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story.lead_photo.caption Tom Maringer runs his fingers through coins at his shop in Springdale. He makes collectible coins for several fantasy franchises, including Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. - Photo by Anthony Reyes

SPRINGDALE -- Fictional travelers fleeing Bree with wraiths hot on their heels typically can't buy a much-needed pony with traveler's checks and no one ever asked someone from Bravos for help by uttering "Valar morghulis" and then flashing an American Express card.

Photo by Anthony Reyes
Tom Maringer, owner of Shire Post Mint in Springdale, demonstrates how he uses a percussion press to make coins.
Photo by Anthony Reyes
Woody Maringer shows a spinning coin at Shire Post Mint. He helps make coins for his father’s business in Springdale.
Photo by Anthony Reyes
Iron Coin of the Faceless Man is one of the coins created by Tom Maringer at Shire Post Mint in Springdale.
Photo by Anthony Reyes
Iron Coin of the Faceless Man is one of the coins created by Tom Maringer at Shire Post Mint in Springdale.

Shire Post Mint

Tom Maringer, owner of the Shire Post Mint, makes a Shire penny with his 40-ton screw press. (By Anthony Reyes)
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Those goods and services from the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones come at a cost, and those costs must be paid in hard coins -- coins like those struck in Northwest Arkansas by Shire Post Mint.

Tom Maringer, the Springdale mint's founder, is a former knife and sword maker with a passion for coin and stamp collecting. Today he has licensing agreements to make collectible coins for several top-tier fantasy franchises, including Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings.

Maringer sells his coins through online channels, including his own store shirepost.com, and on eBay, Etsy and Amazon, and through the HBO Store. He recently struck a deal for Shire Post Mint's Game of Thrones coins to be sold in Barnes & Noble stores nationwide starting in June, his first foothold in a large chain store.

Maringer doesn't classify his products as toys but he doesn't consider them as pure collectibles either; they are something in between.

"They're meant to be toyed with rather than put in an album or on a shelf to be looked at," he explained.

WORLD OF COLLECTIBLES

Toys are big business in the U.S. According to information company The NPD Group, 2015 saw total toy revenue of $19.4 billion, an increase of nearly 7 percent when compared to the previous year. The NPD Group said earlier this month that toy sales saw 6 percent growth in the first quarter of 2016 with properties such as Star Wars as major contributors.

In 2015, toy sales were driven by content, through properties such as Star Wars, Jurassic World, Minions and The Avengers, along with television shows and even apps like Minecraft, according to NPD.

According to market research group IBIS World, online antique and collectible sales in 2015 stood at $1.2 billion with projected annual growth of 4 percent over the next five years. Of the products offered in the segment, a little more than 82 percent were collectibles, such as coins, jewelry, books, and figurines that are less than 100 years old.

In February, the Toy Industry Association, a trade group, listed five trends for 2016, including more demand for collectibles.

At Shire Post Mint, Maringer and his son Woody design and stamp the coins while daughter Helen helps with art and packaging development and wife Peggy keeps the books. The mint makes about 100,000 coins annually and produces more than 150 different coins, which are sold individually or in sets.

The mint's most popular item is the Iron Coin of the Faceless Man from the Game of Thrones franchise, with more than 40,000 made to date. The coin, used as a recognition signal by a cult of assassins known as Faceless Men, is made of pure metallurgical-grade iron and includes the inscriptions Valar morghulis, a password which translates to "All men must die," and Valar dohaeris, a countersign which translates to "All men must serve."

POCKET FULL OF CHANGE

For Maringer, the concept for Shire Post Mint was spawned out of simple curiosity in the late 1980s. Maringer, an avid reader of fantasy, wondered what the silver pennies Frodo used to purchase Bill the pony in The Fellowship of the Ring looked like, what they felt like, what they sounded like when swished in a bag.

"It's a bit of a pirate fantasy," Maringer said with a smile as he dumped a bag of coins with a rattling clink onto a shop table. "This is my treasure."

So he made some coins for himself and a few friends as an experiment to create what he calls "artifacts" of the fantasy worlds he found so fascinating. But the idea stayed a hobby, since he lacked the proper tools for coin production on any sort of scale. Then fate stepped in.

While discussing his interest in coin making with a friend in 2000, Maringer discovered the location of an antique coin press collecting dust in Ohio. Tracking down the lead, Maringer soon was in possession of a screw press that weighed more than a ton.

"This isn't the sort of thing you find in a flea market," Maringer said. "It was like, 'Oh my God, this is the thing I need.'"

Still working his regular job as a knife maker, Maringer minted some of his Lord of the Rings coins and for a lark put them on a website. Within an hour he said he got messages from folks wanting to buy them. That went well, until he ran up against a problem: he wasn't licensed to produce the coins.

"They asked me to stop, and I did," Maringer said of officials representing the Lord of the Rings franchise.

After reading George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, which included the novels Game of Thrones, Clash of Kings and Storm of Swords, Maringer wanted the licensing to make coins based on Martin's works. He struck a deal with Martin in 2003.

"He was like, 'Yeah, let's do it,'" Maringer said.

For years, Maringer said, Martin was his best customer, buying coins to give away to fans and on book tours. Martin's books became more popular and then HBO came knocking to turn his books into what would become a blockbuster television series.

Earlier this month, Time Warner reported better-than-expected first-quarter revenue in part on the strength of its cable channel HBO. First-quarter revenue was up at $7.31 billion from $7.13 billion a year ago. HBO, home of Game of Thrones, had a revenue gain of nearly 8 percent for the quarter.

Now in its sixth season, Game of Thrones' April premiere had 10.7 million viewers, a new same-day record according to The Hollywood Reporter. In total, Game of Thrones averaged about 20 million viewers per episode last season. To date, Martin's five books in the Song of Fire and Ice saga have sold more than 60 million copies.

Maringer said HBO wanted the licensing for the coins when it struck its deals with Martin, but the author stood by Shire Post Mint and they maintained their business relationship.

"He stood up for us," Maringer said. "He didn't have to do that."

KEEPING IT CRUDE

As the HBO series picked up steam, that's when things really began to take off at Shire Post Mint, and more coins were minted.

Since then, Maringer went full time with the mint in 2010 and now has picked up the licensing for other prominent fantasy franchises, including Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and Patrick Rothfuss' The King Killer Chronicles, and he also obtained the licensing for The Lord of the Rings last year.

The coins are designed at the Shire Post Mint workshop and stamped out, one at a time, with what Maringer describes as 1800s technology and machinery using traditional materials. He guards his practices closely, wary of counterfeiters who copy his coins and sell the fakes online.

Maringer said his method allows fairly rapid production but it's not like a modern minting process, where coins look too polished and too perfect. He wants each coin to look like it came from a dragon's hoard, not the local convenience store's till.

"There's nothing special about that," he said of modern minting practices. "In some ways, it's a challenge to keep it crude."

Maringer notes that with Shire Post Mint he set out to create a different type of collectible. Holding the coins, he said, creates a physical link of sorts to the stories fans love.

"I like the term immersive fantasy," he said. "A collectible like a bobblehead is ironic. These coins honor the story. They lend gravitas to the author's work."

SundayMonday Business on 05/15/2016

Print Headline: Springdale firm makes its coin on fantasy lands

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