"There's a very fine line between '"hobby' and '"mental illness,'" read the sign on Frank Bachenheimer's booth at the Cathedral Hill Hotel. Bachenheimer is an Illinois-based stamp dealer who understands that philately culture can be a bit ... intense. Over in the other room, people crowded around a box of free copies of old American Philatelist magazines like it was pig-feeding time down on the farm.
"Curiosity can be your ruin," said a woman at Bachenheimer's table. "You see something that you think looks pretty, and then it's all over."
A week or so back, we dropped in on Westpex, the largest convention of stamp collectors in California. You missed it. More than 70 stamp dealers came from across the country to ply their wares -- some having spent nearly a decade waiting for a spot. Yes, we know -- stamps are boring. Stamp collectors, however, are a different matter.
"A few years ago, Hong Kong was just out of this world," said Ken Martin of the American Philatelic Society, eagerly talking to us about the finer points of stamp collection. We got the impression that at some point somebody was going to announce over the PA that a journalist -- finally! at long, long last! -- had shown up. But Martin kept his cool as we chatted about philatelic trends. "In the '60s, the Vatican was very popular." And these days? Martin thought for a moment but came up empty. "People tend to find their own personal interests and move it into stamp collection. My interest, for example, is blood donation!"
We took our complimentary issue of American Philatelist and stepped away, slowly.
Over at the Youth Stamp Collectors booth, children dug through large Tupperware tubs full of stamps. Signs posted all around the tables barked: "No adults allowed in stamp tubs! If you help your child choose stamps, you must choose for them, not for yourself!"
"We find that we have to keep an eye on things," said Keith Edholm, manning the table.
Because American Philatelist wasn't offering much in the way of sexy, scandalous tales of the philately world ("The Northern Syria Provisional of 1918"; "The 1959 Postage Due Series"), we decided to tour the stamp exhibits with Joseph Schwartz, a Sacramento collector, event organizer, and exhibit judge. In that last role, he got to wear a shiny gold badge proclaiming his authority. The tour was nice enough, but "The Evolution of Postage Currency Fractional Notes" and "The 2¢ Stamped Note of Nicaragua" weren't much to write home about. Perhaps we missed something in American Philatelist the first time around?
"Even a meat inspection stamp can be a thing of beauty to the philatelic eye."
"There's Morris Rosen," Schwartz said. "He can talk for hours about his exhibit." So we decided to tag along with Rosen for a bit as he talked about his collection. Occasionally others would stop as well -- Rosen, an elderly but dynamic man who works at the National Archives, has a certain charisma about him. "Look," a passer-by said. "Letters from concentration camps."
"No," Rosen retorted. "I do not mix apples and oranges. Ghettos are ghettos. Concentration camps are concentration camps."
Rosen's exhibit was "Ghetto Post and Labor Camps in German-Occupied Europe With Emphasis on Ghettos in Poland 1939-1944." This is a personal concern for Rosen, who came of age in the Dabrowa Ghetto and painted his way out of death. An SS agent put him to work on an occupied home. "He put a pistol to my head and told me, "I have three rooms. If you don't paint them in three days, you've lived enough,'" he recalled.
"They allowed the mail to get out, but not the people," Rosen said. "So you see, it is very interesting. It is history." Rosen pointed at a letter. People looked.