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The Garbo of currency

Much like the late film star, the Sacagawea dollar coin is popular but rarely shows up in public.

The new dollar coin that bears the image of Sacagawea is proving to be as elusive as the commercial route to the Northwest that explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were seeking two centuries ago when she accompanied them on a trek across the continent.

The coin made its debut nearly a year ago and by now it was supposed to be jingling in people's pockets. But it seems the only sighting many Americans have had is in newspaper and TV ads.

Greg Rohde, an assistant secretary of commerce, said he first glimpsed it in Istanbul, Turkey. Other than the 15 golden-colored dollar coins he got as change from a street vendor, Rohde hasn't seen any.

"I used a couple of them in the cafeteria here, but it always takes an explanation of what they are," he said.

The U.S. Mint said its research shows that 90 percent of Americans are aware of the Sacagawea (pronounced sock-ah-gah-WEE-ah), in part due to a $40-million advertising blitz in which a hip George Washington urges people to use them. But that doesn't mean they've ever held one.

Approximately 1.2-billion coins have been made. The Mint estimates that roughly 700-million are "in circulation," with the rest sitting in bank and Mint vaults. But "in circulation" means the coins have been shipped to the Federal Reserve, supplier of cash to banks, or are held by collectors. It doesn't mean they are being used as currency.

Bankers said there hasn't been much demand for the coins from retailers. And people increasingly are getting their money from ATMs, which usually don't dispense coins.

An exception is the Arkansas Federal Credit Union, which dispenses the coins from sophisticated ATMs.

"Banks have a ready supply of the dollar coins for customers," said John Rasmus of the American Bankers Association. "But I don't think banks want to stockpile these unless there is a big demand for them."

The Federal Reserve estimates that about $530-million in dollar coins _ including some Susan B. Anthony coins _ were shipped since last January.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem with the dollar coin that's gone on for a year. Consumers say: "If I get them, I'll use them.' Banks say: "If consumers want them, they'll get them,' " said Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint.

Allfirst Financial, the first major financial institution to routinely distribute the coins, has dispensed 930,000 since August and "the response has been very positive," said spokesman Philip Hosmer.

People buy rolls of Sacagaweas for gifts, banks say, and people who discover the coin for the first time typically want to keep it. Some people who used Sacagaweas to buy coffee or pay for parking have seen cashiers keep the coins, replacing them with paper dollars.

Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World, an industry magazine, believes Sacagaweas won't be widely used as long as the dollar bill is available. When Canada introduced its dollar coin, known as the Loonie, it began phasing out the paper equivalent. The United Kingdom and other countries have done likewise.

But for now, the Sacagaweas are used mostly for buying snacks from vending machines, tipping people, feeding parking meters, paying tolls and bus and subway fares. Eighteen of 20 major transit authorities use them, the Mint said.

Tom McMahon of the National Automatic Merchandising Association says many of the country's 6-million food and beverage machines accept the coins. McMahon's industry likes them because they're easier for machines to read than paper bills and are more durable. Post offices also use the Sacagawea coins.

When the Sacagaweas debuted, the Mint supplied retailer Wal-Mart with about 100-million to offer to customers when making change _ an effort to get the coins into peoples' hands quickly.

"Customers were very happy to get them without a doubt," said Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams. "They kind of went into circulation. Then it was real quiet there for awhile but the coins are beginning to show up here and there in tender."

Some Kmart stores make change with the Sacagaweas but there isn't a corporate mandate to use them, said spokesman Stephen Pagnani.

Pete Mountanos of Santa Barbara, Calif., said he recently had his first and only encounter with the golden dollar when he received one as change at a Kmart. "I thought it was a quarter," he recalled.

Coin experts believe the Sacagawea coin is unlikely to meet the fate of its predecessor, the Susan B. Anthony coin. It is still in circulation but production of the coin has been stopped.

But they question whether the new coins will be routinely used.

"Americans tend to be conservative. The penny has not changed since 1909," said White. "Basically, with the golden coin, we're asking people to change their behavior and that takes a while."