For many people in this text-a-second, digitally devoted society, the humble hobby of collecting postage stamps might seem about as stimulating as two hours spent staring at the "No Farms, No Food" bumper sticker on the back of the Toyota Corolla wagon, circa 1972, that sat in front of you during the last bout of BART-strike-related gridlock.
But little do those many people know that stamp collecting is a time-honored and surprisingly cool activity. OK, so the "activity" part isn't exactly "cool" in the way of, say, BASE jumping or galactic tourism, and you won't get much in the way of a cardio workout placing a Harry Potter stamp in an album.
Indeed, stamp collecting is an anachronistic hobby. So quiet. So slow in the midst of modern chaos. It's something a wise tortoise might do, while a reckless hare races around texting with one paw and tweeting, Instgramming and Snapchatting with the other three.
But there's brain activity to be had in spades. Heck, even my mere peek into the subject this week allowed me to learn a new word: philately, the study of stamps and postal history. My brain thanks me.
Sticking to it
Stamps are mini windows into history, geography, printing methods and even the visual arts, all in a roughly 1-inch square with a coating of adhesive on the back. Just don't try to lick today's pre-sticky ones becubb iffs tub to tawb bat bay ... sorry, I had a stamp stuck to my tongue.
Postage collectors themselves are a bold breed. They have to be, bravely bearing rolled-eye indifference from friends when sharing their hidden passion. So says Ilya Ronin, 37, a San Francisco software consultant with whom I spoke last week. He possesses a mere 12,000 stamps, give or take.
"I guess it's not really a cool thing to collect stamps these days," Ilya said. "If I tell friends about it, they seem interested, but maybe they're thinking to themselves it's a geeky hobby. People my age aren't as engaged in this as people my age used to be, you know, in ages past." Um, right, Ilya. Like you said.
Ilya, who started his hobby as a kid when his family lived in Moscow, will definitely be at the Northern California Postage Stamp Show coming up July 12-14 at the Westin Hotel in Millbrae, but he insists he'll try not to spend too much money this time. "I had quite a binge about six months ago and did quite a bit of acquisitions," he said. "So I need to digest what I've got."
While I'm not a collector of stamps -- of anything really, except for Pez dispensers, and, of course, $100 bills -- I do love a good stamp. There's nothing better than mailing a birthday greeting with Mike Wazowski waving a friendly hello, or affixing the image of a poisonous snake to a credit card payment. It's the finishing touch.
Even so, Amy Nicklaus, director of the American Stamp Dealers Association, says there's more to the little mail-enabling squares than what we currently see at the post office. And to reignite interest in the steadily shrinking hobby -- as tangible mail itself may soon go the way of the VCR -- she started the Stamp Love campaign (www.thestamplove.com) with an online forum for collectors, plus Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter pages highlighting cool stamp stuff.
"For one, there's the visual joy of stamps," she said. "Somebody designed every stamp ever made, so it's like owning a little piece of original artwork." There's naturally the history aspect, examining these mini markers of time. A recent trend for advanced collectors is researching postal history itself, buying up envelopes -- or "covers," as they're called in philately lingo -- with postmarks of, say, colonial Nigeria, opening up an opportunity to explore the postal past of that country.
And then there's the investment issue, which truly can't be licked. Some rare stamps are worth thousands, if not hundreds of thousands and more, like the famous Inverted Jenny -- a U.S. postage misprint from the early 1900s in which the center image of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane appears upside-down in relation to the surrounding edge design. A block of four of them sold at auction in 2005 for $2.7 million.
Sheesh. That makes a 46-center look pretty cheap. Just don't get it stub to burr tungb.