At the beginning of each year I perform my sacred duty, one entrusted to me by my grandfather. While it’s not one that many find appealing–or even interesting–I take a bit of pleasure in taking care of this piece of business.
Once per year I buy postage stamps.
These aren’t just ordinary stamps, aside from that fact that they are nothing more than ordinary stamps. These stamps are destined to be handled with special tweezers and inserted into plastic mounts like tiny picture frames that are affixed to special binder pages. Each page includes a spot for each stamp, sometimes marked with a picture but always with a rectangular outline and a catalog number. When I’m done I return the binders to their closet shelf, where they remain protected from bugs, sunlight, dust, coffee spills, and that Mayhem guy from the insurance commercials until they reemerge like groundhogs sometime during the spring of the following year.
Between my grandfather, great-great uncle whom I never met, and me, this exercise is nearing the centennial mark. My granddad started his album on February 15, 1933, an event he celebrated by printing his date, name, and city in bold, curvy letters on the book’s flyleaf. He was 12 years old. I’m not sure how old his uncle was, but his album is of similar vintage. As for me? I was ten when Grandpa made me promise to keep his collection both safe and growing. At some point my daughter, grandchild, or great-great nephew whom I’ll never meet will take over, and they will carefully place each incredibly common stamp in its proper place as if they were curating a museum exhibit.
The stamps aren’t worth much. In its heyday stamp collecting was a popular hobby–FDR was a stamp collector, and so was John Lennon–but those days are long gone. Little bits of paper can’t compete with the entertainment power of smartphones, and besides that who needs more clutter? As a result, the catalog/price guide value of a stamp and what people are willing to pay can vary dramatically. It’s not unheard of to pay ten cents on the dollar– ten bucks for a stamp “worth” 100 dollars, for example. But my granddad never said this was about money. It was about family, tradition, handing down, and so once per year I take a little time and make sure that I keep it going, just like I promised.
Ebay is a great resource for filling the albums’ empty spaces, though most sellers cling to the myth of the price guide value. Regardless of whether it will fill an empty space, I never bother with a stamp listed at the catalog value. I’m sentimental, but I’m not a sucker. The best deals aren’t on individual stamps anyway, but rather on wholesale lots and collections. If a collection has a few stamps that we need but the asking price is less than the retail value of those few stamps, I might bid on the whole lot. When they arrive, I go through the duplicates and look for ones that will upgrade the ones in my family’s collection. The rest I simply tuck away in hopes that someday I might give them to a young relative or neighbor who wants to try out an old-timey hobby.
Browsing the eBay collections last week, I came across a nearly complete collection of U.S. postage stamps. For the low low price of just $250,000, I could purchase “as complete of a USA Collection as you could ever hope to find.” My grandfather, Uncle Frank, and I have been at this for 86 years, and our collective efforts haven’t brought us anywhere close to that goal. For a mere quarter million (just a fraction of their book value!) and one click of the mouse I could almost completely fulfill my familial obligation.
But could I really?
I shouldn’t speak for my ancestors, but I suspect that like me they put more value into the collecting than the collection. Each year when I pull out the albums, I’m visiting with my grandfather. I look through the stamps that he collected and the ones I’ve added. Snippets of decades-old small talk run like tapes through my mind’s ears. When I fill the last empty space on an old, yellowed page, I wonder whether he’d be proud of me. For a few days each year, I’m a ten year-old boy seeking the approval of an old man long gone.
Where’s the value in a pre-collected collection? Let’s say that I had 250k to blow on a nearly complete collection of American postage stamps. They would arrive and then they would sit on the shelf, their only story the one about the time that I clicked “buy it now.” No ghosts. No memories. Just stamps.
The magic is in the doing, no matter what the endeavor. The having is nice, but the doing is what really matters. I think that’s why we appreciate the makers of things. It’s the difference between “I bought this restored car” and “I restored this car,” for example. And so I continue to plod along, one empty space at a time, visiting annually with a grandfather gone over thirty years now.
There’s nothing wrong with the current trend toward ridding one’s world of clutter–I certainly need to do more of that–nor is there anything wrong with purchasing or holding onto an object for its investment value. But neither of these approaches to stuff addresses the intrinsic value of collecting. Whether you’re fulfilling a family commitment or just killing time, you’ll get much more pleasure out of the doing than you’ll get out of staring at your smartphone.
Unless you collect smartphones, of course, in which case have I got a deal for you.