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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A stamp of disapproval

Avid collectors and sellers cling to their hobby amid a market that’s vanishing

By Christopher Cadelago
Published: December 20, 2009
GLENDALE - Sitting side by side at the Five-Star Saturday Glendale Stamp Show, the pair who call themselves the "muscle" and the "motivator" epitomize the future and past of the stamp-dealing business.
There’s 23-year-old Garrett Williams, part of a generation chided by stamp collectors as having little interest in anything that can’t be plugged into an electrical socket. And then there’s his grandpa, Ralph West, whose decades in Southern California have done little to mask his Brooklyn accent.
A couple of times a month the pair load their car with boxes containing roughly $7,000 in stamps and drive from Arcadia to wherever there’s a stamp show. Shows usually consist of a handful of dealers sitting behind tables while buyers shuffle through mountains of stamps or use long tweezers to remove them from plastic binder sleeves.
A longtime owner of collector shops across the San Fernando Valley, West’s humor is wry. He refers to Williams, who stands guard over the product, as his muscle. Williams in turn says he’s just happy to spend the day with his grandpa.
He makes light of an atmosphere that wavers between quaint and stodgy, though there’s still money to be made. And he ridicules stamp collecting, granted with a tinge of sadness, as “not dying, but already dead.”
"Of all the major cities, Los Angeles is one of the worst marketplaces", West said Saturday at the Glendale YWCA.
"Having said that, yeah, you still have your die-hards".
As is the case with coins, figurines and many other classic collectibles, the popularity of stamps has waned, West said. And it isn’t just the economy - stamps tend to flow to countries in boom times and out when they are mired in recessions.
"Just look around. Do you see any young people that will do this in the future"? Williams asked, noting that the U.S. Postal Service tried to reach younger audiences with Harry Potter and Star Wars stamps. "You look at a stamp and you put it away. There isn’t much else to do with it".
While the future might not be bright, the shows will go on. Five-Star promoter Stephen Pattillo, the self-professed "Godfather" of regional stamp shows, is the man behind Orcoexpo, a three-day extravaganza going into its 35th year.
Scheduled for Jan. 29 to Jan. 31 at the Embassy Suites Anaheim South, the event brings under one roof 60 leading stamp dealers from throughout the world, appraisals and free seminars.
Pattillo, who took over the Five-Star from the late Emery Lorance, pointed to the show’s ability to pique a broad range of buyers as among the reasons for its success.
There are putters, folks looking to spend a few cents on "junk", said Harvey Cohen, a 40-year veteran of the business. There are mid-range buyers who spend hundreds - sometimes thousands of dollars - on sheets, booklets and compilations of stamps.
Then there’s the high-end buyer. They typically visit with Newport Harbor Stamp Co.’s Dave Cobb, whose display this weekend included a handful of stamps priced at more than $1,000 apiece.
Among his lot was the fifth U.S. stamp, called a No. 5. Only 56 have been identified in the world. His price: $75,000.
When West laments the fall of his industry, he doesn’t worry about dealers like Cobb, or Cohen for that matter. Rather, it’s the sellers like himself who are bound to be squeezed.
West typically buys from dealers or noncollectors, sorts and prices his stamps and sells them for well below face value. One bagged sheet of stamps lying in front of him, for example, carries a face value of $130. He priced it at $45.
Despite the healthy dose of realism, it’s a labor of love, West said.
"It’s geography, history", he said. "They tell stories."

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