Is There Even Any Room In The Hobby For Professional Stamp Dealers Anymore?
Ever since I discovered stamps at the age of 6 in 1977 I have been hooked, and determined to do everything I can to serve the hobby and contribute to its long-term health. I recognized, even at a very young age, that in order for the hobby to stay healthy, it needed to have new participants, and it needed to have sharing of information - to expose people to ways of collecting they hadn't thought of, to show them how to get the most out of the stamps they do have and to open up collecting possibilities. I recognized that collectors would probably not take on the role of sharing ideas and philatelic research, at least not at a level that would allow the entire philatelic world to benefit. Many do exhibit at shows and write articles for obscure philatelic journals, but most of this is so out of sight to the general population that it appeals only to collectors who are already interested, and does little to encourage entry into the hobby.
I recognized thus, that the long term health of the hobby would rest on the shoulders of professional stamp dealers, since they were the group most in a position to be able to devote their resources, time and energy to these pursuits. Indeed, I thought for the longest time that most of them did, ignoring all the signs to the contrary that I saw growing up. In my collecting lifetime, I have interacted with several dozen stamp dealers - not a lot, and I don't know if they constitute a representative sample or not. But, very, very few of those dealers made me feel welcome in this hobby. Even though I spent every week's allowance on stamps, every Christmas present and every birthday present on stamps, I was largely treated as a nuisance by the very dealers I supported.
My first foray into professional stamp dealing, my first taste if you will, came in 1990 when I worked for a stamp dealer in Vancouver by the name of Weeda. Chris Weeda was an old-school stamp dealer from the Netherlands who had come to Vancouver in 1957 and had started his stamp business in 1969. Like most dealers of his generation, he dealt in all countries. Back in the 1950's and 1960's when every country had issued less than 400 stamps, it was possible to be a world dealer and carry a full inventory. But that began to change in the 1970's, and by now, dealing in all countries from 1840 to date is almost impossible, unless you have a very large amount of capital and a large staff.
Unfortunately, the profession did not, in my observation adapt well to this change at all. At Weeda's I witnessed, what were to be the first in a long series of business practices that have damaged the long term health of the hobby. It wasn't full blown though: Chris still did make time to explain philatelic terms to young children, and he did give packets of stamps to kids for free who came into his shop. He also had a penny box and sold packets of stamps like a 1000 different world, etc. to beginners. But his focus was still on his older customers - the ones with money to spend. The problem with being a worldwide dealer by this time was that there was just too much material to keep up with it all and be an expert in all of it. So Chris did, what a lot of dealers who were overwhelmed by the volume of modern material did: he eschewed it. Every opportunity he had, he would talk about how unworthy of a collector's attention this material was, how uninteresting it was and how it was a "drug on the market". This meant that he often turned collections of modern stamps away, and when he did agree to buy them, he would only offer an arbitrary percentage of face value.
The major problem with this approach to stamp dealing was threefold:
- It started, or at very least fueled the discount postage craze. Dealers like Chris started using stamps as far back as the 1940's on their mail. Over time they have largely depleted the supply of certain mint stamps, while at the same time sending the consistent, reinforced message that any stamps issued after the War are basically worthless, which has, in turn, lowered the demand for this material, and has set in motion a never ending vicious circle that simply did not operate or exist back in the 1950's and 60's when most collectors bought and collected modern material because it was available, and they were collecting for fun.
- It started the decline of retail stamp dealing. Dealers were not knowledgeable about the new issues anymore because they didn't see them as being worthy of their time, so they devoted little to no time learning about them or promoting them. Instead, their only interest was in selling the modern stamps in large bulk lots.
- Young collectors can only afford the modern material when they are starting out. So, when you take away the individual retailing of single stamps and sets and replace it with a model that is only focused on auctions of bulk lots and sales of stamps costing tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars, you effectively shut out the young collectors who have moved past the penny stamps and want to get a bit more serious. So, eventually they leave and take up other interests.