Local stamp collectors thrilled by window into history


63,860. That’s how many stamps Jim Shriver, 88, has in his vast collection.

“I started an Excel file to keep track,” Shriver said. “About 40,000 of those are individual stamps.”

He later added: “I thought I had a lot, but I’ve talked with guys who have 150,000, even 200,000 stamps.”

Shriver began collecting to earn a Boy Scout merit badge nearly 80 years ago. Soon after, he was hooked. He would even dig through bins of opened envelopes outside the post office in hopes of finding rare stamps.

He still has the album with that scrounged postage, along with many others.

Shriver is part of the Encinitas Stamp Club, which meets at 10 a.m. every first Wednesday at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center. Members swap stories and show off their collections, and newcomers are welcome to join.

Shriver enjoys the hobby because stamps offer a window into another time, often reflecting historical moments or notable figures.

Fellow philatelist Steve Ellis agreed, saying stamp collecting is “a tremendous way to learn about history.”

As an example, collectors prize 1920s German stamps because they depict that nation’s snowballing inflation. The basic letter rate was 2 German marks in January 1922. The rate jumped to 75,000 marks 18 months later and just kept climbing.

American stamps, collectors say, reflect the nation’s milestones and popular culture throughout various periods, perhaps more than other nations.

Ellis, a Leucadia resident, is especially fond of 1800s Australian stamps.

“Through researching a stamp from Victoria, I’ve learned about the gold rush there, the economy during the gold rush and all these other fascinating pieces,” he said.

Ellis even credits stamps with helping his reading skills.

“I wanted to identify stamps. I had to teach myself to read or quit stamp collecting,” he recalled.

“It paid off — by sixth grade, I was told I could read at a college level.”

While still popular in many circles, stamp collecting seems to be a dying hobby, club members acknowledged. Indeed, the American Philatelic Society estimates most collectors are in their 50s or 60s.

With the rise of the Internet and instant communication, ink, envelopes and postage aren’t as relevant to young people, Ellis said. And because stamped postage isn’t as common, it’s increasingly difficult to start a collection by hunting for free stamps in bins or other places.

But he’d like the club to eventually tour local elementary schools with the aim of sparking new interest.

“Collectors have to take the time to instill the fascination in kids,” Ellis said.

If nothing else, he said the value of the stamps should impress youngsters, and that alone might get a few to take up the hobby.

“There aren’t many commodities where you can have a million dollars in your shirt pocket without people noticing,” Ellis said.

Unlike baseball cards and other collectibles, the condition of stamps doesn’t necessarily play a large role in their value. Rarity and age are the name of the game.

Recently, a 1-cent postage stamp from a 19th-century British colony in South America sold for $9.5 million at auction, despite its clipped corners. It was the fourth time the stamp had broken the auction record for a single stamp.

“People will spend millions to restore paintings,” said member Richard Hilton. “In stamp collecting, that’s a no-no. The idea is just to preserve it.”

Hilton, like many baby boomers, collected as a kid and returned to the hobby later in life. He even started a side business on eBay buying and selling stamps.

However, he, too, worries that stamp collecting will fade away.

“If it’s dying, it’s a deferred death,” said Hilton, an Encinitas resident. “There’s a lot of older people who got reacquainted with it online. What worries me is once the baby boomers go, then you’re on to the Gen-Xers, who were never really collectors in the first place.”

He added: “Optimistically, it makes a comeback, but I’m not so sure.”