- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2010

RICHMOND, Va. | The one-time capital of the short-lived Confederate States of America (1861-1865) was able to recast itself as a regional business and financial hub while remaining the capital of the commonwealth of Virginia. If Richmond could reinvent itself, could not a seemingly “doomed” hobby, whose leading association just had its annual convention here?

I speak of stamp collecting, more properly known as philately, and it was the American Philatelic Society (APS) that took over a fair amount of space in the Greater Richmond Convention Center and adjacent Richmond Marriott hotel in mid-August to promote the hobby’s message.

Those who imagine philately as boring probably have never examined a stamp, seen the intricacy of the design or researched the story behind the postal issue. (Why is Mother Teresa appearing on a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp next month? Because of her humanitarian work and her birth centennial, and because she was an honorary U.S. citizen.)

Stamps, you see, were how some of us learned about the larger world around us before the emergence of the Internet, Google or Wikipedia.

But the rise of e-mail, websites and multimedia have pounded philately; membership in the APS (www.stamps.org) is about 38,500, down from more than 50,000 at its peak. Linn’s Stamp News, the hobby’s American journal of record, is still a great paper, but circulation and ad pages are far cries from the publication’s heyday in the Jimmy Carter era. And, while there was a good complement of young people at the APS event, the median age of most collectors is closer to that of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. than it is to that of teen heartthrob Justin Bieber.

So, what’s a hobby to do?

Digitize, and that’s happening, slowly but surely. Visit a website such as www.stampalbums.com, said one top-drawer specialist, and you can find pre-designed album pages for just about every place from Abu Dhabi to Zululand, including Tannu Tuva, a briefly independent territory in Siberia. A year’s membership costs $30, and then you can download and print out album pages to your heart’s content. When you consider that a printed, three-volume U.S. album can cost $40 or more, that’s not a bad deal.

With thousands of stamps having been issued since the 1840s introduction of postal adhesives, organizing stamp data is important. The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, once available on CD-ROM, will be digital again, I’m hearing. That will be a good thing, especially since the printed five-volume reference of 2011 can set you back $400. Charge me $100 per year for the same data digitally, and I’ll sign up.

The American Philatelist, the monthly magazine of the APS, is a digital production, editor Barbara Boal said in a session with would-be contributors. Members who sign up for a monthly e-mail can download a PDF of the magazine, she said. At least 10 years of back issues — a treasure trove of research and background information — ultimately will be available online.

Of course, eBay and other online sales sites — the APS has one of its own for members only — make it easy to search out rare and not-so-rare collectibles. It is easy to get burned on eBay, so a sales site such as the one APS operates offers additional assurance. Both buyer and seller have to be members, and a seller who is a cheat can be expelled from the organization.

Another plus: Technology can help you prepare an exhibit, or a stamp talk, in truly impressive style. Karl Rove, noted for several non-philatelic accomplishments, regaled a convention dinner with stories of Republican political campaign envelopes (called “covers” by the cognoscenti), starting with the first Republican nominee, John C. Fremont, in 1856. The talk was well-illustrated with PowerPoint slides, and a grand time was had by all.

You know, there may be life in this old hobby yet.

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