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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 20 - Dial "I" For Internet

You may not see your favorite dealer again.

That's not a kidnap threat, but an acknowledgment of how powerful the Internet is becoming in stamp dealing.

For a dealer with esoteric specialties, it just may not be profitable to rent a booth or table at many shows. For a fraction of the cost and time, a dealer can set up a booth on the World Wide Web.

Not only that, he can staff the booth in his underwear!

As a result, many shows are losing dealers from their bourses.

Most dealers are not really earning a living from their stamp businesses: They are supported by full-time jobs, retirement incomes and pensions, spouses, inheritances, and so on. But if they track expenses honestly (at least for themselves), then they realize that a show costs more to do than just the table rental: There are meals, motels, transportation expenses, advertising. That ratty old shoebox works fine at home, but won't last two minutes at a show, so it has to be replaced, possibly with a professional-quality display box.

If you have bulky material (like covers) or are getting on in years, you may look for help unloading and loading your car.

Oh, and let's not forget time (including time driving and setting up) and cost of goods sold. (That's the one many dealers forget: If you rent a table for $400, and sell $405 at the show, you haven't made a $5 profit, you've lost your shirt.)

All this is Business 101, and covered better elsewhere by people who were more successful as stamp dealers than I.

Until maybe five years ago, one of the alternatives for a stamp dealer was pricelists: You pounded out a copy, duplicated it, and mailed it to as many people as you could.

Or you sent out the stamps themselves, and hoped that most sold, and the rest would be returned. Or you took out detailed, expensive ads in the stamp newspapers.

The big shows, like the American Philatelic Society's Stampshow, are still hard to get into, with a waiting list of at least a few dealers. I suspect the small "third Sunday" local shows are doing fine, too: It's not worth the time and effort to organize and list the sort of material that's sold at those shows.

It's the mid-range shows, and dealers with mid-range material, that will be affected most, I think.

However, even there, the well-run shows are for the most part filling up. And because of the nature of stamp dealers, there's always been a high "churn rate" (as in churning a turnstile, or entering and leaving the profession). Did your favorite dealer really find the Internet more lucrative....or did she get tired of driving hundreds of miles every weekend?

Ever try to reach eBay by telephone? It's very difficult to find a telephone number for the company anywhere on its Web site.

So I used Switchboard.com instead. The eBay Web site told me the company was in San Jose, Calif., and that's all I needed to get a main number from Switchboard.

I don't always have success with Switchboard: It tells me companies I know exist don't, or that people aren't where I know they are, because I've visited their homes.

But given a choice between forking out $1.50 or more for a directory assistant call that is often inaccurate, and spending a few minutes on the Internet, I'll take the time and money.

Here's another way to find a telephone number: Go to your favorite Search Engine (mine is www.google.com) and do a search for the organization or business. Go to its Web site, and look for a "contact us" or press release (sometimes "news") page.

All the answers to your philatelic questions are out there on the Internet.

The problems is finding them. Some discussion groups (newsgroups, message boards, e-mail lists) are better than others in answering questions. Some are very strong in one area, but weak in another.

You wouldn't go to the American Ceremony Program Society's Web site and ask a question about newspaper tax stamps, nor send a message to the American Topical Association webmaster asking about ceremony programs. While you might get a knowledgeable answer, those aren't the best places to look.

However, one good place to ask about anything philatelic is AskPhil.org, the Q&A site of the Collectors Club of Chicago.

It has several components: A collection of previously-asked (and -answered) questions, although it's not yet indexed by subject. (I'm told that's coming.)

A place to ask your own questions.

A compilation of resources: Original "AskPhil" articles, plus lists of other resources. And, lest you think AskPhil is just for beginners, one of those lists is "Timeline of American Colonial and Revolutionary Posts."

And there's a selection of mini-courses in the AskPhil Academy.

You can even post your want list in AskPhil.

When the webmaster — Dick Sine, former editor of American Philatelist and author of the Stamp Collecting For Dummies book — can't answer the question, he consults with an expert in the field.

Is the site perfect? No, of course not. Every site on the Internet should be marked "Under Construction," because they're all works-in-progress.

If you get questions about stamp collecting in your e-mail, particularly ones outside your expertise, you should memorize this URL and send it to the questioner: www.AskPhil.org

Think of it as self-defense.

Another URL to memorize: Our own www.virtualstampclub.com/inherit.html. The page is titled "Help! I Inherited A Collection," and we think it gives the basic information an heir (or even a former collector who has lost interest) needs in figuring out what to do with a collection.

Virtual Stamp Club Home Page