JACKI LYDEN, host:
This month, the U.S. Mint releases the last of four special Abraham Lincoln pennies. 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Not everyone is celebrating, though. There's been a long-running debate about the future of America's one-cent coin. And at least one store owner in Berkeley, California has decided to take a personal stand.
Andrew Stelzer went there to investigate whether the penny's days are numbered.
ANDREW STELZER: Alko Office Supply in downtown Berkeley is a completely average-looking store, with one exception. Hanging above the cash register is a sign that says: We are a penny-free store. I wanted to find out just how serious they were, or if it was some sort of joke or a gimmick.
(Soundbite of store)
Mr. ANDREW ALLEN: Thank you very much.
STELZER: So while I'm here I might get my 2010 yearly planner.
Cashier Andrew Allen told me with so many people using credit and debit cards, he only has to explain the no-penny rule about once a day.
Mr. ALLEN: It's going to cost you $15.53. So in cash terms $15.50.
STELZER: So if I give you - let's see what I got, 15.53.
Mr. ALLEN: Well, I'm going to tell you to keep these three pennies.
STELZER: You won't take them.
Mr. ALLEN: I won't take them. I refuse to take them.
STELZER: If you're wondering if this is legal, it is. While all U.S. currency is legal tender for paying debts, public charges, taxes and dues, the Treasury Department says private business can decide as a matter of policy whether to accept currency as payment, and if so, in which denominations.
About a year ago, Gary Shows, the owner of Alko Office Supply, felt pennies were no longer worth the hassle for customers and cashiers.
Mr. GARY SHOWS (Owner, Alko Office Supply): One evening I had this idea that if we went penny free and rounded everything down to the customer's favor to the nearest nickel, if everybody was four cents, I think I decided that we would lose about $500 a year.
STELZER: Shows says that $500, including my three cents today, is likely overcome by customers who remember the store and come back. For Shows, it was an issue of convenience. But there are other numbers beginning to stack up against the penny. One big one, since 2006, producing a penny has cost more than one cent due to the rising price of zinc, the main ingredient in the coin. Then there's the issue of inflation.
Mr. JEFF GORE (Founder, Citizens for Retiring the Penny): It's important to separate the idea of something being used and something being useful.
STELZER: Jeff Gore is the founder of a group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny. Gore points out that every year our currency is worth less.
Mr. GORE: There's just a very natural process where we have to retire currency. The penny used to be a useful coin. But it hasn't been useful for many decades.
STELZER: But the penny's got some serious fans, not to mention, lobbyists. Mark Weller is the executive director of Americans for Common Cents. He represents zinc producers, coin manufacturers and coin collectors, among other penny-loving constituencies. Weller's economic theory is that if we got rid of the penny, prices of everyday goods would rise.
Mr. MARK WELLER (Executive Director, Americans for Common Cents): The alternative to the penny is rounding to the nickel and that's something that will negatively impact working families every time they buy a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk.
STELZER: Weller also argues that charities would suffer greatly without pennies.
(Soundbite of coins)
STELZER: Only a couple miles away from the penny-free office supply store, Dagmar Serota is weighing the pennies collected by a class of pre-kindergarten boys at Linda Beach Cooperative preschool in Piedmont, California. She calls the pennies good cents.
(Soundbite of classroom)
Unidentified Boy: Are these silver?
Ms. DAGMAR SEROTA (Founder, Good Cents for Oakland): We share a bowl. Put - all the silver goes in a bowl and the pennies stay on your�
STELZER: In 2005, Serota founded Good Cents for Oakland. Since then she's helped school children raise more than $35,000 for homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other charities. Today's haul of $159.54 will be donated to the local food bank. As you might imagine, she's a big fan.
Ms. SEROTA: Pennies are easy to ask for and they're easy to give. And it's very easy for a child to say, will you help me support this nonprofit? Will you give me your pennies?
STELZER: Charities like Serota's came out in force to object in 2002 and 2006 when Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe introduced bills in the House to get rid of the penny. The bills went nowhere, and Kolbe is no longer in office. So it doesn't seem the Lincoln coin will be disappearing anytime soon, leaving penny lovers and haters to debate what makes sense one cent at a time.
Andrew Stelzer, NPR News, Berkeley.
(Soundbite of song, "Pennies from Heaven")
Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven. Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven. You'll find your fortune falling all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is upside down. Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers.