LloydBlog: Customer Service @ Postal Service

I needed some Batman and Celebrity Chefs stamps and Winter Fun envelopes for first day covers. My own small post office didn’t have enough Batman, had sold out Chefs and hadn’t gotten the envelopes. So I went to a “premium” post office in the next town.

The two clerks at the counter had never heard of the envelopes, but while I was waiting for them to get more Batman from the back, I noticed the Snowflake envelopes hanging on two pegs to the right of the counter. On one of the pegs, under Snowflake envelopes, were packages of the Winter Fun envelopes. I took two, pointed it out to the two clerks, who replied, “Oh but WE don’t have them.”

If I’d been closer to the wall, I would have banged my head against it.

My first thought was one I’ve had many times: “Can you imagine any other large retailer where the clerks don’t know their store’s stock? Where the clerks show no embarrassment for not knowing their products? This time, however, I paused, and realized, yes, sadly. Nearly all of them.

Countless times in the past few years, I’ve gone into a supermarket or another large store, looking for a particular item, often advertised in the retailer’s flyer. After ten minutes of examining the shelves and the shelf labels, and looking behind the items that are in the place reserved for the one I want, I’ve flagged down a clerk or gone to the “courtesy” desk and asked for the item. The clerk takes me back to where I’ve been looking, glances at the shelf, and says, “We don’t have it.”

Thank you, I knew that 15 minutes ago. Do you have any in the stockroom? “No.” How do you know? I think. Or is what you know that you want to get back to doing nothing productive on company time?

One exception I’ve found is Target, where not only are their call stations to get a clerk (often a feat itself in other stores) but when the see the empty spot on the shelf, they pull out a scanner and can tell me if there are any more in the back or which Target stores nearby have what I want.

But that’s not how it works in most large stores. Many small stores, too, but the consequences of poor customer service are more immediate in small stores.

When I was looking to buy my first personal computer, I went to several local computer stores on the shopping corridor highway. At one, I stood there for 15 minutes while the clerk played a video game on a computer, never acknowledging my presence. I walked out. A few weeks later, the store was out of business.

Gloating is mine, saith the Lloyd.

Back to the Postal Service: The USPS puts out its Postal Bulletin every two weeks, which among other things, tells about upcoming new issues. At least until recently, ever clerk was supposed to read it. But some clerks tell me now that their Internet access at work has been cut off, so they can’t read the Postal Bulletin. Whether that was those specific offices or district, or universal, I don’t know. Would all clerks read it if they had Internet access? Doubtful. They didn’t when they were given printed copies.

[Let me hasten to add that there are many retail postal clerks who do read the Bulletin; some philatelic clerks even subscribed to Linn’s Stamp News.]

Bad customer service is the norm for most retailers now. It costs less to hire just barely enough workers to operate the stores. Apparently, the marketing experts feel that if the price is low enough, we’ll put up with poor service

With its recent money woes, the USPS is adopting many private-business practices… including this one..

Post-Americover 2014 Thoughts

I must be forgetting something significant: I have an hour or so before I have to leave for APS StampShow in Hartford (stopping in Westchester to visit my mother on the way), and… I’m all but packed. But it gives me some time to ruminate (think deep, wise thoughts) on the just-completed Americover 2014, the annual show, convention and fun-fest of the American First Day Cover Society.

I spent most of the four days (three of the show, the tour the day before) answering questions. The most prevalent was, “Where is the show next year?”

“We don’t know yet. We ran into a glitch with the hotel we thought was eager to host us again. We have to check out other venues now.”

“Well, have you considered…” and then the person would throw out a bunch of cities, big and small, practical and not.

Funniest of all were the people who would ask me about next year on Thursday, and then ask me on Saturday if we’d set the new venue yet.

But Americover Programs Chair Foster Miller got a question this past weekend that takes the prize: “What time is the 11 o’clock seminar?”

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Besides answering questions, there is an awful lot of work that goes into Americover during Americover. If I start naming names, I’ll leave out someone deserving of recognition, but I do want to mention a few who are often overlooked: Kerry Heffner handles exhibits, from soliciting them to coming up with the prizes to mailing the exhibits back to their owners, complete with palmares (list of awards) and those prizes.

Cynthia Scott handles all the “back room” processing before the show opens: Registration, event ticketing, and putting together the name tags and other goodies in your registration packet.

Howard Tiffner is bourse chair, which means he corrals and then herds the dealers and is in charge of setting up and taking down the bourse and exhibits area. One of the great things about being a stamp dealer is the independence to operate exactly how you want…unless you’re the bourse chair trying to make all those dealers happy.

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Some dealers always have good shows, no matter how much or how little they make. Others always have bad shows, no matter how much or how little they make. After awhile, you learn to spot who is who.

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Several years ago, as Publicity Chair, I put out a press release announcing the following year’s show, starting with “After another successful Americover….” Someone jumped on me: “How can you say that?! You call that a successful show?! Sales were off, traffic was slow, it rained all weekend, and I lost money at the casino each night.”

I replied that no one had died, no one got in a fist fight, no one was arrested for stealing, and no bull defecated in our bourse area (as happened at Americover 2000). I call that a successful show, I said.

Many years ago, as a high school senior, I was handling publicity for the adult band-boosters association raising money to send our band to Europe for a week. The job included writing an article for the local paper after each meeting. One week, the chair and vice chair, an attorney and a physician, got into a screaming argument for… well, it seemed like an eternity. And that was about all that happened at the meeting, since everyone else couldn’t wait to leave.

“How am I going to write this up for the paper?” I thought. “I can’t tell what really happened!” And then it hit me:

“After a spirited discussion…”

Photos from Americover 2014

Wednesday evening, many of those attending Americover 2014 gathered in the lobby of the DoubleTree Somerset to renew old friendships:amcvr14_040aFrom Thursday’s tour:

amcvr14_006aParticipants in the Americover 2014 pre-show tour enter Washington Press headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

amcvr14_011aOtto Thamasatt, John Hayner and John Friedrich show off their ArtCraft tour envelope souvenirs.

amcvr14_016aThe postmaster of Florham Park himself applied cancels to the tour souvenir envelopes, with stamps provided by The Washington Press.

amcvr14_021aThe jam-packed tour included a quick visit to The Collectors Club on East 35th Street in New York.

amcvr14_032aAmericover 2014 tourists join others at the fountain on the World Trade Center site. In the light blue shirt near the center is Mark Thompson (Tennessee); to the left is Alan Warren (Pennsylvania). To the right is Carol Peluso (New York). Further to the right in the black polo shirt is Frank Kohut of Maryland and next to him in medium blue is Bob Lewin (California).

amcvr14_035Americover 2014 tour guide Henry Scheuer (green hat) discusses the events of September 11th with participants in the tour. Through the trees at the top center of the photo is the building where Henry was working that day.

amcvr14_037aAmericover 2014 chair Pete Martin goes through a box of covers at Champion Stamp Company, the only remaining street-level stamp store in New York.

amcvr14_047aHere’s a view of the Stamp Fulfillment Services seminar at Americover 2014. That’s right, no one from the U.S. Postal Service showed up. No one from the USPS called to say no one would be there.

What Others Should Do

by Lloyd A. de Vries

lloyd2008I was amused recently by some of the letters to the editor in the August American Philatelist (the journal of the American Philatelic Society) and the subsequent discussion in another online stamp collecting discussion venue.

There were two subjects in the letters that caught my attention, equally silly, in my opinion.

One was a rehash of the location of the APS headquarters. “Why is it in the middle of nowhere?”

Give it a rest already. We’ve been over this ground several times.

First, my credentials: I was on the APS Board of Directors when we decided that the previous building in State College, Pa., was no longer adequate and chose the former Match Factory in neighboring Bellefonte. I believe I was the deciding vote to purchase the present building, and it wasn’t an easy decision. I daresay I spent more time looking at the issue then than all three letter-writers combined.

There were many contributing factors to my decision, but I’ll cut right to the most important one: The APS staff. I think as a whole they’re wonderful, and I doubt if most of them would have made the move to another metro area.

Many had working spouses, or were firmly established in the State College area. (APS employees tend to stay for a long period of time.)

Besides the excellence of the staff, there would have been the time required to train new staffers: The jargon (“bourse,” “expertise,” and so on), how to handle stamps, and so on.

Because the cost of living is much higher in any major metropolitan area, we would have had to pay the staffers, or their replacements, more money.

Speaking of money, real estate would have cost more in a major metropolitan area.

Oh, and about those “metropolitan areas:” Everyone had a different idea of what those are.

Someone threatened to sue if we didn’t choose Chicago.

I remember talking to another member who lived in New York City back then, who was insisting the APS should move to a “major metropolitan area.”

“You’re right,” I said. “We’re looking into Los Angeles.”

“No, I mean a MAJOR metropolitan area.”

Okay.

The other idea espoused in a letter, and then taken ad absurdum online, was to open branch offices of the APS around the country, each in a (wait for it) major metropolitan area.

The cost of renting office space in one big city plus paying someone’s salary there would be astronomical, but several?

And the question was raised online, what would the APS Branch Office staffer do?

Be outreach for the society, helping local stamp organizations, answering questions and glad-handing potential donors were some of the answers.

Is that really a full-time job? Well, the offices could be staffed by volunteers. I’m not sure the APS could find 10-20 volunteers to sit in an office 40 hours a week, and there’s still the issues of rent, phone, Internet, furniture, and so on.

One supporter then said that the offices didn’t have to be downtown, but could be in “outlying strip malls.” Well, as a resident of a municipality with the New York (major) metropolitan area, I can see where that would lead: “Why didn’t you choose MY outlying strip mall?”

Stamp society officials hear these “pie in the sky” suggestions all the time. Another perennial is that the APS or another stamp society should advertise in AARP, the magazine for over-50s, either to promote itself or to promote stamp collecting.

The cheapest rate I found for the magazine was $45,260 for a sixth of a page. Black-and-white. One ad. One issue.

The APS only charges $45 a year for membership.

People tell me all the time (and did when I was on the APS board) that my stamp organization should do this, or should do that. Some of these suggestions are as silly as branch offices in outlying strip malls. Some actually have potential

But when I’ve asked the person making the suggestion if he or she would chair the program or spearhead the project, I’ve been turned down.

“I’m too busy.”

“I’m not the right person for this.”

“I’m not in good health.”

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Immoderate Moderation

2035194nce upon a time, in the early days of the Internet, when “14-4” was considered fast and pictures in discussion groups were nonexistent, there were two major stamp collecting discussion groups.

One was a Usenet newsgroup, based on the Internet (which relatively few people knew how to access), the other an e-mail “list.”

The newsgroup, called rec.collecting.stamps, was not only free of cost, but free of rules. As with e-mail, it didn’t take long for the hucksters to discover how easy it was to “spam” a group with get-rich-quick schemes and too-good-to-be-true offers, some of which were related to philately, but only some.

It was also a “wild west show,” in that, with no moderators nor rules, anyone could say anything, about any subject. Or anyone. Just as many drivers become bold and brave (in their eyes) or obnoxious and aggressive (others’ eyes) when hiding within their half-ton motorized cocoons, RCS and other Internet users discovered they could be anonymous, with no repercussions for anything they posted.

Soon the newsgroup split, into rec.collecting.stamps.discuss for discussions, another for sales pitches, a third for postal history and maybe others. However, people soon began to leave for more civilized discussion groups. RCSD may still exist today — I haven’t checked in years — but it’s just a few dozen people, if that many.

The other group, in e-mail, was based at Penn State, although I think its physical proximity to American Philatelic Society headquarters was a coincidence. At first, it too was free: Whatever was e-mailed to the group’s address went out immediately to the group.

Then one day, the owner/moderator became disgusted with some of the messages, and sabrinapix_lloyddecided to clamp down: From that point on, no messages could be posted until he approved them. The problem with that was that if he was busy, or sleeping, or otherwise occupied, the messages might stack up and not be distributed. And the moderator began to lose interest, which meant the delay got longer and longer and…

Last time I checked, which was a few years ago, the list was still operating: You could send a message to it, and in a week or so, the message would be distributed to the members of the list… if there are any. If anyone still cared about the message after several days in limbo.

The point is that over-moderation can kill an online discussion group, and under-moderation can do it in, too. It’s a delicate balance, and that focal point doesn’t stay put; it moves around. There is no formula.

But like a playground seesaw, staying at one end or the other doesn’t make for much of a ride.

—Lloyd A. de Vries

Happy Radio Anniversary To … Me!

Just over 17 years ago, I began my CBS Radio News Stamp Collecting Report. The first one distributed to stations on April 4 for use April 5-6 (or whenever they wanted). It also marked my return to doing on-air work, which I hadn’t done since I left National Public Radio in 1982 to go to CBS.

At the time, I was packaging a weekend feature package for CBS stations, and also tasked with combining two different packages into one. I kept pestering one of my supervisors about doing a stamp collecting feature, until one day he said, resignedly, “Yeah, go ahead.”

The features I was supervising were all over the place in terms of time, but I decided that stamp collecting was going to be a hard enough sell, so I decided all of mine would be 60 seconds (short enough to fit into a commercial window.

In 17 years, there have only been five repeats, so that’s almost 900 different pieces. All have run 59 to 61 seconds. If not, I re-record them until they fit.

A few years after I began the weekly feature, I began to do much shorter “news spots,” often previewing new issues coming out later in the week. These usually run on Sunday mornings when there isn’t much news.

I also got permission to put the feature on this website (every one since 1999 is there, I think), and eventually began to produce variations of the features for APS StampTalk and KNLS, a shortwave evangelical radio station that broadcasts to China and Russia. The VSC and KNLS versions are usually longer, and I read them more slowly, because I’m not trying to cram everything into 60 seconds.

The CBS Stamp Collecting Report and the other features in the weekend package are what is called syndicated: Stations can run them whenever they want, regularly or erratically, or even play them backward if they want. Since there are no commercials packaged with them, stations are not required to inform the network when or if they run any or all the features.

Early on, I discovered that one central California station was saving them up, and running them all once a month during the monthly stamp collecting talk show the manager hosted. After that, I stopped using specific date references like “this week” or “last Tuesday.”

I sometimes put in so much time producing a feature, with music and interviews and so on, that I’m really earning less than minimum wage – no exaggeration! I get the union minimum for each feature, and that won’t buy dinner at a nice restaurant! (The news spots, when they run on newscasts, pay better.)

However, I enjoy the production: I flatter myself that I used to be a pretty good radio producer, and sometimes I miss it. So I sometimes raise the bar just because I can.

The features are intended for a mass audience, not stamp collectors, and I used to run each script past a non-collector radio person to make sure they weren’t in Jargon. Stamp collectors have often told me I should be running three, four minutes and on National Public Radio. I don’t know that NPR wants them and even so, I prefer preaching the joys of stamp collecting to a wider audience.

At the same time, some radio news people have tried to convince me to dedicate the feature to postal service issues and news, and sometimes even UPS, FedEx and – oh, the pain! – coins. To them, I reply that it’s “The Stamp Collecting Report,” not “The Delivery Service Report.” While I’m never going to talk about plate varieties and Two-Cent Reds, there are going to be some editions that are mostly of interest to philatelists.

I think I’ve managed to walk the fine line between the mass market audience and the philatelic one, entertaining, amusing and informing both most of the time.

By the way, I now lay claim to the longest-running major network radio stamp collecting feature ever.

I’ll be happy to answer questions posted here.

The U.S. Stamp Program Leaks Again

I’ve now studied the list of upcoming stamp subjects published by The Washington Post, and a number of thoughts come to mind.

First, there’s a word missing: “Possibly,” as in “possibly upcoming.” It strikes me as one of those lists you draw up in a “blue sky” meeting, where you list all the possibilities. That would explain the still-living former presidents on the list: Their stamps won’t be scheduled until they pass away, not necessarily in 2015 or 2016.

Second, just because a design has been approved doesn’t guarantee a stamp will be issued. Several years ago, the USPS showed us the design for a Spencer Tracy stamp at the annual press preview. Sometime between that event and its first-day ceremony, there was an issue with rights. The stamp was never issued. Or how about the “Just Move” stamps, whose design was approved but flawed. They were printed, but were supposed to be destroyed.

Third, the word “reprint” is incorrect. The denominations will be changed. “Revisions” might be a better word.

Fourth, the woman who wrote the article for the Post, Lisa Rein, apparently isn’t a stamp collector, or she would have known that Janis Joplin, Harvey Milk and some of the other subjects have already been announced or confirmed.

This list is very similar to one published in Linn’s Stamp News a year ago. “Sarah Vaughn” is even misspelled the same way. So whether the same person did the leaking both times, the list itself comes from the same place, whether it’s someone’s briefcase after a CSAC meeting or the wastebasket next to the photocopy machine.

There’s poetic justice in this huge list being leaked: We stamp collectors (and philatelic journalists) aren’t able to get details on what stamps are being issued next month, and here someone has spoiled the Postal Service’s little power-play by giving us three years’ details.

My friend Foster Miller expressed the opinion elsewhere that perhaps leaks like this are the reason the Postal Service isn’t showing us the March 13th Jimi Hendrix stamp design nor has confirmed the Hudson River School American Treasures issue. I think it’s the other way around: When you know information is out there, but isn’t being shared, jyou work a little harder to get it.

I know a number of Postal Service employees who have been dealing with stamp collectors for years, and who feel that withholding this information from collectors and first day cover dealers/servicers is Just Plain Wrong. When they can, some of them pass on this information to us. If they had confidence that it would be provided to the philatelic community on a timely basis, they wouldn’t.

I don’t recall leaks of this magnitude when Steve Kearney or Dave Failor were the heads of Stamp Services. Neither told us everything they knew, both held back a few surprise issues, but most of the information we wanted was given to us in a timely manner, even for those surprises.

The Jimi Hendrix stamp was announced less than three weeks before its first-day. It’s on the Washington Post list, which the paper says was ‘the complete list as of Jan. 7,” more than six weeks before word of the stamp first leaked and was then quickly confirmed. “When were you planning on telling us, folks?”

Regarding the actual subjects listed, I have no major quibbles. I may not collect all of them, but that’s true every year, even before Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe declared a turn toward commercialism. I’m not a big fan of ferns, either, but I don’t mind if they’re in the stamp program.

Most intriguing to me – an avid science fiction reader – is that not only is Science Fiction Writers on next year’s program, but there’s a Science Fiction Writers II on the list. SFW#1 keeps getting pushed back, and yet there’s another set under consideration?

Even Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein can’t predict this stamp program’s future. I’m not sure they would have been able to predict the U.S. stamp program’s present.

Surely, Shirley

The most popular and famous child star ever, Shirley Temple, died recently of natural causes at the age of 85.

Her upbeat, cheerful movies raised spirits during the Depression, and for four years — 1935-1938 — she was the top star in Hollywood, more popular than Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, or anyone else.

Later, after her acting career had petered out, she became active in Republican politics and served twice as a U.S. Ambassador and in other roles for the State Department.

I wouldn’t call myself a Shirley Temple fan, as in fanatic; her stardom was before my time, her film career over by the time I was born. But if there was ever a candidate for a Legends of Hollywood stamp, she is it. Heck, they even named the faux cocktail served to kids after her, the Shirley Temple.

And then I thought, “but will the marketeers who now run the U.S. stamp program see her as commercial enough?” I mean, according to the Washington Post last November, USPS marketing director Nagisa Manabe vetoed a stamp for the great jazz singer Sarah Vaughan because today’s kids don’t know who she was.

Memo to Manabe: I’ll bet most Americans couldn’t tell you who half the people in the Black Heritage series were, or any of the people in the recent sets of stamps honoring design, such as the upcoming Pioneers of Graphic Design. Bradbury Thompson? Isn’t that the furniture store chain? Norman Rockwell makes rocket engines, right? One of the purposes of a nation’s stamps, or at least this nation’s stamps, is to bring to our attention historic figures and subjects about which we ought to know something.

There’s a story that a well-known philatelic editor turned down a chance to edit the book Stamp Collecting for Dummies, because “stamp collecting isn’t for dummies.” He was wrong to turn down the book, but right about who collects stamps: We’re mostly thoughtful people with a sense of history. The kids who will become stamp collectors, and continue philately into adulthood, are mostly thoughtful kids with a sense of history.

Deliver only commercial subjects on our stamps, and you will drive off many of the adults — some are already heading for the exits — and you won’t snare those thoughtful kids with a thirst to learn. Collecting stamps will become another short-lived childhood fad, like Davy Crockett or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

If there’s any justice, we will see a Shirley Temple stamp in a few years, not because it will sell lots of copies, but because it’s right.

Thoughts on The Replacement of Ken Martin as APS Executive Director

by Lloyd A. de Vries

kmartin2013aI hate to use this phrase, because it was used to describe my situation seven months ago, but Ken Martin’s position as executive director of the American Philatelic Society “wasn’t a good fit.” It was never a good fit.

His tenure as the APS CEO was uneasy from the start. Ken wasn’t what many on the Board of Directors and other organizational leaders wanted. Efforts to make him into that type of an executive director weren’t successful, and probably weren’t ever going to be successful.

Ken is one of the most popular people in U.S. stamp collecting. Practically everyone likes him. Many older collectors watched him grow up in philately, from president of the now-defunct Junior Philatelists of America into employment with the APS. If you have attended an APS-sponsored or -sanctioned stamp show in the last two decades, chances are you ran into him — perhaps literally! As APS Shows & Exhibitions Director, we called him the Blue Blur, walking rapidly (and sometimes running) from one part of the show to another.

Ken was the only APS executive director I ever saw on his back under exhibit frames, pulling out reluctant screws. (No one does it better.) But as an APS leader told me last summer, “I’m not sure we want to see our executive director on his back under exhibit frames.”

Operations are Ken’s strength, though, and it’s part of why he is so popular with stamp collectors: Although he is a gold-level exhibitor and judge (Chief Judge, in fact), Ken looked and acted like most of us.

Unfortunately, it’s not what the current leaders of the APS feel the organization needs in its executive director. To keep trying to make him conform to that model is like trying to make one of those stripped screws fit into a frame. No one was happy with the result.

“What happened to the message board?”

“Pam, that ship has sailed.”

sabrinapix_lloydThere is a postscript to the new movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” and it really happened. After watching the premiere of “Mary Poppins,” author P.L. Travers buttonholed Walt Disney — right there at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre — and started to give him a list of changes to be made in the movie.

His reply is above.

The same can be said of the old Virtual Stamp Club message board: That ship has sailed.

Last spring, for reasons that were justifiable, DelphiForums took control of the message board away from me, and eventually awarded it to someone else, Chris “StampPuzzles” Steenerson. The name of the forum was changed from “The Virtual Stamp Club” to “The Stamp Collecting Forum.”

Several months later, my professional situation had changed, and I entered into discussions with Chris and his staff about what my role on Delphi would be, if any. No decision was reached.

The former VSC staffers and I then had extensive discussions on what the future course was for The Virtual Stamp Club and us: Start a new Delphi message board, start a new message board somewhere else, or something else.

Eventually, we decided that that ship had sailed. We couldn’t put the GEnie* back in the bottle.

Instead, I am now concentrating on this website, which had been neglected in favor of the message board, and make it a major source of philatelic news and information (admittedly, with a strong bias toward U.S.). I always saw the Internet as a great boon to distribution of philatelic news and information. I never saw it as an avenue for verbal muggings and character assassinations.

However, setting up a webpage can take time, and we have been looking for some months for a way to quickly disseminate “breaking news” or new information. After several months, we have decided to give this WordPress blogging system a try.

We now have a minimum of discussion, and it is more tightly controlled. The discussions stay on topic: If you start reading about stamps for science fiction authors, you won’t suddenly find messages about postal stationery from Mongolia or the low intelligence of Certain Stamp Collectors.

Instead of refereeing petty arguments and personality conflicts, I’m spending more time working on stories for www.virtualstampclub.com — or doing something else entirely, even activities that are non-philatelic!

Most of the staff has moved on, too. Many told me they were burned out by years of moderating the forum, and wanted a break. As time goes on, I, too, am finding I don’t miss being a moderator.

I think in its heyday, The Virtual Stamp Club Message Board was the best one anywhere on the English-speaking Internet.

The Stamp Collecting Forum, formerly known as Delphi’s Stamps, Coins & Postal Forum, and then The Virtual Stamp Club, is still there: forums.delphiforums.com/stamps/messages There’s no reason a hobbyist can’t participate there and here. I still do.

Will I ever manage a philatelic online discussion forum again? Maybe, maybe not. But for now, that ship has sailed.

— Lloyd A. de Vries, Manager
The Virtual Stamp Club


* Pun intended: I got my start as a stamp collecting online discussion leader on General Electric’s GEnie message board system.