The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg
By John M. Hotchner
And so, periodically, I feel the need to respond; to offer some context. I do this first as a collector of U.S. stamps for 59 years, since age 5. Secondly, I do it as a member since 1998 of the Postmaster General's Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, where I have learned a thing or two about what American stamp collectors want. Finally, I do it as the "U.S. Notes" columnist for Linn's Stamp News, in addition to editing U.S. Stamp News. I have written for Linn's on U.S. philately for 30+ years.
My point in citing this litany of curriculum vitae is that I am an experienced collector; and though I work within CSAC (receiving no honorarium), I am not an apologist for the USPS or its actions. That said, it is my belief that the complaining of some vocal (mostly older) collectors is a reflex prompted by what seems to be a steady stream of issuances that is unlike what we grew up with. Besides that, we are a nation of complainers. We often take the good as a given and rail away at things we think are wrong as the first step ("identification of a problem") toward getting our dissatisfactions fixed. The problem with this orientation is that we are often too ready to jump on a bandwagon without much thought.
But in fact, to buy one of each of last year's program would have cost about $75; well below $10 a month. And that was a rate-change year, which accounts for over $25 of the total. How many of us spend that and more on fast food, and have nothing left to show for it (except perhaps extra inches on our love handles)? Is $75 a lot for young kids? Yes, but how many of them do you know who collect mint stamps? And if they do, who buys them? For the most part it is parents, aunts, grandparents, and others.
For those of us who collect full booklets or other multiples, the bill is more, but still less than what we spend on other entertainment and non-essentials. The multiples are either our choice (plate blocks, coil strips, minisheets) or the publics' (booklets) and not an imperative from the USPS. We are not forced to collect them by spaces in an album, and we always have the alternative of voting with our wallets. And that is important to recognize. The USPS is a business, and they do (and should) pay attention to what sells and what does not. So, far from killing the goose that lays the golden egg, they thoughtfully produce what is needed by the public for their mailing needs, and they produce what collectors have said they want, by word and by purchase.
The number, variety and diversity of each year's stamps responds to the wants of the collecting public, which suggests most of the subjects used, and a great many more besides. It likes se-tenants, 50-stamp sheets (the last two sold out!), and a wide range of subject matter.
No one likes every issue, including me, but as yearly polls show, the ones we don't like often differ from collector to collector. What this means is that every issue that is released has its detractors who tend to be more vocal than those who are happy. In conversations and correspondence, what I hear when I get below the surface of the complaint is that most of us would happily drop some stamps from the program, but would replace them if we could by others more to our liking. In other words, it is not the total number of stamps that bothers most of us, it is that we are being "forced" to buy (though we aren't really) stamps that we don't really like, to satisfy some impulse to completeness. But that is a much more complex thought to express.
The bottom line is that we are dealing with what I like to call the Congressional Effect: Most American citizens like their Congressperson, but hate the institution. Most people like most of the individual stamps, but hate the program, and resort to complaints about program size, subjects they don't like and/or art used on specific stamps as easy ways to convey their frustrations.
Yet the public buys and saves even stamps and multiples of stamps that have higher face values despite the fact that the USPS spends next to nothing on merchandising the program. (Can you imagine McDonald's doing so little advertising?) And it is the variety and diversity of the U.S. stamp program that keeps stamps as a collectible in front of the public. Not for nothing have stamps been called "a nation's calling card." To that I would add that they are a continuing invitation to non-collectors to join our hobby. The USPS stamp program is virtually the only way that new collectors are being brought to the hobby; eventually to replace us doddering oldsters, who are the ones most likely to get petulant and drop out because the USPS doesn't issue a total of 15 engraved mono-color 3¢ stamps per year anymore.
Thus the Postal Service, having adapted to the modern day, and to a public which has a short attention span and far more diversions to interest it, is too often charged with "sealing its own doom," or "killing the hobby." If the hobby is dying, which I don't happen to think is true, we collectors need to look elsewhere. Specifically we need to think of ourselves as its saviors.
The USPS puts a lot of effort into producing stamps that will attract new collectors, both youth and adult, to our hobby. Of course they are doing this in their own interest. But we collectors will benefit if they suc¬ceed by having the hobby hold its market share (if not increase it) such that there will be collectors to buy our collections when we are ready to sell.
Yet many of us seem determined to act against our own interest. Everyone knows that the best advertis¬ing is word of mouth. I would go that one further by saying that how we present the hobby and its institutions is a powerful message, but how we present ourselves is even more so. Those we are trying to convince to become collectors will look at us and say, "If s/he is a stamp collector, is that what I want to be like?"
I'm talking about the total package. We sell the hobby best by how we represent it. I'm betting we can each look back to people who served as our models in our early days as a collector, and that most were positive about the hobby and its institutions, and happy about their involvement in and enjoyment of the hobby. And they were people whom we found attractive as personalities.
The lesson for us today is that each of us has a role to play in the survival of stamp collecting. If you met yourself today, would you want to become a stamp collector based on your model?
U.S.A. To Z
Speaking of saving the hobby, one of the ways that is going to happen is effective use of the Internet to bring in new collectors and to support their involvement. It should be no surprise that there is a rapidly growing monthly free newsletter titled U.S.A.toZ for U.S. specialists, which has sprung up on the Web. What is a surprise is that it is produced by a Canadian, who himself specializes in the Transport Airplanes issues of 1941-44.
His name is Steve Davis, and he also hosts an active discussion group on the breadth and depth of U.S. philately available at groups.yahoo.com/group/us_specialized/. Its interested and interesting membership, which includes members in India and Iraq, posts questions, answers and commentary every day, and it certainly does liven up my incoming email. One can monitor or participate at will. And best of all it is gloriously free!
[The newsletter is available only to members of the Yahoo Group, but back issues have been archived at www.stamps.us/usatoz. Davis' personal site is United States Specialized Collections. He is a member of The Virtual Stamp Club, by the way. LdeV]
If you are a U.S. collector with Internet access, I commend the group and its newsletter to your attention.
Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at email@example.com.