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Stamping The Joy Out Of Collectors

, , , , , | Working | January 21, 2021

I am about five years old when a book I read inspires me to start stamp collecting. When my dad sees me putting envelopes in water and carefully removing the stamps, he happily gives me his old stamp album containing thousands of stamps from all over the world. Though some are clearly postmarked from the 19th century, the vast majority of them are common and practically worthless. Still, I treasure them all the same; I love every stamp in that stamp album. Studying the postmarks and the designs of the stamps gives me little snapshots about the history, geography, and culture of so many different countries, and while I have favourites, I never take interest or “specialise” in any particular country or theme, as I know some collectors do. I just collect anything and everything.

Unfortunately, my family life takes a bit of a chaotic turn in my late teenage years; I am bouncing back and forth between both parents during their divorce and my dad moves house a few times. At some point during this mess, I lose my stamp album. It takes me several years to actually accept that the stamp album is gone, not hiding in a box somewhere or shelved away in some dusty corner of my mum’s garage. It’s gone.

Finally, I come to terms with it and decide to get a new stamp album. I have no idea where to start, but I know that I want to have something as close as possible to what I lost: a large collection of stamps from all over the world. The monetary value doesn’t matter; I am just sentimental about my childhood pastime and keepsake, and I want to recapture it as best as I can. I’ve also been feeling incredibly guilty about losing something my dad kept in good condition and passed down to me.

There aren’t that many brick-and-mortar stores that sell stamp collections in the twenty-first century, but I decide to take a look around the few shops that I can find in the city. The first one I visit is the biggest one and is a little overwhelming, although as I browse it, I do find some albums and loose collections that seem like what I’m looking for and are affordable enough. I decide to keep looking, though, just in case.

The next shop is a tiny little suite tucked away on the sixth floor of what looks at first to be an apartment building; I almost get lost trying to locate it. I hesitantly knock and enter the room which, while filled with albums and bags of stamps, also looks a lot more like an office than a store, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place at first.

Me: “Hi… is this [Stamp Shop]?”

The two older men in the office look up at me from their desks; they seem equally surprised to see me. I assume that they own and manage the shop together, and I suppose it’s a little unusual for someone my age to be a customer interested in stamps.

[Owner #1] speaks, his voice sounding as uncertain as mine was.

Owner #1: “It is. Can I help you?”

Me: *A little nervously* “Um… hi. I’m just looking for some world stamps to try to make a new collection.”

The second man goes back to his computer. [Owner #1] continues to speak to me.

Owner #1: “What kind of stamps were you looking for?”

Me: “Um, I don’t really have a preference. I used to have a world collection of stamps when I was little, and I lost it a few years ago. Now I’m just hoping to build a new stamp collection similar to the one I lost. I’m not really fussy. If you have any mixed bags of world stamps, I’d gladly take a look.”

Owner #1: “If you’re building a world collection, it will be very expensive and you’ll probably need an entire basement to house all the stamps. It’s better to narrow it down a bit.”

Me: “Oh, I’m not thinking of a complete world collection! God, no, that would be impossible. No, my collection was only about 6000 or 7000 stamps at most. Just something like that would be fine!”

Owner #1: *Looking at me skeptically* “You should still narrow down your collection so that it’s manageable. I suggest you start with Australian stamps; that’s a practical goal for a beginner collector.”

Me: *Disappointed* “Oh, well, I did have a lot of Australian stamps, but… I used to collect all kinds.”

Owner #1: “Here, let me show you.”

He leads me to the back of the store and takes out an album of Australian stamps.

Owner #1: “See here, this is a complete collection of Australian stamps.”

He hands me a catalogue.

Owner #1: “Here you can see the date each stamp was issued and the value of it. As you can see, this collection is ordered from oldest to newest, with sets grouped together. And it’s not that many stamps, you see? It’s not too big of a scope for you to handle. Now, some of the stamps are rarer than others, and if you want them in mint condition, then the price will go up even higher, but if you have a catalogue, then you know exactly what stamps you have and what stamps you need to complete the collection.”

Me: “Well… I appreciate you showing me this and this is all very nice… but it’s not really what I’m looking for. I had stamps from Poland, from Japan, from Morocco… I know they weren’t worth much but it was very sentimental for me. I’m just hoping to recreate the album I lost, that’s all. I know it won’t be exactly the same; I won’t be able to get back every single stamp that I lost, but… I could get something similar, at least?”

Owner #1: “But if you try to collect stamps from everywhere, you’ll never get a complete collection! You’ll need a whole library of albums, and it will cost you a fortune. You see what I’m saying? Narrowing down your scope will allow you to be systematic in your approach. Here, I’ll give you this catalogue for free. Take it.”

He pushes the little catalogue book into my hand.

Owner #1: “Unfortunately, I don’t have an album today with fresh leaves to sell to you. But I’ll have one for you if you come back on Monday. But see, look at this album.”

Again, he takes out the Australian album and flips through the pages.

Owner #1: “This is how you’re supposed to order the stamps: by date and by set. You see?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s definitely not how I ordered my album when I was little. I did order them by country, but other than that, I just arranged them in whatever way I thought looked the nicest.” 

I laugh nervously. The owner stares at me.

Owner #1: “Yes, well, I understand that’s what you used to do. But if you want to be serious about stamp collecting, this is the way to do it. This way is systematic and logical, and you’ll finally be able to say you have a complete collection!”

This goes back and forth for some time. I’m doing my best to be respectful towards someone I recognise as far more experienced than I am, but I increasingly feel like I’m being talked down to.

Me: “I see where you’re coming from, but it was never about having a complete collection for me, or how much a full collection is worth. It’s just something I loved doing and was very sentimental about… You know?”

Owner #1: *Long pause* “So, for you, it was just a form of mindless entertainment? A hobby?”

I feel like I should be ashamed for answering, like I’ve somehow been disrespecting the sacred art of stamp collecting my entire life.

Me: “Yes?”

Eventually, I left with the free catalogue, with the owner urging me to come back the next Monday so he could sell me a blank album with which I could start my new, “proper” Australian stamp collection. I was very confused and frustrated. I know the man was probably a very experienced collector who took his passion seriously, and I’m sure I was and still am hugely ignorant about stamp collecting compared to him, but I couldn’t help feeling very condescended to. I never did go back to that little shop.

I ended up purchasing some mixed bags from the first store and online, and a few months later, I found a closer stamp shop that I began to frequent. The owner of this shop was a very friendly and helpful man. I did ask him once if I was “wrong” for not specialising in anything, and he assured me there were many casual “world” collectors like me, and there was no wrong way to collect stamps. As an example, he recently came across a collection of nothing but camel stamps from all over the world! Some collector really had a thing for camels, apparently.

I now have a collection much bigger than the collection I lost, housed in fancier albums, and eventually, I did take interest in a particular theme on my own accord — not Australian stamps, though, but Disney-themed ones.