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The Internet gives big boost to time-worn hobby of stamp collecting

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Stamp collecting isn’t what it used to be. The hobby once rooted in collectors’ homes and schools and in small stamp shops scattered around the country is now grounded on the Internet.

These changes have led to countless rumors that philately, as the hobby is called, is dying.

But while many longtime collectors lament some of the changes their pastime is facing, there is no doubt that philately is thriving. Stamp values are on the rise, and the number of collectors is growing as novices increasingly use the Internet to try their hand at the 170-year-old pastime.

“I could quote you chapter and verse of people saying it’s a dying hobby in 1884,” said Wade Saadi, president of the Collector’s Club, a national group of 750 philatelists, and a member of the American Philatelic Society. “The rare stuff gets more expensive all the time, which is a bellwether that the hobby remains strong.”

The U.S. stamp collecting market had sales of more than $1 billion in 2006, according to Linn’s Stamp News, up nearly 7 percent from 2004. This increase is in part thanks to online auction site eBay, according to Fred Baumann of the American Philatelic Society. The Web site has made stamp buying and selling more customized than traditional stamp shows ever were, allowing traders and buyers to more easily seek specific stamps. And some activities given a boost by the Internet, like the resurgence in new-issue collecting, have even spread to the old-fashioned in-person auctions.

Computers have also literally changed the face of stamps. Many online companies offer custom-made stamps. Customers can add photos of their pets or babies to postage, instantly turning millions of Americans into novice collectors.

Not all collectors are thrilled about the personalized direction the pastime is taking. Morris Rosen, a member of several international stamp clubs and one of the 70,000 members of the American Philatelic Society, says personalized stamps demean the craft.

Rosen, 84, started collecting stamps twice in his life. The first time he was a boy in Poland trying to emulate the members of the upper crust, many of whom were philatelists, he said. During World War II, the Germans confiscated his first collection, so he started again as a young man living in Baltimore.

Rosen points out that while stamp societies like his have mistakenly predicted in the past that certain commercial stamps would be worthless, he feels certain that this new phenomenon will take stamps nowhere.

“The American Philatelic Society boycotted the stamps of the first Olympics [in 1896] because they said it was speculative,” Rosen said. “But it wasn’t. The engraving was new. It was modern. Now those stamps are worth a lot. But today’s are too personal. I wouldn’t consider this part of collecting.”

Still, this new brand of stamps is altering the nature of collecting itself. The U.S. Postal Service estimates that there are more than 4 million stamp savers nationwide. Of those, only 130,000 subscribe to some sort of stamp publication, suggesting that most new collectors do so on their own and don't join stamp collecting clubs.

It used to be that “anyone who collected stamps belonged [to a club]. It was the thing to do,” said Wade Saadi, who specializes in classic U.S. stamps dating back to 1847, when the first U.S. postage stamp was issued. “People are not belonging anymore. If you go on eBay, there are tens of thousands of stamp collectors who don’t belong to anything but they’re buying and selling stamps.”

The disappearance of the local stamp store has also contributed to this change. “For the past century stamp dealers were in street level shops in all major cities,” explained Dr. Cheryl Ganz, curator of philately at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “These dealers served as mentors to new collectors. Today, very few of these shops still exist.”

This shift in collecting culture, Saadi says, could affect the quality of collections. “There’s a commonality in stamp collectors that becomes more obvious when you’re in a roomful of people who are similar,” he said.

“It’s the job of organized philately to reach out to the people who are all alone," he added. "A lot of the people who buy on eBay are buying defective stamps because they don’t know any better.” He says collectors are eager to share their expertise, knowledge and experience. “They’re forfeiting all that by not belonging.”

Ganz agrees that this lack of contact may change the nature of the pastime.

“Dealers still attend stamp shows to meet face-to-face with collectors, but more and more dealers and collectors buy and sell online,” Ganz said. “The budding young collector who doesn’t have a relative or friend who collects finds it more difficult to connect with a mentor.”

Offsetting this lack of mentoring are kid-friendly stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service. Later this year, a new line of Marvel Super Hero stamps will be issued, along with the Art of Disney line all directed at kids.

“I have nothing against the postal service for trying it, but some of us turn white as ghosts when we see that,” said Baumann, who believes stamps featuring men and women who contributed positively to the nation are much more proper than some of today’s government-issued stamps with Bugs Bunny or the 12-eyed jumping spider. “The trouble is, I really think they believe the way to go after everybody is to issue stamps that will suck up to every single different kind of demographic, and I don’t know if that’s true or not.”

Still, online retail sales of stamps rose about 2 percent in 2005, to $55 million. Saadi is confident that despite big changes, stamp collecting isn’t going anywhere.

“I could fit all the books written on coin collecting in a 9 by 12 room,” he said. “I couldn’t fit all the books written on stamp collecting in a 900- by 1,200-foot room.”

E-mail: pvk2101@columbia.edu