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Times Change, The Thrill Continues
By John L. Leszak

The same flame of philatelic inspiration that illuminated philatelists over 100 years ago still glows within collectors of the 21st Century. Times change, collecting habits evolve, but philately endures. Philatelic marketing has gone from the notion of affixing stamps with straight pins to cork board to viewing stamps at home on the Internet. In my lifetime, dealers have gone from mimeographed price lists to websites, yet the enthusiasm for philatelic products remains constant. I often muse that laptop computers have replaced pads of yellow legal paper. In a bygone philatelic era, a collector might flip through several pads of legal paper on which his want list was written. Now, it's a matter of flipping a switch on his laptop.

When I did my first major stamp show in 1975, the late Jack Wade commented that I had a nice inventory, but if I wanted to really be successful at show, I needed to bring at least six ashtrays. Back then, it was the norm to have smokers at stamp shows. Dealers would know that a customer was going to sit and buy for awhile, if the customer sat down and lit a cigarette. The really big spenders lit cigars. I recall a dealer summarize the success of his show by commenting that one big spender made such a significant purchase that he "went through 4 cigars." The other dealers who listened to his tale were amazed that he had so much inventory that it would take 4 cigars worth of time to see it all.

I fondly remember one particular stamp show on a cold spring evening, When I opened the door and stepped inside, a warm rush of cigar smoke actually flickered out of the building and into the evening air. All that smoke meant that the show was well-attended. In retrospect, I hear a lot less coughing at stamp shows these days.

Nowadays, bottled water has replaced cigars at stamp shows. In years past, there was always the concern that an errant cigar ash might damage a stamp or cover, now it's the fear of spilled bottled water. I walked into a stamp show a few months ago and determined that business had been brisk, because the trash containers were overflowing with empty water bottles. All that water consumption makes for frequent restroom visitations. Those cigar smokers of philately's bygone era would often sit all day and never have to take a restroom break. These days, people can't sit still and focus on buying stamps or covers, because their bladder alarms keep signaling them to rise and leave the bourse table.

The time frame for preparation and anticipation has certainly been altered in the last several decades. I still think with a seasonal philatelic clock. When I used to conduct massive mail auctions, it would literally take three months to prepare a sale. First, all the material had to be aligned according to category. Then, each item had to be written out. The late Larry Manno of Frontier Auctions, would write every lot out by hand on a legal paper, and then turn that paperwork over to a typesetter. He would then have to wait several weeks until he received a proof copy of an auction. When I started typing out my own auctions and running them off on several copy machines in my office, Larry would stop by and say, "Geez, John, you just cut out over a month's worth of labor!" Even so, I still had about six weeks of preparation for each mail auction, compared to Larry's 10 to 12 weeks.

My seasonal philatelic clock worked like this: If I bought something in the summer, I would work like a madman to have it prepared for a mail sale auction in mid autumn. If I bought something in early March, there was a good chance that if I labored unceasingly, I could have it in a major mail sale before the middle of May. After that time frame, the next real opportunity would be early September, because summer mail sales could have disastrous effects. Years ago, few people wanted to bid in the summer time. Dealers would lament the onset of nice weather in the springtime as an oncoming demise of sales. Today, philately is truly a year-round activity.

The pace for philatelic turnover has quickened dramatically. Now, instead of waiting six to ten weeks to turn an item around in a mail sale, it's very possible to do so in a matter of minutes. I am amazed how my wife Paula can list an item on the Internet that I just purchased, and minutes later, it has sold. I'm literally still admiring how nice the scan of the item looks, and the sale is complete.

The potential for a quick sale on the Internet has contributed to the rapid dispersal of stamp show crowds. Frequently, I see people at a show for only an instant. As soon as they buy something, they rush out the door because they want to go home to scan it and upload what they've just purchased. The quick purchase time and turnover has developed a hit and run mentality for many philatelists.

In a bygone era, buyers whose ultimate intent was resale would sit for hours upon hours, making huge piles of purchases. I recall Joe Merman once casually walked past my booth at a New Jersey show. He spotted a couple of nice items in one of my display books and sat down for the next six hours. He too had that seasonal clock of philatelic preparedness. After he had diligently combed through every last box and book of covers, he said, "Add me up, I wasn't planning on another mail sale so soon, but with all this new stuff, it looks like I will be having another sale in a couple of months."

The hit and run Internet buyers cannot sit for more than 10 minutes. Either they grow impatient that they're unable to find a hidden treasure, or they find something that they deem so spectacular that they cannot wait to take it home and list it on the Internet. Last summer, I had a show customer who would buy an item and then go away for an hour. He would come back, buy another item, and go away. He did this repeatedly, with me and other dealers at the show. Some dealers began to suspect that the man was shoplifting, because he didn't sit a booth long enough to give any inventory a true measure of examination. As it turned out, he was buying single items, and going out to his car where he had a portable scanner and a wireless Internet connection. He'd scan the item, and list it on the Internet. Then he would come back inside the show and look for another item.

Personally, the old school approach in me wants to buy up a storm, and then begin the ordeal of listing. For me, it's all a process. First I buy, then I sort, then I price, then I list, then I sell, then I ship. Sometimes, I will devote entire days to each step of the process. I'm afraid that if I employed a hit and run mentality to buying, I'd miss some real hidden bargains if I didn't go through every box!

While the time to prepare items for sale has hastened, the anticipation time has gone insane. Old-school dealers who learned the trade by conducting mail sales would deem a week to 10 days to be an ideal turnover time. A customer would write a check after he received an invoice by mail. Then the dealer would receive the payment three to four days later, process the order, and the item would be received by the customer a few days later.

If you look at philatelic magazine ads from 30 or 40 years ago, many included the tag line, "allow 3 weeks for delivery." Quite often, it would take 10 days to two weeks for an out of town check to clear, and the lag time was an acceptable business practice.

Today, delivery anticipation often defies the human ability to bring multiple orders to completion. Quite often, I hear Internet dealers lament that they sold an item on a Saturday afternoon, the buyer sends an electronic payment immediately, and the following Monday, they same buyer is sending frantic emails that the item has not yet been delivered! It doesn't matter that the item was paid for after the local post office closed. It has no bearing that the post office is closed on Sunday, making Monday the first available business day to post the order. No, many Internet buyers do not have the understanding of time and actual human capability for processing orders. They want delivery as fast as they placed the order. Unfortunately, sellers cannot push a magic button for instant delivery.

One of my old-school dealer friends decided that he would list 5,000 lots on eBay. First he identified 5,000 lots to list. Then he scanned them. Over the course of several weeks, he listed them using a template and saved the lots in a listing program. Finally, the day came when he launched all 5,000 lots. A week later, all the lots closed within a matter of hours.

In the old days, he would take up to 10 days to clear out a 5,000-lot mail sale. He thought he was ahead of the game when he managed to get everything shipped in six days. Yet, he received 4 negative and 8 neutral feedbacks because the buyers didn't think he shipped the lots in a timely fashion. It didn't matter that he and his wife worked 14 hours per day for six days filling and packing orders. It didn't matter that he was courteous and answered dozens of silly emails that could've been answered if the inquiring people had just read the description. It didn't matter that some items spent three days in the mail stream. No, all that mattered to the frenzied bidders was that they got their material in a day, or two at the most.

It disturbs me that some modern buyers will place delivery time above the quality of a philatelic item. One of my dealer friends sold an item on eBay that should've been eye candy on the front cover of an old fashioned philatelic auction. It was a superb jumbo margin copy of a classic 19th century stamp. While he did get his asking price for the item, the luster for the transaction was tarnished by a negative feedback which read, "Great item, but very slow delivery." In reality, the buyer received the item six days after it sold. Two of those days comprised a weekend.

Despite the frantic cries of a few hyperactive Internet buyers, philately endures. It's still my ardent desire that philatelic items will still warm the hearts of buyers, as they did back in the late 19th century. The joy derived from the anticipation of a purchase adds to the mystique of the philatelic experience. It's that "anticipation" that has mystified philatelists for over 100 years and it's one of the basic joys of the hobby.

What philatelic items still light your fire, still give you a thrill? Tell us about them in our message board.

© John L. Leszak. All rights reserved. Published on The Virtual Stamp Club by permission.

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