art Kagin, whose bawdy matchbook cover collection was an astonishing thing to behold. These are just a few of the many fine people, numismatists all, and all bright spots I would visit on my bourse floor rounds -- decades ago in some instances – that share a tiny bit of immortality each and every time I think of them, and I almost always do think of them whenever I step onto a bourse floor!
See ya next week!