Our recent encounter with the North Head Light at Long Beach got me thinking about how much I have always loved lighthouses, and remembering my fascination for lighthouses put me in mind of a postage stamp.
I collected stamps when I was a kid. Someone gave me a Scott World Stamp Album for Christmas one year. It was organized by country and had places on its pages for common stamps, with a black and white photograph of each and a little description of it. Though I don’t exactly recall, a bag of “assorted commemorative stamps” was probably also included in the gift, maybe even as part of the album. I was instantly enthralled with the process of matching stamps to their place in the album, and I was a philatelist for years. Etymologically speaking, the word philately means “love of tax exemption”, but by convention it refers to the collection and study of stamps. To this day, I don’t think I have ever said this word aloud, not only because it sounds like an offense punishable by prison time, but also because I have always been unsure of which syllable gets emphasized.
What you were supposed to do was affix each stamp to its place on the page using a tiny folded “glassine” paper that you licked, and which was called a stamp hinge. It was a tricky operation, because once you licked it it wanted to stick to your fingers, and you had to get it placed on the back of the stamp and then place the stamp in the book just so, all before your lick expired. It was a maddening experience, but these little hinges were designed to adhere to the back of an unused stamp without compromising it. Before I knew this, I glued most of my first bag of stamps to their pictures with Elmer’s glue. Glueing stamps is a quick way to decrease their resale value to zero, which is antagonistic to the purpose of collecting them, or at least to one purpose. (My purpose as a kid was, now that I think about it, more direct and more purely about the stamps. I wanted them right here in my book, forever. There’s something kind of raw and good about children’s disregard for market value appreciation.) The few stamps that survived this philatelic holocaust were transferred carefully (with hinges) to my second book, the Minkus All American Stamp Album, a more thorough catalog of U.S. commemoratives in a hot-red vinyl notebook emblazoned with the American eagle carrying arrows and olive branches.
There was, and maybe still is, a man named John Kardos, who ran a little shop on Main Street in Bellevue called The Stamp Gallery. I went to The Stamp Gallery often with my Scott’s Stamp Prices book in hand. Mr. Kardos frightened me a little, but he treated each customer with great respect, including the gawky and bespectacled ten-year-old who came in to buy three stamps. He stood behind a glass-topped counter that had two or three tall stools in front of it. Under the glass were various colorful plates of stamps from around the world. I gathered they were rare. Sometimes I would have to wait a very long time because the customer ahead of me would be involved in a significant transaction that took half an hour or more. Sometimes Mr. Kardos was appraising someone’s collection and was explaining why this or that stamp or group of stamps would be worth this or that much. Sometimes a customer was simply loading up on plate blocks and it took a while.
Mr. Kardos gave his full attention to the present customer and did not rush anyone, while acknowledging other customers as they arrived under the tinkle of the little bell above the door. He gave stamp collecting the air of the most noble enterprise. He never laughed. He had a thick Eastern European accent. I think he was Hungarian. Hungary had the coolest stamps, I thought, because their own name for themselves was not Hungarians but Magyars, and their stamps said “Magyar Posta”. When I moved to North Carolina at age 11, I wrote to Mr. Kardos and he sent me stock sheets. He used stock sheets in his many ring-bound notebooks, not touristy little pages with photographs, which I began to understand were for lightweights. Stock sheets were blank slotted pages that you could put your stamps in in any arrangement you chose, so they demanded and assumed a measure of creativity and responsibility and knowledge. People who used stock sheets were organizing their collections, cataloguing their particular pathway through stampdom. Because you couldn’t collect everything. There was too much. You specialized in a country or two, or a theme (aviation, maybe), or maybe you collected coils, or numbered plate blocks or whole plates. Mr. Kardos also used tweezers called stamp tongs to take stamps out of the stock sheets and put them in. I began using tongs, too, but not faithfully. Two things Mr. Kardos never did: he never touched a stamp with his fingers (the oils in our hands, as you might guess, are hostile to the integrity of the paper) and, at least to my recollection, he never said “philately”, which makes me wonder if the word is pronounceable at all. Maybe no one says it. Maybe no one has ever said it.
There was a six-cent stamp that had an image of a New England lighthouse on it, and it turned out that the artist who painted that image later became a favorite of mine, Edward Hopper. We went and saw some of his paintings at the Seattle Art Museum last winter, though the exhibit was mostly assembled from his urban scenes depicting women at work or having coffee or looking out windows, and did not include any of his lighthouse paintings. When I first encountered Edward Hopper as an artist I felt an instant recognition of and love for the kind of light that inhabited the air in his paintings (see “Early Sunday Morning”). It was only recently that I realized that the lighthouse on that old Maine Statehood stamp was a Hopper lighthouse. I don’t know if I liked Hopper because I had this stamp when I was young, or whether I remembered this stamp simply because Hopper’s painting style so resonated with me.
I still have my stamp collection in an old crate. Since the Maine Statehood commemorative didn’t come out until 1970, and I think I was collecting as early as the late ’60s, there’s a good chance that my copy of this issue was safely placed in the second album with a stamp hinge. It’s probably worth two bits by now.
Since beginning this post I’ve discovered that The Stamp Gallery is still right where it was in one of the last little two-story, post-war, slap-dash buildings in Bellevue, and is still under the austere administration of Mr. John Kardos (here’s the website). I’d like to go back and visit him and ask him how the self-adhesive stamp has affected stamp collecting.
Anyway, as my own commemoration to an enduring fascination, I couldn’t resist posting just one more picture of the North Head Lighthouse. Click for big.