Funny-Money Man

updated 09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 01:00AM

THE DOLLAR DOESN'T BUY WHAT IT USED to. The pound has taken its licks. Even the mighty yen has had its ups and downs. But the wooden nickel still makes a buck for Louis Berkie. Berkie, mind you, doesn't Lake wooden nickels. He makes them, cranking out 4 million a year in his magic shop cum wooden nickel mint in San Antonio, Tex.

Berkie, 80, got into his money-making business almost by accident. He was already selling magic tricks in 1950 when he saw an ad in Billboard magazine. "It said, '100 wooden nickels for $1.50,' " he recalls. "I sent the guy a letter, and after some correspondence he said he would sell me the business for $50." Berkie paid up and received 3,000 blank disks and two rubber stamps, one of a buffalo, the other of an American Indian. "The first year I made 10,000—all stamped by hand." Soon he was advertising his coinage aggressively. "I think I'm the one who got the wooden nickel really going," says Berkie.

So, who does take wooden nickels? The cured-maple tokens—which sell for $30 per 500 and are customized with messages for each client—are bought by everyone from the Holiday Inn in Secaucus, N.J., where they can be used to claim a free order of chicken wings, to the annual Rattlesnake Festival in San Antonio, Fla. They are used to commemorate births, marriages and retirements and to promote safe driving. And, of course, they are distributed in political campaigns. "I made 5,000 for someone in Dallas for Perot," says Berkie. "I've made a few for Bush. I made a lot for Reagan."

The origin of the wooden nickel—and of the phrase Don't take any wooden nickels—is obscure; some experts think they date back to ancient Rome at a time when wooden money was introduced to offset a scarcity of coins. Whatever its origins, the wooden nickel has helped put Louis Berkie on the map. "I can go anywhere in the world," he says, "and say that I have a magic shop and I make wooden nickels—and I'm a two-bit celebrity." Two bits? Even wooden nickels, it seems, are subject to inflation.

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