Originally published in the Journal Inquirer
by Kristen J. Tsetsi
When Good Ole Tom’s owner Tom Tinney travels between residences in Florida, Arizona, and Connecticut, he doesn’t fly. He has a nice car, he said, and he enjoys being in it. In late February he’s due to return to Connecticut from Arizona to tend to some business at his East Hartford and Hamden stores, and with a hired driver at the wheel, 80-year-old Tinney will take the southern route from west to east and drive north along the coast, stopping at all the good restaurants on the way.
Tinney spoke with the JI from his home in Arizona, where he has three stores in Tucson and where he and his wife spend most of their time to be close to their grandchildren.
Q: Where does your strong southern accent come from?
A: I was raised on a farm in the south of Florida, so I’m as southern as I can be. Up north they make fun of rednecks, crackers, but we make fun of rednecks, too, because we’re funny.
The name “cracker,” by the way, came from our forefathers. The transportation didn’t always used to be BMWs. You used a wagon to carry your goods, and you had oxen pulling it. The drivers used a bull whip to crack over the heads of the animals, and that’s where the word “cracker” came from.
Q: In which town in the south of Florida were you raised, and what was your childhood like?
A: Tallahassee. I was born in Jacksonville, 90 miles to the east. On the farm, we raised our own meat, our own vegetables, and we were big into tobacco. Tobacco and cotton at the time were major cash crops. Cotton still is; tobacco, not so much. But they grow just about as much in Connecticut as they do anywhere. In fact, some of the original plantation slaves were exported to plantations in Connecticut, which was one of the early slave-holding states.
All of my grandparents were involved in slavery, and let me tell you, it’s the worst thing that happened in the United States.
Q: Is a passion for history connected to your interest in the coins and estate items you buy and sell?
A: A person who is a collector collects anything. If they collect thimbles, they’ll collect other things. It’s just in them. I’m the same way. I collect books. I like to collect first-editions and autographed first-editions. I collect guns. Things that have history that you can study. I love history. It resides in me. History is so interesting, where we came from and who we are. To know who you are, you have to know where you’ve been.
Q: What else, in addition to collecting, do you like to do in your free time?
A: Read. Anything old. I read a lot of history. I like to read about wars, what caused us to lose or win, what the results were to the people who lost and the people who won. I can tell you more than you ever want to know about Wyatt Earp. Interesting people, I read their books. Entrepreneurs, I read their books, try to see if I can pick up their tricks. I have a huge library.
I also used to be a motorcyclist. I’ve traveled all through the US and Mexico, down as far on my motorcycle as Nicaragua. But my wife took me off the motorcycle about ten years ago. I miss it. But I miss flying the most. I used to own airplanes. I stopped flying when I was in my 60s.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: Right now I’m reading Robert B. Parker’s “Damned if You Do.” I’m also reading a history of the Mormons. In college, we respected the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal as the least yellow of all the newspapers written in the US. I’m from the old school. The book on the history of Mormons is written without bias, and I enjoy that.
Q: What did you study in college?
A: I was in the last journalism class at Florida State University. I dropped out my junior year because I was making more money working part time selling office supplies in town than my professors were making teaching.
Q: What sparked your initial interest in buying and selling gold and silver?
A: You know the housing market we have right now and how bad it is? We had the same thing in the ’60s. The government and politics—not me or the banks or anyone else—just absolutely killed the housing market, like occurred in ’07 and ’08 with the government regulations that you just didn’t have to qualify anyone to let them have a home.
When I delivered that last home, I left construction entirely and flew as a charter pilot for a year while I figured out what I was going to do.
I had been a coin collector when I was a kid, and one day I was reading in the Wall Street Journal that silver certificate dollars were still in circulation in Panama. They were calling them all back in the US. The next morning I was on an airplane to Panama. I spent the next year collecting them in Panama and learning about silver and gold while I did it.
The government stopped taking the certificates back in 1968, but I had accumulated a lot of coins and opened a coin shop in Miami. Then I started learning about jewelry. It’s big business down there with the retirees. When they died, the jewelry stores would buy their estates and buy and sell used jewelry. So I learned how to do that. From there I became a master jeweler. I did that for decades, but then I started going blind from looking at the hot flame, the blue flame that gives off ultraviolet light. I have macular degeneration now.
Q: Do people recognize you when you’re out for dinner or grocery shopping?
A: That was a part of my advertising ploy. I try to be recognized, because when I am people think of Good Ole Tom’s. That’s why I continuously use the cowboy hat. The same chapeau will be recognized whatever else I’m wearing. I have a bunch of hats, but that hat was specially made. And it’s a white hat. People trust white hats more. There’s a lot to color. For example, always choose a yellow car. The car traffic safety foundation found yellow is the most visible car and they have fewer accidents. I try to have a reason for everything I do.
Q: Several years ago you said you wanted to establish a program that would help high school students find jobs after school and during summer vacations. Have you done that?
A: Yeah, I hire young people who are interested all the time. I got sick a year ago with a horrible disease called myasthenia gravis. It’s very debilitating. So I have not been personally as active in the program. You’ll see young people in our stores working after school and learning a trade.
The most important thing to me is that, one, they’re eager to learn, and two, that they’re honest. We’re just like a bank. We have value hanging around, and we can’t be thinking about somebody stealing something to give to their girlfriend. Unfortunately, that’s happened. But I love working with young people, and several have gone out and started their own stores after working for me.
Q: What do they learn?
A: The first thing I teach them is the customer is the most important thing. We have to make a profit on anything. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. I don’t know why that’s the law of nature, but it is. You have to manage your growth. After they learn the basics, the very next thing I teach them is that they make a profit because of the customer. I drill that into them. The customer has to be treated right.
They learn to smile at the customer, and if they can’t smile at a customer, I can’t have it. I’m very strict.
I’m Good Ole Tom when it comes to the customers, but I don’t forgive anything where mistreatment of a customer is concerned.
Q: How did the name “Good Ole Tom” come to be?
A: It’s a southern name. A lot of times in movies nowadays, they say “He’s a good ole boy.” What’s that mean? To the people who are saying it, it means he can be trusted. He’s a good ole boy, and he can be trusted.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, The Year of Dan Palace, and Pretty Much True, Dr. Owen W. Gilman, Jr.’s “American War Literature and Film: Vietnam to Now” 2012 course curriculum selection. Kristen’s interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.