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Routine Philatelic Housekeeping
By John L. Leszak

The wife of one of my best customers recently called and scolded me. She said, "Please don't sell another carton of covers to my husband until he removes all his covers from the dining room table."

Later that week, her husband called and said that he wanted to order another box. I casually mentioned that he wife had called, expressing her concerns about once again seeing the top of their dining room table. My customer said, "The check is already in the mail so go ahead with the order; I'll remedy the dining room table situation."

I thought he'd make a valiant effort to sort and clear the table. A few days later, he called again to announce that the dining table was completely cleared and that he even set out quilted place mats. I was astonished by his motivation, and remarked, "Gee, you must've been working night and day to clear that table so quickly!"

He replied, "No, actually I bought two 8-foot folding tables, set them up in the living room, and transferred over all the covers that were on the dining room table." (Never say that an ardent philatelist isn't resourceful.)

Quite often, philatelists become so enchanted with the notion of playing with their stamps and covers that they lose sight of many things. One factor that tends to go by the wayside is philatelic housekeeping. Those who devote a corner of their desk to philately often find that they experience a sudden diminished space. For those fortunate enough to have stamp rooms, the sudden loss of space means that they've purchased more than they can process.

Last June, I visited an out of town dealer friend who was in the process of cleaning out his office. When I stepped into his foyer, I noted six huge contractor bags filled with philatelic debris. They contained old binders, album pages, and tons of smoky old glassine envelopes. I teased my friend that he must have gone insane, because he was tossing out all the best elements of his inventory. He chuckled, but then explained that a representative from his insurance company paid him a surprise visit, and was appalled by all the stacks of paper, cardboard and clutter. The insurance rep gave my friend 10 days to get everything in order, or else his insurance policy would be terminated. When I asked my friend about the last time he did any significant housekeeping, he replied, "Well, I did have new carpet put in about six years ago, so obviously I had to have the place clean for that!"

My friend, like so many other philatelists, is simply so consumed with processing and enjoying new purchases that routine housekeeping becomes an extreme afterthought. Some times, I let things slide for a few weeks, and the end result is several large bundles of flattened cardboard boxes set by the curb for pickup by the recycling truck. Time is money in the stamp and cover business. The last round of consolidated and cut-up cardboard boxes took me a little over four hours to create. I only invested the time because I had finished processing the latest purchases and the money was in the bank; that left time to do housekeeping.

But dealers aren't the only ones who have clutter pile up in a hurry. I know a collector who just paid $450 for a dumpster so that he could toss out eight years' worth of philatelic clutter. His son was moving back in with him. When his son moved out years ago, my customer claimed his son's room for a stamp room. In eight years, however, he had amassed a dumpster load of philatelic clutter. This included all sorts of price lists, auction catalogs and mailing pouches. A member of this man's stamp club said he would've hauled all the clutter away for $100, if he could've had the philatelic salvage rights.

It doesn't take long for philatelic clutter to pile up. The average avid philatelist receives about a shoebox full of mail every week. This includes price lists, catalogs and mailers from purchases. If time permitted, the stamps could be removed in a leisurely manner. Price lists and auction catalogs could be acted upon and or discarded in a timely fashion. However, most people simply let things pile up, until they find the time to go through it all. When I conducted 1500-lot mail sales every ten days, the biggest disappointment would be when a bidder would call six days after a sale closed and say, "I just sorted through a heap of mail that piled up and found your catalog. I really would like to buy the XYZ lot, and would be willing to pay $600 for it." I would always regretfully inform the caller that the XYZ lot sold for $210.

In the early 1990s I purchased the "collection" of a man who had been active in philately since the late 1920's. However, he didn't have a single stamp or cover album. In fact, he sold his entire stamp collection in 1936 in order to raise funds to keep his business afloat. However, the "collection" that I purchased consisted of all his incoming mail from circa 1928 to 1991. He never threw away a single piece of incoming mail, and the mail from overseas, especially the WWII era material, was priceless. His is one of the few examples in which keeping philatelic clutter can actually be profitable. However, he had everything in boxes and labeled according to years. Although the contents of the boxes could be considered "clutter" by some people, the fact that he had everything so organized negated the clutter appellation.

Lately, I have found a novel way to discard clutter before it reaches my office. When mail arrives at my post office box, I sort it all in the box lobby, and toss out all the junk. I've even been known to empty a few small boxes and envelopes, which I place into the "paper only" bins that are conveniently located in the box section of the lobby area. I find that by doing an aggressive initial sort of mail before it reaches my van or office means that I ultimately have to do less housekeeping! I have the mail sorting down to a routine and sometimes bring a cup of coffee with me. The entire process takes about 15 minutes. I have noticed several other postal patrons have also taken to tossing postal debris instead of carrying the excess clutter home. My wife Paula likes to tease me that I should bring a stool to the post office lobby, so I can be seated while I sort all the stuff at the counter.

On several occasions I have purchased gargantuan stamp and cover lots out of town and spent a night sorting and consolidating them in cheap motels. In the morning, I leave a neat stack of boxes and several contractor-size trash bags for the housekeeping staff to remove. I also leave them a nice tip taped to the bathroom mirror, along with a nice note thanking them for their understanding. If I brought these large purchases home, the clutter that's created might stay in a state of limbo for 48 hours to a couple of weeks, depending on my agenda. Thus, it's easier to conduct a rough sort elsewhere, and bring home only the actual philatelic items. Beat-up old binders, empty album pages, glassines, old price lists and club newsletters quickly fill a contractor-size trash bag!

A clean surface area with lots of elbow room is essential for philatelic projects. Otherwise, things tend to tumble and cascade down and interfere with sorting or cataloging projects. I know numerous philatelists who take a cardboard box from a carton of copy paper and literally sweep their desks clean every time they have a new philatelic project to work on. Many label the boxes with notations like "Cleared from desk on 9-19-09;" however, some do not.

Years ago, I bought a series of box lots from a man who wanted to rid himself of some excess philatelic clutter. He delivered 10 copy paper boxes to me and said, "Take them all for $200, just don't ever tell me if you find something really spectacular."

I sorted through the boxes, and found about $180 face value in mint postage, and assorted covers, but none of extraordinary value. I did find pictures of his children, bank statements and his daughter's third grade report card. I placed all the personal items in an envelope and mailed them back to the seller. He was grateful that I had taken the time to return the personal items; then he added, "My daughter often wondered what happened to her report card, she brought it home for me to sign, but it got misplaced. She's now a junior in college!"

I have purchased numerous philatelic estates which required packing the contents of a stamp room. One room was so congested that I uncovered 37 coffee mugs, some with a hairy green substance sprouting inside. The deceased philatelist often accused his wife of taking his coffee cups, but they were just covered over with loose album pages and covers.

Many philatelists, including myself for a number of years, subscribed to the following notion: "When you run out of space, get more space." When I outgrew my first store, I rented twice the space elsewhere. When that became too small and lacked elbow room, I rented an adjoining room. When that got too cramped, I started to stockpile things at home. When the house got too packed with philatelic material, my wife Paula and I bought a new home, and used the old house for philatelic storage. When we divested ourselves of the first house, we filled up six storage units. But then I got into the mode of lightening the load, and now everything is cheerfully and efficiently contained. I tend to turn lots over as fast as I purchase them.

Sometimes, I'll buy a lot out of town and ship it directly to a buyer rather than haul everything back to Buffalo. I'm pleased with myself that I've learned to be practical by saving time and money when handling the outright purchase of large lots. My wife Paula, always supportive of my philatelic endeavors, still cringes when large trucks ladened with large cartons suddenly appear. Fortunately, I've always had the time, desire and energy to separate the philatelic wheat from the chaff. Other dealers don't immerse themselves with such vigor. One dealer friend bought a van load of covers in 1999, and can only devote about an hour a week sorting through it all. He still has nearly a half van load left and a few years ago, he lamented that it was a "foolish" purchase. I've offered to buy the remainder from him to ease his burden, but he still holds on to the philatelic hope that some hidden gem is yet to be unearthed. In the meantime, the stairs to his second floor are narrowed because the sides are lined with unsorted boxes from the 1999 purchase.

When the recycle truck comes every Thursday, I always have a handsome stack of collapsed boxes waiting. So many philatelists never take the time to consolidate things. Often, what will fit neatly and efficiently into one carton is scattered about in five or six separate boxes.

How's your philatelic housekeeping doing these days? Do you find yourself conducting "spring cleaning" just in time for Thanksgiving? Do you have any amusing or innovative stories to share about your philatelic housekeeping? Let us know in The Virtual Stamp Club message board.

© John L. Leszak. All rights reserved. Published on The Virtual Stamp Club by permission.

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