Stamp Collecting – Getting Started 2: Get a Bunch of Stamps

Get a bunch of stamps. That’s pretty obvious. That’s why it’s called stamp COLLECTING. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than it used to be. It’s all a matter of what and were. What do you collect, and where do you get the stamps?

What to collect is the easy part. For beginners, my advice is collect everything. This is contrary to most beginner advice I’ve read, which says to choose an area. I can see their point, I guess. There are an awful lot of stamps out there, spanning more than 160 years. It’s a lot less overwhelming to collect, say, just the stamps that have butterflies on them, the stamps of a specific country, or stamps published in your birth year or whatever. However, while this might be a direction you want to move toward eventually, I think it’s a real mistake to start out that way. It’s sort of like advising someone who’s learning to cook to start by eating eat cornflakes and milk and only cornflakes and milk because the grocery store is just so big and overwhelming. Over time you can try some 2% milk, and a different brand of cornflakes, and later on maybe go crazy and try a different kind of cereal… Sure, that’s safe, but you’ll have a much more rewarding experience if you try everything, experiment, learn, discover new things you love. If you start collecting everything, you’ll find certain things resonate with you better than others, and you can focus then. Unless you’re like me, and you’ll discover that you find everything fascinating. My collection is a sprawly, unfocused mess, but so what! It makes me happy!

The matter of where used to be a simple one. There was a time before text messaging and Unlimited Off-Peak hours. There was a time, even, when the Internet didn’t exist and there was no email, just mail (aka snailmail). Back then people wrote letters. Letters were written on paper using a pencil or pen, or sometimes typed on a typewriter. These were folded up and put into envelopes to be sent to friends and loved ones. The stamp paid the price for delivery. At this time, letters were the cheapest and most effective way of communicating more than a few sentences. Talking on the phone for more than a minute or to anyone who didn’t live within a few miles of you cost more than it did to send a letter, so everyone did it. It wasn’t just a craft, artsy or quaint way to send information. It was how we communicated!

So, anyway, back then there were a whole lot more stamps lying around, and because people cared about their letter writing, they’d go out of their way to buy pretty & interesting commemorative stamps instead of using the generic and awful “flag over porch” style of stamp. There also wasn’t as much of a stigma against stamp collecting as there is today, so you could announce to your friends and family that you collected stamps and please save stamps off envelopes for you. It was actually a great way to entertain kids (and by kids I mean me. I’m just assuming that there are others out there who had the same experience). When I was a kid, my aunts, uncles and grandparents knew I collected stamps, and they’d save them for me all year. When my parents would go visit them, I’d have a box full of stamps to sort through while the grownups visited. Back then it was possible to grow a decent stamp collection just through social networks.

Nowadays, though, actual stamped letters are becoming increasingly rare, and building a stamp collection is probably going to mean buying some stamps. Unfortunately, the days when you could buy packets of world stamps at the local drug store are gone. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live near a hobby shop that sells stamps. I don’t know that I am. The only stores around here that say they sell stamps seem really sketchy. They have big, hand-painted signs up that say they also buy & sell GOLD and GUNS. Somehow I have a really hard time associating stamps and guns. I suppose there are some gunslinging prospectors out there who trade in their gold for stamps, or maybe some stamp collectors who have such valuable collections they philaticize with a Glock in one hand and stamp tongs in the other. Since I’m neither of these, I don’t go into such places, though maybe I’m missing out! Since going to the store is out for me, and I suspect, for most people, that leave the post office, mail order, and the Internet.

The local post office is actually a great option for buying stamps. The selection is typically very limited: unused stamps published within the last few months of whatever country you’re in. However, you’re paying face value for the stamps, instead of an inflated dealer price. One cool thing about collecting unused stamps (in the US at least) is that every unused stamp issued since the Civil War is still valid for postage. So the stamps you buy are going to be worth face value, at the very least! Plus post offices are conveniently located everywhere.

However, buying stamps at the post office is still fairly limited. Why stick with the current moment of your own country when there’s a whole world with a rich history to explore?

One way to explore this history is by using an approval service. Approval services can be incredibly cool, and I don’t know of anything like them outside of philately. With an approval service, people will send you stamps on a regular basis. The stamps are organized into sets in glassine envelopes. You don’t pay for them up front. They actually trust you with their stuff! It’s a nice feeling! You pick the sets you like and send the rest back, along with payment for what you’ve kept. Then they send you another bunch of stamps and the process repeats for as long as you want it to go on.

Unfortunately, approval services have a dark side, which is why I don’t use them. Every approval service I’ve used escalated. The first few months were small numbers of affordable sets. But then they started sending more and more stamps, at higher prices, and new offers for things I might be interested in, until it became annoying and inconvenient, and I had to cancel all of them. It’s really unfortunate because if they’d kept it constant, I’d still be getting most of my stamps through approval services. Perhaps there’s an option for that, but I couldn’t find it. Still, for those first few months, approval services are a great way to start!

So far, the best way I’ve found for getting a whole bunch of stamps is through eBay. I recommend searching for “kiloware” or “mission mix.” These are just big boxes of stamps, usually unsorted. Unsorted may mean you’ll wind up with a large number of identical stamps, but it can also mean there are hidden treasures that didn’t get separated out. Mission mix traditionally are stamps that have been gathered, not by stamp dealers but by church groups or other charitable organizations to sell to collectors raise money for their activities. You can often pick up several pounds of mission mix for tens of dollars on eBay. Even if you don’t find any treasures, the entertainment value alone of searching through that many stamps far outweighs the cost! Kiloware and mission mix comes in 2 varieties, off-paper and on-paper. Off-paper costs much more than on-paper because with on-paper stamps you’ll have to put in the work of getting the envelope scraps off the stamps. Also, the paper the stamps are on far outweighs the stamps. In a pound of on-paper stamps, you’ll get several hundred stamps, while off-paper you’ll get thousands.

Once you’ve got your bunch of stamps, the fun starts!

Stamp Collecting – Getting Started 1

There’s probably better people to be taking advice from. I’m really a beginner myself. Well, really, I’ve been collecting stamps since I was 5, then paused for a while in the 80s, and really just started up again a couple of years ago. Since then, however, the philatelic landscape has changed quite dramatically. When I started collecting there were coin and stamps stores and hobby shops I could go to find supplies, even way out where I lived in rural Maine. You could even find stamps and albums at KayBee Toys at any shopping mall (KayBee was once the second largest toy store chain after Toys R Us. It closed for good in 2009).

Returning to stamp collecting in the 21st century I found it a whole lot more perplexing, and I don’t think that’s just because time has age-addled my brain. It seems as if there have been virtually no new stamp collectors since the 80s. Everyone left collecting stamps already knows what they need to know, and where to find it. They know the difference between a se tenant and a tete beche. They know when to use a hinge and when to use a mount. Maybe I knew all these things as a kid, but I’d forgotten them by the time I was an adult. The entire philatelic world seems to cater to experts now, and I had a difficult time starting out again. I made numerous mistakes, created a lot of work for myself, bought a lot of things I wouldn’t have, if I’d had just a little more knowledge. So, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned in hopes I can keep you from making the same mistakes.

Really, collecting stamps is one of the easiest things in the world to do. Numerous how-to books are available to tell you how to do it, but I’ll sum it all up right here:

How To Collect Stamps

1. Get a bunch of stamps

2. Organize them in some logical fashion

3. Repeat

Simple, right?

It should be, and yet it rapidly turns into a kind of alchemy. A stamp collection grows rapidly into thousands, even tens of thousands of stamps without a lot of effort. These span 160+ years, hundreds of different countries, thousands upon thousands of different subjects. Trying to organize that into some sort of logic can be a lifetime endeavor!

Fortunately, there are a variety of tools to help you do it. I’ve put together a beginner’s shopping list of things you should buy soon after starting:

Stamp Tongs
Glassine envelopes
Stock books/stock pages
Drying book
Stamp Albums
Hinges & Mounts
and, least importantly, Price Guides

In upcoming posts I’ll explore each of these in depth.

If you lack any these things, don’t let that stop you. Empty cigar boxes and ziplock bags are fine for storing your stamp collection in the mean time!

Why I Collect 1: It keeps me balanced

My life is increasingly accelerated and myopic. Your life might be, too, but you’ve been to busy to realize it.

I’m a technical artist and instructor of digital graphic arts. Both careers mean that little of my knowledge is permanent. Unlike, say, being a cooper, where one learns to make barrels, then spends a lifetime perfecting one’s craft. Instead, most of what I learn becomes outdated in a short time. I need to update my skills continually.

Likewise, the tools of my trade become obsolete almost before I get them home. I’ll spend thousands on a computer, knowing I’ll be needing to buy a new one before I finish paying off the last one, and I’ll be fortunate if I can sell it for a tenth of what I paid for it.

It doesn’t end with work, though. At home we’re still watching a standard-def CRT television, and we need to upgrade to HDTV, but as soon as we do that, a newer, better HDTV will come out for less than we paid for the TV we just got home. Even if we can put up for the quality of the HDTV that looked so good until we heard about the latest and greatest new HDTV, we’re still screwed. These things aren’t built to last. It’ll die on its own in a few years, forcing us to buy a new one. The same is true of most every bit of technology I own. The iPod, cell phone and XBox, all of which fill important niches in my life, will all be worthless on a very short time line.

In stamp collecting, I find the antidote to all of these problems.

Stamp collecting is a completely pressure-free activity. There’s no concept of things becoming obsolete or irrelevant. When I mount a 120 year-old stamp into an album, I realize it took over a century for that stamp to wind up on that page. There’s nothing time-sensitive about it. My albums are printed on archival, acid-free paper that will last longer than I’ll be alive. In fact, there are albums in my collection that are over a century old, and they’re just as usable today as when they were first printed. There aren’t many things are there that you can buy and think “I can have this for the rest of my life if I want.”

You could spend $60 for Gears of War 2 for the XBox 360. If you sell it as soon as you beat it you might be able to get $30. That’s only if you do it within the next few weeks, because as the hype dies down, the price drops. Wait until GoW 3 comes out and you might as well just give the game away. A game like that only has about 40 hours of entertainment value, then it’s over and done with. In contrast, I just picked up a used copy of Scott’s International Postage Stamp Album , Vol. I, for around $60. It covers the first 100 years of postage stamps, from 1840 to 1940. I honestly don’t expect to have it filled in my lifetime, so with any luck I’ll get decades of entertainment out of it. But if I do get bored with it, I’ll likely be able to re-sell it for more than what I paid for it.

So, it’s a completely deadline-free activity that only gains in value over time. It’s the complete opposite of most of my life!

Hello, I’m Matt LeClair and I collect postage stamps…

There, I said it. It’s out, and you know, it does feel better talking about things…

This has honestly been a difficult thing to go public with. There’s a real stigma against stamp collectors, philatelists, and even though I’ve had a stamp collection since I was five, only my wife and immediate family know about it.

Last year, star tennis player and fashionista Maria Sharapova let slip that she collected stamps. Later, when reporters asked again about it, she replied, “Oh, God, stop. Everyone’s calling me a dork now!”

In fact, her agent had banned her from talking about it for fear that it might effect her sponsorships.

“We’re getting emails from, like, stamp collecting magazines asking if I can do an interview. I mean, it’s just a hobby,” she said. “I’m actually good at telling stories but that is one I should have never talked about. Oh, my goodness. Let’s get off this subject, because I’m going to be an absolute geek tomorrow.”

How sad! Google Maria Sharapova and you’ll see she’s allowed to be two things: tennis star and sexy blonde. The instant she reveals that she’s something more than that she gets shut down. I don’t think “dork” when I hear Maria is a philatelist. I realize she’s not just a stereotype. There’s more to her than playing tennis and looking pretty. She’s interested in the world, its people and its history. She’s a real person, someone you could have over for dinner and it’d be an enjoyable experience, as long as her agent didn’t come.

So yeah, I’ve been in the closet about my philately. The Sharapova incident reinforces the idea that it’s something you should keep quiet because if people know, they’ll think less of you. You’ll lose your social status and your sponsorships. You’ll never have sex with a live human again. People will make fun of you.

You know what? Screw it! I love collecting stamps! Collecting stamps helps me to be a happier, healthier, better informed person. I don’t want to keep this a secret because I’m sure there are others out there who are a) closet philatelists, or, b) would really enjoy collecting stamps if they gave it a chance.

So, from here on, this blog is going to be all about stamps. I’ll be talking about why I collect, and how you can get started, and maybe someday you can say it with me:

I’m a philatelist and I’m proud!

My Surgery Adventure

I’ve been getting a lot of forced relaxation lately. I had a metal plate removed from my ankle that was left over from when I broke it a couple years ago. The pain from it had been pretty much incessant. Those long walks on the beach that I’d bragged so much about liking in my personals ads had become a thing of the past. Also, my inability to wear footwear higher than my ankle really is something of a liability here in the wintry wilds of Maine. So, last Wednesday, I went under the knife…

I guess this has been a problem before. I had to mark Yes on the foot I was having surgery on to make sure they didnt do anything to any other body part.

I guess this has been a problem before. I had to mark "Yes" on the foot I was having surgery on to make sure they didn't do anything to any other body part.

Idiots out west pay a dollar a minute to breathe oxygen in bars. Here I'm getting it for free! Well, probably for a lot more than a dollar a minute, but the insurance was picking up the tab. So I felt all smug for being very trendy without paying for it!

Here's the machine that goes bing, letting me know I'm still alive. I need one of these at home because now I'm not so sure.

I had a panic attack. It struck me that if theyd had problems with unauthorized parts getting cut into in the past, Id better be on the safe side... Four days later and that damned ink still wont wash out...

I had a panic attack. It struck me that if they'd had problems with unauthorized parts getting cut into in the past, I'd better be on the safe side... Four days later and that damned ink still won't wash out...

Back home, safe and sound but mostly immobile. The kittens love me that way, though. Im not complaining! Hospitals should have lots of cats around to curl up on post-surgery patients. Better than vallium for relaxing!

Back home, safe and sound but mostly immobile. The kittens love me that way, though. I'm not complaining! Hospitals should have lots of cats around to curl up on post-surgery patients. Better than vallium for relaxing!

something happened

I’d kept this blog going for quite a while and an accident happened, and now I either have to figure out how to restore the years of posts, or just start from scratch.

Today I’m leaning toward starting again from scratch.