Living the Postcard Life: To bay … or not to bay

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Illus. 1: World of the Jewish Postcard (AKA Mir Evreiskoi Pochtovoi Otkrytki), Dom, House of Jewish Books, Moscow.


(Originally published April 2008.)

To buy or not to buy would be more accurate. Puns aplenty, but the fun for many seems to be waning. The World Wide Web’s immensely popular and awesomely immense 24/7 flea-and-everything-else market has initiated changes to its SOP that some addicts claim as all messed up. Yes, it’s eBay about which I’m driveling.

It was more than ten years ago that I signed on and sold a few cards for a friend before online auctions had reached his country. Since then, all my transactions have been purchases. I did get burned once, for a grand total of $6, but did not leave a negative evaluation. Nor have I ever been given one. It’s been a friendly decade – “fast and friendly” as the feedback I leave often reads. I have gotten some great cards, some good deals, and paid a bit too much on occasion. I have no complaints, but still, there seems to be a pall over the site lately. Judging by the muttering and sniveling I hear from other eBayers, I am far from the only one who misses the cheerful buyer- and seller-friendly site that it used to be.

What’s happened? EBay has grown up, and we’ve grown jaded. We were spoiled for too long by the innocence of the early years when looking for postcards online was a family affair, much like postcard shows had been. Most dealers were also collectors, and many collectors dabbled at dealing from time to time. We understood each other fairly well, and were in it for a bit of business and a lot of fun. As eBay grew in popularity and became a publicly owned enterprise, the prophets of profit gained power and eventually control. It had to be powerful and profitable to survive and grow, and like all else in the cyberworld, k’s became megs then gigs and on through terms that hint at unimaginable size and speed. EBay will remain a major online enterprise, but it has already weakened its hold on postcarders as more and more collectors and dealers drift to other collecting sites. Chief among those is Delcampe; Belgian based but with international and several country specific sites. It, such as low key family-like www.Playle.com headquartered in Iowa, got its start with postcards and related collectibles.

Enough about eBay, well almost. Picture Postcard Monthly, the British magazine, ran a brief story on “An eBay Hunting Adventure” in its March issue. Michael Haukeller wrote that he had been bumbling around the auction site and came across an extremely nice Art Nouveau card that he knew to be very rare. It was not accurately described and had a low opening bid. Michael felt he had a good chance to snag the beauty as it was not “German Secession Poster Art,” as its description read. He lay low and watched this grossly underpriced £1000 Kolomon Moser “Ver” Sacrum card as it drew close to its final day. Noticing where two earlier bidders were located and assuming the unlikelyhood of their having a chance to rebid, Michael made his move on midnight before the close. Four hours before close he raised his bid, “just to be sure.” Thirty minutes to go, and he upped it again, and he was well in the lead. A minute before closing he was second; a few seconds later the next offer was almost three times his maximum, and the sale closed (finally!) another $100 higher still.

It’s a typical online auction tale that is a tribute to bidding programs that allow you to leave a bid that will be placed in the closing seconds of an auction. It is also an alert to the new eBay policy of not revealing any bidder names on any of its auctions. No longer can one know or guess who placed competing bids, nor even from what country they came. If you are not an eBayer it is unimportant, but if you are, it is one more mark of the growing blandness and impersonal anonymity of the world’s largest auction.

The World of the Jewish Postcard (AKA Mir Evreiskoi Pochtovoi Otkrytki) has been published by Dom, House of Jewish Books in Moscow. (Illus 1) It has been available on line from Panorama of Russia, www.panrus.com, 617 625-3635, but is currently marked “temporarily out of stock.” If you are a Judaica collector, this book should be known to you. It is a catalog of 306 of the about 325 postcards published by Lebanon in Russia and Eastern Europe a century ago. The cards are from the collection of friend and fellow San Francisco club member, Boris Rozenfeld. Although in Russian, it is a valuable reference for collectors. Boris, to our sorrow, died suddenly in February.

mermaids postcardPOSTCARDS IN PERIL? An article with that title, less the question mark appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of months ago and was quickly distributed to postcarders throughout the continent. Sherry Wickwire, the author, talked with shop owners, publishers, publisher trade organizations and potential postcard users and determined that cell phones with their instant photo shoot-and-send capability and images attached to email have cut deeply into the need and desire for postcards to be used as communication. The story both lowered my spirits and got my dander up. She’s not a postcard person; what’s she talking about? I went on a research expedition of my own to a variety of stores that sell postcards as stationery or tourist items, and I saw lots of cards. I also saw lots of empty or partially filled slots and many twirly racks holding maps and tourist trash, but few postcards. Could it be true? I called Ken Brown, an artist-publisher-distributor in New York City. [Ill. 2] “It is true,” he told me. There is little demand for postcards right now, he explained, adding that he had not printed new stock in over a year and that he had adequate inventory on hand. When he does print, it will be only to fill orders. It’s true for the big publishers of artistic cards, too, he said.

Next, I went to suburban and city bookstores and saw in each one several well stocked racks of postcards. Most prominent was the extensive and growing line of cards from Pomegranate, especially their Edward Gorey designs. Most attractive and intriguing were the sets of vintage card repros published by Cavallini Paper, each packaged in a very nifty keepsake metal box. So there is hope for postcards’ survival. It’s just not where we are used to looking.

And many of the publishers are responsible for the lack of interest in their cards. Poorly composed photos overlaid with glaring and ugly graphics do not attract many buyers. Make cards unnaturally large so that a postcard stamp will no longer pay the postage and even fewer people will buy. But people around the world are used to using postcards and will continue to do so if they are offered attractive cards at affordable prices. (By the time you read this it will cost 27¢ to mail a postcard.)

Ms. Wickwire was a guest at our SF club meeting in March. I had planned on confronting her with a rebuttal to the premise of her article. I didn’t have the chance. We shook hands and smiled after she had seen some of the exhibits and cards for sale, and she said, “This is wonderful!…It’s people like you who can save postcards.”

NEW FROM RICK: Here’s the latest from Rick Geary for his new home town, Carrizozo, N.M. Want one? Visit www.rickgeary.com. [Ill. 3]

PLENTY OF GOOD NEWS: How about the 60th anniversary celebration for Richard and Anita Novick? That’s a mighty high number considering the 1948 date was delayed by college and military service. Richard was a longtime in-person dealer at East Coast shows. Now he’s an online dealer offering cards, memories and avuncular knowledge on several discussion group lists. … Or how about John Margolies’ archive of his photos, postcards and ephemera recording America’s built environment starting on its way to the Library of Congress? Congratz to all!

AARP, The Magazine
ran a story in the March/April issue on understanding the collecting urge. Mustard, dolls, even postcards (at Brimfield) are mentioned in the article which concluded with why people collect certain items is “because they love them.” We all knew that! But I was struck by the range of collectibles and how special postcards are among them. Whatever one collects, there is much to learn about the items, their meaning and history. But with postcards each image is a window into a universe of discovery. Every postcard brings with it a starburst of information that grows and intensifies a collector’s love and desire to know more. But, hey!… I’m preaching to the choir.

A packet of near vintage cards came my way recently. Among them were several linoleum block designs issued by Ann Rusnak in her “Newsviews” series of the 1980s. Acid rain and AIDS were featured as were political philanderers: “Gary (Hart) wanted it all!” amid red heart bubbles of moolah, party girls and the White House. 5 Rusnak stock market lino cut postcardAnn’s emanation that recorded the financial crisis of 1987 seems more appropriate to these pages. [Ill. 4] … I also stumbled upon one of my choice chromes, in the spirit of the most sought after real photos: A fire breathing pair of Belgian horses pulling a wagon covered with elaborate signage for Yuengling (America’s Oldest) Brewery. They had no postcards at the brewery in Pottsville, Pa., when we were there in 1990, but I found this card a few days later at the Morlatton Show in Lancaster (25¢) [Ill. 5] … The day after I put this card in our SF club newsletter (see all issues at www.postcard.org) the Twin Cities’ club bulletin arrived with John Cole’s story on traveling salesmen postcards. John tells about William Newton, Red Wing, Minn., “knight of the grip,” AKA traveling salesman, who was also a part time cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Minneapolis papers. A 1904 book introduced his Billy Prune character, and he made cards for traveling salesmen to write on or overprint as needed. Judging by the drawing style and image placement, not to mention the M&R Red Wing stamp box, this card has gotta be one of Newton’s creations. The timing coincidence has turned an OK card into a fascinating bit of postcard history and given two acquaintances half a continent apart a touchstone for solidifying their friendship. [Ill. 6] Now isn’t that what a hobby is all about?

LAST WORDS: From the Billy Graham Crusade! (Thanks to Larry Nix.) The first monthly online exhibit from their archives is evangelical postcards—and humorous, at that. See them at www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/bulletin/bulletin.htm

Share your postcard comments! Write Postcard Life, PO Box 621, Penngrove CA 94951 or editor@postcard.org.

More Images:

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Illus 5: Brewery wagon postcard.
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Illus. 6: Billy Prune salesman postcard.
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Illus. 3: Rick Geary Carrizozo, N.M. postcard.

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