Terms & Tips

Philatelic Terms & Tips #1: Accessories

As an English As A Foreign Language (EFL) teacher in southern Thailand, I usually explain that one of the main requirements of a hobby is that some sort of equipment is used. I often need to explain that sleeping is not a hobby although most of my students insist it is their favorite free-time activity. Hobbies are actually a diverse set of activities and it is difficult to categorize them in a logical manner. A recent study by Robert Stebbins categorizes casual leisure and serious leisure by dividing hobbyists into five broad types of activity: collecting, making and tinkering (like embroidery and car restoration), activity participation (like fishing and singing), sports and games, and liberal-arts hobbies (like languages, cuisine, literature).

As we all are aware, collecting includes seeking, locating, acquiring, organizing, cataloging, displaying and storing. This is appealing to many people due to their interest in a particular subject and a desire to categorize and make order out of complexity.

Collecting stamps has its own unique pieces of equipment needed in the pursuit of our hobby. We call these ACCESSORIES. Some accessories are used in varying degrees by all stamp collectors while others may never be used at all by the majority.

A few basic accessories are needed to collect stamps. Tongs are non-striated tweezers used because they are a reliable way to hold and move stamps without damaging or getting skin oils on them. Collectors have a choice in how to store their stamps, many opting for stamp albums using either stamp hinges or more expensive hingeless mounts, while others use stock books which hold stamps in clear pockets without the need for a mount. Magnifiers — either the traditional handheld magnifying glass or the modern digital counterparts — aid in viewing fine details. Other accessories aid in the proper identification of stamps including perforation gauges, watermark detectors, color charts, and UV lamps used to determine tagging varieties. Catalogues and philatelic literature can also be regarded as accessories. Each of these will have their own article in the “Philatelic Terms & Tips” blog series.

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General Pursuits

The Shipping Dilemma

Living as I do in southern Thailand, the only stamps I can buy locally are new issues from the local post office.  There is not a single stamp shop on the island where I live.  While there are still a few stamp shops remaining in Bangkok, along with at least one large show each year, neither my schedule or budget offer many opportunities for travel to the capital.  Thus, the vast majority of my my collection is built up through online purchases, primarily via eBay auctions.

thailand-stampThis means that I am constantly having to take into consideration the shipping costs of whatever stamps I want to bid on.  This is also the reason that I rarely purchase much-needed supplies such as catalogues or album binders and even things like mounts and stock books fall by the wayside.  While my inventory records only the base purchase price for each stamp, my philatelic-purchasing budget needs to factor in costs with shipping included.

Since I’m more or less a general worldwide collector but striving for A Stamp From Everywhere, the majority of my purchases are packets of mixed counties or larger regional lots.  In these purchases, I like to keep the per-stamp cost between two and ten cents.  Not only do I have to watch the bid amounts for deals but also the shipping costs.  It’s wonderful when I find a seller with many different items I want to bid on and can then combine postage.

I am a bit leery, however, of the increasing number of auctions that offer “free” international shipping.  Out of hundreds of items purchased via eBay, the only two that never arrived (and paid for on the same day) had touted free shipping — one in Canada, the other coming from Hong Kong.  After contacting the sellers, each offered to send a replacement.  Neither of those arrived.  Luckily, the items in question were both very inexpensive postcards so it was no great loss.  But still…

I have been very lucky with stamp purchases making it all the way (from all over the world) to Phuket, Thailand.  The average travel length is around three weeks to a month which isn’t too bad, all things considered.  Mail arrives much faster from the UK than anywhere else with Scandinavia and Germany coming closely behind.  Canada is way up there as well (usually) but the United States is definitely the slowest; I suspect the NSA has something to do with the slowness of the mail from America.  The odd thing is that once the stamps arrive in Bangkok, it takes up to eight days to reach me here in Phuket.  I haven’t quite figured out where the breakdown in service lies but I do know the postman whose route I’m on doesn’t get replaced when he goes on holiday!

I’ve decided that faster shipping methods aren’t really worth the additional expense.  Something sent “Priority Mail” or “Airmail” takes about the same time as those sent via “Surface Mail” (AKA, the slow boat method).  I’d just rather have more money to spend on the stamps themselves.  If something does come up missing, I can always request a refund and buy another copy of whatever stamps didn’t arrive.  I don’t buy very many unique items so that’s not really a problem.

At least it is possible to find good shipping costs on stamps if I spend enough time comparing between auctions.

Supplies are another matter altogether, particularly heavy items such as albums and catalogues (I’ve finally given up on album pages, deciding to download, design my own and then print out what I need when I need it).

A binder worthy of holding a stamp collection is extremely difficult to find here in Phuket.  There are a number of office supply stores around the island but it’s an exercise in frustration to simply find a three-ring binder and forget about four-ringed or more.  The vast majority have a pair of D-rings towards the center of the spine; I’d say these are spaced about 2 inches apart causing whatever they are holding to curve towards the center and to tear at the holes.  The few three-ring binders I’ve found are in cheap and ugly vinyl which is not exactly something I want to house my collection in.  Recently, I did find a “presentation notebook” of fake leather that looked okay but it was less than an inch wide and would probably hold no more than 15 or 20 pages and interleaving.

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Nope, I had to search online.  The problem with that, other than high shipping costs, was that it was difficult to tell the size of the albums and the quality.  I’d love to be able to afford Davo hingeless albums once again (I used to have several of these) but their already expensive base cost is compounded by an even more expensive shipping cost.  The same for other binders I’ve used before such as Scott Internationals and others.  In the midst of all this, I came across an auction at the beginning of May for a Stanley Gibbons Simplex album containing a worldwide collection.  Although not mentioned in the listing, the photos revealed that the stamps were mounted on pages from an old Scott Modern album which happened to be my first album, received on my tenth birthday from my mother who had collected using it during World War II.  The shipping cost was much more reasonable than I’d seen for similar items so I put in a bid and eventually won it.  Still awaiting it’s arrival from Ontario, Canada, and wondering if Thai Customs will try to bilk me out of some more baht when it arrives.

$_3-1My next heavy-to-ship target involves catalogues.  I have a 2009 version of Scott on PDF plus the Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth 1840-1952 catalogue in the same format.  I have an older Thai catalogue which I plan to replace soon as well as recent editions of the Stanley Gibbons Collect British Stamps and Michel Junior.  I’d really love to obtain the latest edition of the Scott Classic 1840-1940 in hardcover but I may have to dream a while longer for that one.  I also need to forget about adding any of the great philatelic literature that exists for subjects I’m most interested in. 

The shipping dilemma also makes the joining of philatelic societies a little iffy.  I really like those that offer a PDF version of their journals for overseas members as this really does (usually) cuts down on the annual membership dues.  But there are many who continue to have just a physical form of their journal (don’t get me wrong — I prefer to read a real book or magazine much more than via Adobe Acrobat Reader or similar) and the membership costs skyrocket as a result.

On the plus side, most of my stamp purchases arrive in envelopes covered with interesting stamps, many of which are eventually soaked and added into my collection with a few choice covers left intact.

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Happy Collecting.