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Hotchner: Chicken Little is Wrong Again!

Hotchner: Chicken Little is Wrong Again!

Posted on October 31, 2018  by  VSC    
By John M. Hotchner

Stamp collecting is dead! So said the venerable New York Times on September 29, 2017, in an op-ed titled
“Stamped Out” by Eugene L. Meyer. The sub-head said, “In the Internet age, philately has lost its
once-worldly charms.”

In the April 2017 issue of American Stamp Dealer & Collector, the American Stamp Dealers Association magazine.
I wrote a response to a similar voice of doom published in the Wall Street Journal. What I said then bears
repeating now, what follows is an update of what I said in April 2017, under the heading, “A Waning Hobby?
Not On Your Life!” I don’t as a matter of practice repeat columns or themes, but I’ll make an exception here
as the column will be new to most readers:

What follows refers to an article in the May 31, 2016 issue of the Wall Street Journal titled “The Last Bastion
of a Waning Hobby.” It talked about the author’s visit to the Champion Stamp Company, which he described
as the last remaining street level stamp shop in New York City.

So the question for today is: “Is Stamp Collecting a Waning Hobby or Stamped Out?” My answer is that the
hobby hit bottom some years ago, but I believe it is on the way back up. But it is coming back as a hobby
nearly unrecognizable to those of us who began when stamp collecting was properly described as the King
of Hobbies, and the Hobby of Kings.

In other words, it has evolved in a great many ways. Let’s look at some of the changes over the (can it be?)
70 years since I began to collect:

The “product” has changed. What used to be mostly needs-based issuance programs, worldwide, with
mostly monocolor stamps, has turned into a multicolor, collector- and profits-driven enterprise to which
postal administrations cater shamelessly. Today, thousands of stamps, souvenir sheets, varieties and
more are issued that will never see the country from which they purport to come. And the only mail
you will see them on is the rare first day cover that has actually gone through the post.

In addition, the subjects with heft — history, national symbols, founders and rulers, and the national
points of pride in industry, science, etc. — now make up a much smaller percentage of what is
issued. Instead we get birds and flowers, pets, pop culture, international themes that help to sell
the product abroad, and other such pap.

What is collected has changed. In the good old days, we collected countries. Some of us even
attempted the world. No more. Now it is topicals that rule; with specific time periods of countries
rather than the entire country a close second. Covers, a collecting category barely thought about
in the mid-20th Century, are now a major draw, and the more involved the collector, the more
likely he or she is to include covers.

The demographics of the hobby have changed. It used to be that almost every grade school kid
gave the hobby a try. Now, most kids are unfamiliar with stamps, have never been inside
a post office, and the concept of writing a letter is as foreign as dialing a rotary telephone. For
these reasons, the concept of stamps as a utilitarian product or as a point of pride in country
has given way to stamps as art or as a reflection of another interest (e.g. space exploration),

The methods of commerce have changed. The village stamp shop has nearly disappeared.
Dealers and sales sites on the Internet have taken their place, along with some continuing
periodic bourses and annual stamp show events in and near larger towns and cities.
Some dealers are no longer populating bourses at all, or as often; finding that they are
doing just fine with an Internet presence. The computer is now an essential tool for collectors.

Even auctions, which continue to do well, have had to set higher minimums for lots in order
to cover their catalogs’ production and other business costs; which have also driven up
buyers’ and sellers’ commissions.

The need to join a club or society has decreased as the presence of personal computers
(and iPads, iPhones and other such tools) has proliferated. So much information and
so many resources are available to collectors for free on the Internet that collectors who
have never experienced the benefits of receiving a philatelic publication in the mail,
philatelic friendships in person, or trading relationships, don’t see the need to pay
for being involved in the organized part of the hobby.

The concept of condition has changed. Because of modern technology, perfection
of printing and centering is now not only possible, but expected. And today’s collector
has chosen to apply the new standards to old stamps where perfection is seldom seen.
This includes the rage for undisturbed gum that has never been sullied by a hinge,
a positive mania for Very Fine-or-better centering, and looking down one’s nose
at any cancellation that does not look like it was cancelled-to-order.

Stamp collecting no longer looks like an obvious choice for youth, or even millennials.
In the ‘40s to ‘70s maybe even a majority of grade schoolers gave stamp collecting a try
— even if only to squirrel away a few stamps; just because some of your friends or
siblings were doing it; and because the Postal Service supported school stamp clubs.
Today, hardly any of the kids you might be friends with are doing it. They are doing
electronics, organized sports, hanging out at the mall, and God knows what else that
provides much more immediate pleasurable feedback. For some time now, we
have been raising generations of kids who want it all NOW. Stamp collecting
gives pleasure, but it is mostly a source of delayed gratification as collectors
painstakingly build something they can be proud of.

The cost of involvement has changed. Even if a collector is satisfied with average
condition and used stamps (and leaving aside the increased number of issuances
per year with ever higher face values), the cost of albums and yearly supplements,
stock books, glassines, catalogues, and other collecting implements has soared.
It can be moderated by making one’s own pages using computer software,
but that makes collecting more difficult. Speaking of which…

…Getting started as a novice in collecting just isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Several reasons have already been mentioned, but let’s add the high face value
of normal postage stamps, let alone stamps for high-value services, which puts
the yearly cost of collecting current mint stamps out of the reach of youth and
even young marrieds looking for a hobby. Collect used stamps, and they
can no longer be removed from the envelopes for which they paid postage —
if you can find such envelopes, given that computer-vended postage,
meters and other such electronic stamp substitutes have all but pushed real
postage stamps out of the mail system. Add to this the fact that stamp
collecting is a hobby best passed from one generation to the next one-on-one.
How does that happen when today’s stamp collectors won’t go to a stamp
club (most of which resemble a retirement community; though a vital one),
an ever smaller percentage of the population is serious about collecting,
and real live dealers are not available locally to serve as mentors.

The attitude toward stamps as a collectible at the entry level has changed.
Collectors used to start collecting because it was fun. If one got serious enough
about it later on, then some element of the investing mindset might become
part of the equation. But for a long time now, we have been emphasizing
the money side of everything to our kids, and they have gotten the message.
Even if fun is part of the equation, a weather eye on what the collection will sell
for at some future time is now an early consideration — and those who sell are
not looking to get back some moderate percentage of their “investment,”
they are looking for a profit! And they are bitterly disappointed when they
don’t get it — if you believe the letters to the editor columns of the
philatelic press.

If there is a common theme to what has been laid out above, it is the effects
of the electronic age on both the hobby and on the minds of potential collectors.
But there are other themes too; chief among them being the increasing costs
of being a collector, the willingness of stamp producers to kill the goose
that laid the golden egg by going for short-term profits instead of long-term
growth of the base, and the changing nature of the hobby and what
collectors want from it.

I said in the introduction that I think the hobby’s popularity has bottomed out
and we are on an upswing. The Chicken Littles among us don’t see it, but
I think it is true because I think that the hobby and most individual collectors
are adapting. The negative influences of the computer and the Internet also
have some positives. Information and answers to questions are much
easier to get, as our hobby institutions (including the dealer community)
adapt to the Internet world. I also think that if stamps are less appreciated
as stamps, they are more appreciated as art, and as a reflection of t
he breadth of our world’s activities.

I think that if stamp collecting is less attractive to kids, it is and can be
much more attractive than it used to be to adults in mid-life —
if we take the trouble to promote it that way. Finally, I think that the
high end of the hobby is just as satisfying as it used to be in terms
of the joys of owning wonderful, scarce, and even expensive material.
In this way, it is not unlike being a connoisseur of art, wine,
rare books, coins or other collectibles.

My conclusion is this: As long as the collector gene is part of the
make-up of human beings, the hobby will continue and prosper.
It will be different from what we grew up with, and we who are
part of it will need to adapt rather than quit in disgust.
Our hobby will still need to be passed on to new collectors
one-on-one, and each of us has a role in that task.

But it is anything but a “Waning Hobby” or “Stamped Out,”
both of which imply that it is just south of extinction! Nothing could
be further from the truth!

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