The Shrinking World of the Stamp Collector


Champion Stamp

Champion Stamp Company is filled with stamps organized by countries and categories, and full collections are also available for purchase. Photo: Anna Cooperberg.

Even in the midst of the supposed decline of stamp collecting as a hobby, one stamp store, Champion Stamp Company, is hanging on in Midtown West. Manhattan’s current stamp business is a far cry from the 1930s, when Nassau Street was the center of the city’s “Stamp District.” Now Champion Stamp, on 54th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, is the only street level stamp store remaining in New York City.

In addition to the slow decline of stores, the U.S. Postal Service losses of $15.9 billion dollars, posted earlier this month, don’t bode well for stamp collecting. Ken Martin, Executive Director of the American Philatelic Society, a non-profit organization for collectors with 34,000 members, said that these losses could indirectly affect the hobby. “They made changes or cutbacks that may impact stamp collecting or stamp collectors,” he said, citing fewer stamps being issued and reduced promotion of the hobby. “Twenty years ago, [the Postal Service] did a full-blown promotion of National Stamp Collecting Month,” in October, he said. “Now they don’t, and that may be mostly financial.”

Champion Stamp gets two to 20 customers each day according to Liliana Rosende, who has managed the store since it opened 20 years ago this past September, and who sometimes brings in her King Charles spaniel Oliver. The store is able to reach more people now that there is an active website and Facebook page, she said, but their core audience hasn’t embraced the technology. “[We] try to do as much of the modern social media stuff as we can… a lot of our customers are still into opening the mail.”

The store has a stable core customer base, but Rosende, who is not a collector herself, admitted that the hobby is becoming archaic. “You might not see any new collectors because they [younger people] might not know what stamps are… stamps will eventually keep fading away,” she said. The store, chock full of stamps organized by country in red and black plastic binders, has a center table where customers can spread stamps out to examine. It’s designed for people to come in with a wish list and stay awhile – the opposite of clicking to add something to your online basket.

The upcoming holidays aren’t a big help when it comes to attracting new customers. “This isn’t really a type of business where you buy other people things,” she said. “It’s hard to buy for a first-time collector, you don’t know what he has.” Her father, Roberto Rosende, who is originally from Cuba, also works in the store and carefully organizes stamps in a nook behind the cash register. He said that education about stamps and the history and geography behind them is essential for a collector such as himself, as the pleasure of collecting comes with knowing the history behind each piece. “Stamps are one of the cheapest things to collect,” he said. “Now there are too many things to compete with them. Children have games, computers… it has to be promoted.” He said some schools have stamp clubs, but suggested using audiovisual tools to introduce children to the hobby and providing them with free stamp books to start their collection.

Arthur Morowitz, who owns Champion Stamp, agreed. His office is above the store, alongside a large storage closet and a wood-paneled gallery for showcasing stamps. “It’s an underreported hobby for as good as it is, and I think a lot of kids would get a great deal of satisfaction from it,” he said. He says that the store is doing well despite the fact that there are not many new collectors coming in. “The trend is good,” he said of the store’s profit. “It’s holding steady, doing better than I thought it would.”

He recognizes, however, that the predominantly older core group of collectors suggests a different direction for the hobby of stamp collecting. “I don’t want to say it’s a dying hobby because it’s very much alive,” he said, but he knows, as well, that “it’s being kept alive by a group that’s not expanding.”

On the more expensive end of the stamp collecting spectrum are New York auction houses like Cherrystone Philatelic Auctioneers – philately being the study of stamps and postal history – Siegel Auction Galleries, and auctioneers who deal in stamps and antique letter covers. At Champion Stamps it’s possible to purchase a pound bag of mixed United States stamps for $15, but rare stamps at auction are often priced in the hundreds and thousands of dollars.

Serious stamp enthusiasts congregate at The Collectors Club’s five-story brownstone on 35th Street between Park and Madison avenues, which boasts a library of approximately 150,000 volumes of philatelic literature. Resident members, those who live within 50 miles of the club in New York City, pay annual dues of  $190.

Keith Harmer, a member of the Collector’s Club, is the president of Harmer’s International, a philatelic auction firm where the average lot price is $1,000. His family has been in the stamp business since the 1800s, when his grandfather, Henry R. Harmer, began dealing in philately in London before forming the Harmer’s of London auction firm. Harmer said that stamp collecting and philatelic auctions have fundamentally changed because of the Internet. “There are no stamp stores to go to, so [collectors] gravitate towards Ebay instead of bidding in auctions… you have to sell online,“ he said. And Harmer believes that age is a benefit for the serious collector. “It’s not an under 25 years of age hobby,” he said. “When they are older and mature more, they get into the history, the philately… [you can] own a piece of history.”

“The nature of collecting today is excellent, but not the sheer numbers,” he said. “The collector base for philately has moved upscale.”

The Collector’s Club also holds exhibitions, such as one by Thomas Matha featuring international mail covers, or the front or entirety of an envelope from the pre-stamp period between 1815 and 1852. A lawyer and postal history expert who lives in Bozen, Italy, Matha noted that igniting interest in new collectors is the biggest challenge facing philately. “We have forgotten about the past centuries; we only know email, SMS, and smartphones, but not how we came to that,” he said, referring to the history of communication and transport.