ALAMEDA — After almost 40 years in business as The Silver Baron, Larry Bovo doesn’t take change lightly.
“I don’t have a computer or a cell phone,” said Bovo, who will turn 79 next month. “I walk to work. It’s about 5 miles.”
Bovo walks further to work from Bay Farm Island these days because of a change he made last year, relocating his shop from Park Street to a corner storefront on Webster Street at Lincoln Avenue.
Reproduction movie posters, historic newspapers and sports memorabilia cover the walls of the shop, which has expanded from coins to include an array of collectible items.
Along with coins and gold and silver bullion, the curious can find movie posters, postage stamps, vintage postcards, Golden Age comic books and sports and other items of the past.
“I’ve always been a memorabilia collector,” he said. “I collect a lot of sports memorabilia. Eventually, I got so much in my own collection that I started selling it. People started bringing in what they had, and I started buying it.”
Treasures in the store that can’t be found online include the boxing gloves that world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano used in his second-to-last bout in May 1955 before 20,000 fans at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Marciano trained at Calistoga for the match and was a big hit in town.
“His nephew came in and sold a lot of memorabilia,” Bovo said.
There is also a publicity photo signed by Greta Garbo, who rarely gave autographs. Coins range from ancient (older is not necessarily as valuable) to complete sets of U.S. coins and unique currencies, including $1,000 bills and paper money issued by the Confederacy during the Civil War. Sports eras cover everything from the old Pacific Coast League up to an autographed and framed Steph Curry jersey.
In a collectors market increasingly dominated by online options, Bovo runs his shop the way he always has, looking up values in reference books and making receipts out by hand. His customers — most of whom are walk-ins — wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He’s the kind of guy who turns you on to collecting,” said Jim Haney, of Los Angeles. “Every time I do business up here I stop in and do business with Larry. It’s not the same online. A lot of it’s the interaction.”
The building that housed the former location of The Silver Baron was undergoing renovations in 2017 that hid Bovo’s storefront on Park Street from view. He decided it was time to find a new home.
“You actually could not see the store,” he said, noting that burglars took advantage of the seclusion to break into the shop. “They took everything that wasn’t locked up in the safe.”
Bovo, who grew up in Oakland and graduated from Bishop O’Dowd High School in 1957, caught the collecting bug early.
“In the early ’50s I used to go to a movie theater every Saturday, one in Oakland, one in San Leandro (that) was by a coin shop that sold Indian head pennies for a dime,” he said. “I found I could sell them for a dollar. I went into stamps, baseball cards, back into coins, and I said, ‘Wow, I can make money at this.’ ”
Bovo served three years in the U.S. Army, including a year in Korea, before being discharged in 1964. He went to work for Safeway and moved to Alameda around 1966. His childhood hobby, meanwhile, grew into a side business in his spare time, often at coin shows, until he opened his shop.
“From 1978 to ’85 I was working 80 hours a week — 40 at Safeway and 40 on Park Street.”
He chose the name of the shop because “I had a lot of silver, and I thought the name was catchy,” he said. “I had cards made, and I thought, ‘This will work.’ ”
Bovo has indeed made it work but still sees the toll the online market has taken on the storefront trade.
“Most of the coin shops I know are really hurting,” he said. “A lot of dealers are closing up shop.”
But he’s not complaining about making a hobby his livelihood.
“It worked out OK,” he said. “Business has been up and down, but life has been really good to me. I have no complaints.”
Chris Treadway is a former reporter, columnist and editor for the Bay Area News Group specializing in community news and local history.
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