Generally Speaking: a philatelic patchwork by Lawrence Block - Read Online
Generally Speaking
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In the summer of 2009, award-winning novelist Lawrence Block began contributing a monthly column to Linn’s Stamp News, America’s leading philatelic publication. A collector as a boy and young man, Block had returned to the hobby in the 1990s. Before long he had begun writing about stamps when one of his characters, an assassin-for-hire named Keller, took up philately so he’d have something to do in his impending retirement.

Collectors can probably imagine what became of Keller’s retirement fund; it dwindled even as his collection thrived, and he’s gone on to star in four novels—Hit Man, Hit List, Hit Parade, and Hit & Run—with a fifth, Hit Me, coming from Mulholland Books in 2013.

Block’s column, “Generally Speaking,” quickly became one of Linn’s most popular features. It consists of the reflections and observations of a general worldwide collector—the author, like Keller, collects the whole world during philately’s first century, 1840 to 1940, plus British Empire through the reign of George VI.

The column ranges widely in theme, sometimes dealing with the choices a collector has to make (“Mint or Used?”, “Condition, condition, condition”), sometimes with the day to day tasks one confronts (“Album Bulge and Other Afflictions”, “Buying the Same Stamp Twice”), and often shining the light of philately upon some intriguing social or cultural topic. (“The Philatelic Upside of War” examines the profusion of collectible stamps resulting from the First World War; the philatelic impact of Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 is assessed in “How Much is That Dachshund in the Fenster?”)

Generally Speaking gathers together the first twenty-five of Block’s columns. If you’ve been reading them in Linn’s, now you can have all the columns at hand in one place. If you’re a collector but haven’t read Lawrence Block before, you’re in for a treat.

And if you’re a fan of the bestselling author’s fiction, but have always regarded a stamp as something to stick on an envelope, here’s your chance to get a little more insight into what keeps Keller hard at work. Even if you don’t rush out to equip yourself with a pair of tongs and a packet of hinges, you’ll have a good time reading about it, and will very likely emerge with a little more respect for what has long been called the King of Hobbies and the Hobby of Kings.

Published: Lawrence Block on
ISBN: 9781466135895
List price: $4.99
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A Dream of Lost Stamps

I sat up, stared at my wife. Why, I demanded, did you sell my hat?

She stared right back at me.

Oh, it must have been a dream, I said. You know that fedora of mine, with the hole in the crown that looks like a cigarette burn? I dreamed you sold it for ten dollars.

Why would I sell your hat?

That’s what I wanted to know. But it was a dream, so—

And why would anybody buy it? It’s an old worn–out hat and there’s a hole in it.

I know.

Ten dollars, she said. If anybody wants to pay ten dollars for that hat, I’m all for selling it. But I’d ask you first. I mean, it’s your hat.

We were in Listowel, a town in North Kerry, in the West of Ireland, and I didn’t know then and don’t know now why I should have dreamed about my hat, and the selling thereof. Maybe it was something in the water. If so, it was still there a day later, because I awoke the next morning fresh out of another harrowing dream, and I shot Lynne a look that would have curdled milk.

My stamp collection, I said.

Your stamp collection?

Why did you—oh, hang on, it must have been another dream.

And just what did I do this time?

You sold my stamp collection.

I did no such thing, she said. "Wait a minute. What kind of dream is this, anyway? What stamp collection? You don’t have a stamp collection."

The day before, when I’d discovered that she hadn’t sold my old hat after all, I had felt an inexplicable sense of relief. And now, realizing she hadn’t sold my stamps, I felt nothing so much as a bottomless sense of loss. Because she was right, she hadn’t sold my stamp collection. How could she? Twenty years earlier, before we’d even met, I’d sold it myself.

I must have been seven or eight years old, and I was born in 1938, so you can do the math. I was at my grandparents’ house for a family dinner, and one of my mother’s two brothers showed me a book of stamps. Both Hi and Jerry had collected as boys, and one of them had his album there, and I looked at it and could see right away that collecting stamps would be a Good Thing to Do.

Then somebody gave me a Modern Stamp Album and a packet of hinges, and my Aunt Nettie began supplying me with stamps. She was my mother’s aunt, and she worked as secretary to the president of Trico, a local firm that supplied windshield wipers to the world. Trico did a lot of business overseas, and Nettie opened the mail and clipped off the corners of the envelopes with the stamps. And gave them to me.

I dutifully soaked them off their paper backing, dried them, found room for them in my stamp album, and hinged them in place. A lot of them, as I recall, were from South and Central America.

When my collection grew outgrew that first album, I upgraded to a two–volume Scott’s International. I still got stamps from Aunt Nettie, and I bought some as well from approval dealers. Have fun, one advertised. Add thousands of stamps to your collection with my bargain–priced penny approvals.

I think I had just started high school when I decided to specialize. I received the birthday present I requested, the Scott Specialty Album for Great Britain, British Europe, and British Oceania. This must have been in 1952–3, because it ended with the last of the George VI issues—and that struck me as a perfectly fine place to stop. I didn’t want to keep up with new issues. I wanted to concentrate on the stamps for which my album had spaces.

But by my senior year in high school, I’d lost interest. I certainly didn’t want to sell my collection, I figured I’d get back to it someday, but for the time being I was content to leave it on the shelf.

When I resumed collecting, I was out of college and married, with a kid on the way. And now it was coins, not stamps. I started out going through rolls of coins from the bank, and in very little time was serious about the pastime, joining coin clubs, attending auctions, and devoting a good deal of time and much of my discretionary income to the hobby.

Next thing I knew I was writing for a couple of numismatic publications, and one of them offered me a job. We up and moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where I edited the Whitman Numismatic Journal and handled various other chores in the coin supply division.

And that sent me back to stamps.

After eight hours at a desk mucking about with numismatics, I very much wanted a change when I got home. And of course my stamp album had made the trip to Racine, and so I took it up and returned wholeheartedly to philately. I had a couple of dealers sending me approvals, and I took the train to Chicago once or twice and spent some time and money at stamp shops in the Loop. I continued to collect stamps for that British Europe album, and I added another collection by picking up the Specialty Album for Benelux.

I stayed at Whitman until early 1966, then moved back to the New York area. I continued to collect, but other activities got first crack at my time and money. I’d go months without looking at my stamps.

In 1973 my marriage broke up, and I moved to a studio apartment in New York. And sometime that year or the next, because I sorely needed the money, I took both of those stamp albums to a dealer in midtown Manhattan. And that was that.

Sometimes, over the years, I’d remember my days spent with hinges and tongs and a perf gauge. But I didn’t spend much time thinking about my stamps, because it always made me sad. Still, I don’t think I felt the full impact of the loss until that morning in Listowel, when I woke up from that dream.

I’d formed a few haphazard collections over the years, but hadn’t pursued anything with any seriousness. And the dream made me realize how much I missed it all.

The answer, of course, was to resume collecting stamps. But it took me a while to figure it out.

Nothing About Everything

In scholarship as in philately, there are specialists and there are generalists. And there’s a longstanding explanation of the difference between the two. The specialist, it is said, keeps learning more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing. The generalist, on the other hand, keeps learning less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything.

When I decided in my mid-fifties to return to a hobby I’d abandoned twenty years earlier, I didn’t know what sort of a collector I’d be. As a boy I’d started out collecting everything, then narrowed my focus to British Empire—specifically, to the Scott Specialty Album for Great Britain, British Europe, and British Oceania. In my mid-twenties I’d begun collecting Benelux as well, and in my mid-thirties, when my first marriage ended, I sold everything.

Now I was starting over. Fine. I’d be a stamp collector again. But what would I collect?

Well, I’m a writer, and had accumulated a nice collection of portraits of writers from the old Vanity Fair. Why not collect writers on stamps? A little research revealed this to be an abundant topic, with most stamp-issuing countries given to honoring their literary stars philatelically. There was a sub-group of the American Topical Association, JAPOS, devoted to the topic—the acronym is Journalists, Authors, and Poets On Stamps. I joined, and went through catalogs, and began acquiring stamps.

And never really got caught up in it. For one thing, the stamps themselves did not strike me an inherently interesting. They were mostly portrait stamps, and they mostly depicted writers I’d never heard of, and found I had precious little interest in learning more about. And I didn’t want to design album pages, and couldn’t get much satisfaction out of housing my new acquisitions in a stockbook.

Beyond that, I came to realize that I lacked the mindset of a topical collector. I can certainly appreciate topical collecting and have no end of respect for its enthusiasts. Indeed, topical displays are often the ones I find most interesting at shows. But it was becoming clear to me that I was programmed to collect stamps on the basis of where they were from, not what they pictured.

So I began collecting the stamps of Ireland. I had long been fond of the country, knew a fair amount of its history, and liked the restraint the Irish had shown in their stamp-issuing policy over the years. (Two of my Vanity Fair prints turned up on a pair of stamps issued in 1980 to honor Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.) I sought out mint never-hinged stamps, housed them in a pair of Davo hingeless albums, and reached a point where there was nothing left for me to buy. I could still keep up with new issues, and buy annual album supplements to house them, but that felt like renewing a subscription to a magazine I never read.

Or I could specialize, seeking out minor varieties and errors, adding blocks and other multiples, picking up covers, working my way into postal history. I did pick up some forerunner issues, and quite a few booklets. But I found I didn’t care about die breaks, or any of the minutiae you couldn’t see without a magnifying glass. And I couldn’t work up much interest in covers or postal history. In fact, now that my collection was essentially complete, I found myself not much inclined to open the albums. I was glad I had them, and it pleased me to see them on the shelf, but there they stood, untouched.

Which meant I ought to start another collection. But of what? British Empire? A good possibility, as I’d always liked their stamps. Benelux? Again, I knew the stamps, and liked them well enough.

But I liked most countries’ stamps, really, and to select one area for specialization was to neglect the rest of the world.

But I couldn’t set out to collect the whole world, could I?

Well, why not?

It was one thing to collect worldwide. It was another thing to collect everything—and I knew better than to attempt that. I’d already discovered with my Irish collection that I wasn’t geared for keeping up with new issues, and was more interested in earlier stamps. 1940 struck me as a good cut-off date. It wasn’t until after that date—after World War Two, really—that countries went nuts on a grand scale, issuing stamps in enormous profusion. And the earlier engraved stamps appealed more to me aesthetically than the more flamboyant stamps facilitated by modern printing advances.

So I’d collect the stamps of philately’s first century. That would keep me busy enough.

And I knew not to include the United States in my philatelic world. I’d collected U.S. issues avidly as a child, and it seems to me that most of my knowledge of my country’s history was an unwitting by-product of my collecting. Like Keller, the stamp-collecting hit man I’ve written a few books about, I can still name the presidents in order. (So he told his associate, Dot. In order to what? was her perfectly reasonable response.)

But I’d be spreading my resources too thin if I tried to collect the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Once I’d made my decision, I wasn’t sure what to do next. And then I saw a listing for a worldwide collection, 1840 to 1900, and the $1000 price seemed reasonable. The next thing I knew, I was the owner of an old Scott brown album containing a collection that had been put together eighty or more years before it came into my hands.

The dealer who’d sold it to me had done some cherry-picking first. I remember that there were no stamps on the pages for French Offices in China, but hinge marks to show they’d once been present. Iceland, too, was empty, and who knows what individual rarities may once have been present. It looked at first as though I had a truly valuable run of several Central American countries, until I discovered that the stamps were all Seebeck reprints. Most of the European issues were used, and condition throughout was what dealers call mixed.

No matter. There was plenty of value there, and, more to the point, it got me started.

First thing I did, once I’d familiarized myself with what I had, was start buying stamps to add to it. I found some dealers who sent out weekly lists, and a couple who sent out approvals, and I even found one fellow who ran a cubbyhole shop weekends in a nearby antique mall. It didn’t take me long, though, before I became dissatisfied with that old album, and realized that what I wanted to house my new collection was the Brown Album reprint I saw advertised in Linn’s. I bought a set of pages and binders and set about remounting my collection.

And that turned out to be the best thing I could have done. It took months, and by the time I was through I was truly acquainted with the stamps in my collection. Before long I had bought more pages through 1940 and binders to accommodate them.

There was a point, after I’d finally gotten around to assembling all the albums with all the new pages, that what I had was a handful of pages with stamps on them floating like islands in a virtual sea of blank pages. But the blank pages didn’t bother me, and it was satisfying every time one of them got a stamp mounted on it. There are fewer blank pages in those albums now, but there are still some to be found, and they still don’t bother me. And I still find it satisfying every time I get to mount a stamp or two on one of them.

The Miracle of Empty Spaces

After I bought that first old Scott album (worldwide, 1840-1900), my wife asked a perfectly reasonable question. What would I do, she wanted to know, when I’d filled every one of its spaces?

Should I live another three hundred years, I told her, and should I become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice—two eventualities which strike me as equally possible—I would still be unable to fill this book.

Well, that’s a load off my mind, she said. I was worried you’d be hanging around the house with nothing to do.

Different collectors, I’ve come to realize, regard empty spaces differently. An empty space provides graphic evidence that one’s holding of a particular group of stamps is not complete, that one’s work remains unfinished.

And certain spaces guarantee that the work will be forever unfinished. For example, my own album has room for Sweden 1a, the unique three-skilling error of color. Even if the stamp’s current owner should decide to sell, the likelihood of my being able to buy it is, uh, remote. And the Swedish stamp is hardly unique in its uniquity; my albums have room for any number of stamps of which only a single copy exists, stamps unknown outside permanent institutional collections, stamps that, should I