ST. PETERSBURG — On a gray Saturday morning, bar employees wheeled carts through an alley, readying for pool partyers at the Hollander Hotel. But next door, a different kind of social hour was taking shape.
The true stamp believers shuffled into Trinity Lutheran Church, down a basement hallway and through a door bearing a small, wooden plaque:
St. Petersburg Stamp Club. 100 years. 1923-2023.
The big headline here, as you can see, is that the stamp club recently turned 100. It’s exciting when anything survives a century, so the club celebrated with a banquet.
“It was in all the publications,” a member interjected across the basement.
Stamps? Most people in 2023 don’t pay much attention to them, myself included. If we even get snail mail, the stamp is an afterthought, a mere transaction. We all have that forgotten roll of American flag squares nestled up against three old buttons and a coupon for dry cleaning in the back of a kitchen drawer.
And yet, the 100 members of the St. Petersburg Stamp Club do not see stamps in such a cavalier way. These licky, sticky bits of paper are a reason to slow down in a hyperactive world. They’re a gateway to history, art, nature, politics. They showcase every idiosyncrasy of existence!
Under the glare of a magnifying glass, stamps offer a precious square centimeter of understanding.
The members toted puffy Ziploc bags bursting with hundreds of stamps purchased from dealers. They lugged heavy binders with protective plastic sheeting.
Mushrooms from the Italian microstate of San Marino in 1967? Present. An illustration of the Asiatic and Australasian Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions at Beijing, 1949? You bet. Egyptian god of the moon Thoth carving the name of King Fuad, 1925? Mmhmm.
“There was a port that he named after himself,” said Gary Baker of the king, flipping through his Egypt collection. “So, he had these special stamps designed. … Let me move it over a little bit so you can see.” He gently lifted a plastic flap. “And he only had 1,500 of this stamp made.”
Up to six times a month, members meet in this basement, which only looks small to an interloper. It’s actually the largest philatelic library in the Southeast, the members say, filled with books on stamps’ value, forgeries, history. Philately, of course, is the study of stamps, information you can now take to trivia night.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Stamp collecting hails from a different time. The 100 members are mostly in their 70s and 80s, save for vice president Adam Pettesch at 42. Collectors are overwhelmingly male, though the club is proud to have 10 or 15 women. Most aficionados roll their eyes at modern stamps with their pixelated art and sticker backs. Interest plummets for stamps created after 1980.
“We think that they all should be the way they used to because we’re all fuddy-duddies,” said president Joe Chinnici, who talked to me on the phone for more than an hour on a different day.
The personality traits of a stamp collector transcend age. A little obsessive, a stickler for order. Curious, intellectual. The type of person who will marry a patient spouse and fill a spare bedroom with binders. A bit insatiable, maybe? They’re chasing the rush that comes with filling vacant slots in a stamp album.
“Do you feel a …” I started to ask member Bill Zuben.
“Certain way when you finish the page?” he finished. “Oh, yes. It’s just like being in love. The search is the real thrill.”
Some stamps are white whales, monetarily speaking, and Chinnici can tell you all about them. But really, when it comes to achieving stamp bliss, there are no rules.
This is the most charming and relatable facet of stamp club: the exhilaration of unearthing an obsession. Our obsessions help us make sense of who we are in the world, whether that’s framed in Italian race cars or heirloom tomato care or Star Wars figurines or Phillies baseball stats.
And the special thing about obsessions is that they almost always lead us to the people who share them.
“This is a social group,” said Chinnici. “That’s what people miss if they only buy their stamps using the internet. Who are they going to show this to? Who are they going to talk to about stamps and get information they might otherwise not get about history and geography and things that happened in this world?”
For example, Chinnici collects stamps postmarked on his birthday, Oct. 12. Even better if it’s from 1943. His friends know this and save those for him.
Or, now that Baker is almost done with his Egypt collection, he is moving on to …
“I found an obelisk!” someone called to him across the room.
After coffee and chitchat, it was time for the treasure hunt. The stamp authorities affixed reading glasses and pulled long tweezers from briefcases. Members pay 3 cents apiece for stamps from the bag from the dealer, honor system. That money pays for more stamps, and the cycle starts over.
“I like birds,” said Glady Kaufman, fishing a stamp out of the pile. “This is one from Angola. It’s a skimmer. We have things we like, but I collect the world, because the whole world is so interesting.”
Next to her, Robert Holmes found a Black Capped Kingfisher from Hong Kong, wings raised, inky postal marks ringing its beak. Valuable? Depends.
“Hey, Glady,” he said. “I found you a bird.”
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.