One thing I know that Mom never said to Pop: "Dear, don't you think you need a hobby?" The old man has been a hobby nut ever since I can remember. When I was a child, it was model trains in the basement rec room. As I lurched into adolescence, it was ships in bottles. Now, Mom tells me that he's "into stamps." Perfect. My nine-year-old adores his grandpa, and stamp collecting is something they could do together without Pop fretting about Liam breaking his mainmast. Down past the Mission, I found Larry Keene holding the fort at Henri's Stamp Shop (619-280-4460) -- the oldest in San Diego. "Basically," said Keene, "all you need to start is a stock book that has pockets in it. And stamp tweezers -- they're specially made for holding stamps. That way, you don't get finger marks on them. Never use eyebrow tweezers -- they have sharp edges, and if you twist them a little, they'll poke a hole in the stamp. The stamp tweezers don't have those sharp points." Keene sells three styles of stamp tweezers, all priced at $3.95 : a round, wide-headed model, a square-head, and a narrow-head. "The wide, round-headed ones are especially good for beginners or children," he noted. "The narrow ones are a little more advanced. Sometimes, what's best is whichever you first start using, because you get used to it."
The cheapest way to store stamps, said Keene, "is with a display page. They fit into any three-ring binder, which most people have kicking around the house. I sell display pages for $4.50 for a package of five two-sided pages. The seven- and five-pocket arrangements are the most popular, because they hold the most single stamps." (The Post Office, he noted, will sometimes sell a sheet of stamps that includes an extra picture around the border, so that the collector is encouraged to keep the whole sheet intact.) "When you get more advanced, you can get illustrated albums -- you match up the right stamp with the right picture on each page. The smallest albums, semi-illustrated, run around $25, and they can get up into the thousands. World album sets, which have 38 parts and start in 1840 with the first stamp ever made, can cost $3000 . Or, you can specialize in a country -- say, Italy -- and they sell the album in sections by date. The sections run around $40 each, so some countries might run into the hundreds."
But he was quick to remind me that "you don't have to spend a lot of money. You can take those three-ring binders and attach the stamps with hinges in any order you want. A stamp hinge [ $2.25 for a package of about 1000] is a little peelable sticker with a folded tab on it. You attach the sticker to the album and then moisten the tab and lay the stamp on the tab. They're used mostly for inexpensive or used stamps. They allegedly don't do any damage to the stamp, but they do leave a mark in the gum of an unused stamp. For valuable stamps, that bothers some people."
In that case, mounts might be a better option -- mounts are individual clear plastic pockets that can be stuck to an album via a sticky backing. "Some people put everything, used and unused, in the mounts. But is it worth it to put a stamp that's worth $.05 or $.10 in a $.07 or $.08 mount? Maybe it is, if it's aesthetically more pleasing to you. But in general, unused stamps that have never had a hinge mark should be placed in mounts."
When it comes to finding out about the stamps themselves, there's pretty much one authority, said Keene: The Scott Stamp Catalog ( $56.99 ). "The catalog lists all the different stamps that are kept and issued by all the different countries. It gives a description of the stamp, tells the year issued, the value for used and unused -- used means it's been cancelled and taken off an envelope." The values, he explained, "are assuming the stamp is in good condition. If it's torn or creased, it's worth less."
The catalog also includes the perforation measurement. "That means the number of teeth along the edge of the stamp in a 20-millimeter length. Stamp collectors use a perforation gauge to measure this, since the same stamp will sometimes have been released with different perforation measurements. Back in 1908, the U.S. had a stamp that was Perf 12, but the sheets came apart too easily. They changed it to a Perf 10, but the sheets were too hard to tear apart. So they moved to a Perf 11, which seems to be ideal." And the differences are part of what keeps the collecting interesting.
I knew Liam would start dreaming about super-valuable stamps like the ones in Charade , so I asked Keene about them. "Most stamps are probably in the 'few cents' category. But they can go up. There are rare stamps worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still, there's a big bridge between inexpensive and even medium-expensive stamps. We rarely run into stamps that are even $100-$200 . Supply and demand determines the price. You could have a stamp from a country that hardly anybody collects, and even if there were only 1000 ever made, it might be worth only $4-$5 . But a popular stamp might be worth $30-$500 , even if 100,000 were made."
Subject matter also helps dictate price. "There's a set of stamps from the '30s showing the Graf Zeppelin. The U.S. issued them in a $.65 , a $1.30 , and a $2.60 stamp. There are probably 35,000 to 45,000 complete sets, and they get $1500 to $2000 ," because people want them. "Airships were a popular subject, and they've stayed popular with the stamp-collecting public, even after everybody else forgot about them. The two most popular subjects for collecting now are trains and birds." These days, said Keene, "What a lot of countries are doing is issuing sheets of 10 or 20 stamps that have four or six different pictures on them per sheet. They do a lot of topical things, like dinosaurs or flowers. Even poor countries put out gaudy stuff like that, and it's just to get collectors' money."