Living the Postcard Life: Travelin’ On

(Originally published February 2008.)

The new year caught me quite unaware. ’Ought seven ended with a visit to the Dickens Fair, the Edwardian era folderol that fills the four San Francisco weekends before Christmas. It has two postcard connections: 1) tableaux vivants bringing an old man’s reveries of scantily clad housemaids to unmoving life, à la bawdy Golden Age French postcards, and 2) A Partridge in a Pear Tree performed in English music hall style with, again, “feelthy” postcard-inspired changes, especially to the drawn out five g-o-o-o-ld rings line. Next thing I knew I was unwrapping presents, sweeping up serpentine and opening a summons for jury duty in federal court. If this column is unexpectedly truncated it will have been severed in the cause of justice.

Political collectors alert! The Museum of the City of New York will be displaying political treasures in June. The Wright Collection (which was featured online by the New York Times) has been growing since Jordan Wright, then a boy, now a lawyer, pocketed a handful of Bobby Kennedy buttons in 1968. Today his collection numbers around 1 million items. No postcards were mentioned in the Times piece, but I’ll bet there are a few lurking here and there. To quote one politically oriented friend who read about the exhibit: “One of the joys of postcard collecting is cards don’t take up much space and are easy to display.

Back to the travelogue: After farewells to show friends and downing a multinational smorgasbord lunch at the Dillons Market food court, we left Wichita and headed east. A couple of hours later we turned onto a country road and wove through rolling hills. A brief detour showed us an unemployed industrial town, and then we crossed the wide Missouri and made our way toward St. Joseph. We couldn’t ignore a beckoning “antiques – used goods – flea market” sign, and, delayed an hour, we reached the outskirts and vintage fringe of our destination.

St. Joseph is a fascinating town and well worth a visit. It is perhaps best known as the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, a private business that in 1860 and ’61 rushed mail between St. Joe and Sacramento, Calif., on horseback. Faster than stagecoach, it was made obsolete by the transcontinental telegraph. The Pony Express Museum with its historical exhibits is housed in the original brick stables in an old part of the city. Another and most unusual museum is the Glore Psychiatric Museum in a hospital once used for the mentally ill. Several floors hold exhibits on the care of patients and attempted cures, [Ill. #1] and a postcard shows a framed arrangement of 1446 hardware items removed from a patient’s stomach in 1929. [Ill. #2]

Much of St. Joseph is old. Homes, ranging from workers’ wooden shacks to mansions of finely cut stone, ramble up and over the hillsides. Some venerable commercial buildings have been refurbished and put to new uses, others crumble as they await preservationists or demolition. Downtown there are veins of activity running through blocks of seemingly deserted, century old office and commercial buildings. In the basement of one of those buildings is Felix Street Postcards [Ill. #3]

Cole Woodbury has lived in St. Joe all of his life and for much of that time has collected historic remnants of the town. His five story building – originally a dry goods store built in 1881 – is one of those relics. Its ornate facade was covered with a stucco shroud during a modernization phase the business district endured decades ago. Beneath its drab covering which Cole is eager to remove, the building’s elegant detailing is still intact. Cole’s plans are to work his way, floor by floor, restoring and reusing: commercial retail on the ground floor, residential for him and his family on the floors above, with plenty of space for his postcard shop and historic exhibits. Cole’s eyes grow dreamy as he talks of his plans and drifts into tales of his city’s past.

The current postcard shop is a 50-foot by 20-foot wood paneled room a few feet below street level. Along the upper walls are mounted large letter linens in a wavy arrangement echoing the hills and vales of western Missouri. Boxes of auto postcards – 200,000 of them slated for www sales – are stacked at one end of the room, and tables covered with more postcard boxes belonging to other dealers fill the open space. Cole’s own cards, on two tables, had once filled several more, but his best sales stock was stolen from his van a year ago; he is conscientiously rebuilding it. If you come near St. Joseph, plan on spending a few hours at Felix Street Postcards, 816 364-3717. (Dining tip: Lunch at The Cabbage Roll, 27th and Lafayette.)

The Lyn Knight Postcard Auction was the final stop on our Midwest junket. The highway lead us south into a web of freeways that circle and crisscross the Kansas City megalopolis. We kept to the west and took the Lenexa turnoff, a mile from Lyn Knight’s offices and showrooms. The building feels light and airy and is set in parklike grounds with sculpture gardens front and rear. The inside is spacious. A large exhibit area also serves as venue for buffet dining on days of major sales. Beyond it is a smaller viewing room with swivel chairs and wrap around counter for easy viewing and inventory control. Don’t forget that the firm’s main business is high value currency sales. The seats in the sales gallery are comfortable, the PA system clear and audible, and the video projection of current lots and results is large and easy to follow.

We arrived the day before the two day sale and were able to spend a few hours viewing cards that might belong in our collections. Found plenty plus many other enticing postcards. The message on one in a box of Liner Interiors made me choke up a bit: “On the Atlantic, 600 mi/day. The ship is painted black – the funnels have been changed from red to black. We travel at night with no pilot lights and with interior lights concealed. There are over 3,000 people on board.” Postmark: 10/6/14. Caption: Cafe, Lusitania and Mauretania.

Although Lyn’s business relies on big ticket currency sales, he is a true postcard appreciator. “I was first attracted to those silly embossed flowers over 30 years ago,” he told me. Now it’s the whole run of topics. Postcards are a family affair – old folks, young… it doesn’t matter. There are cards for everyone. You can look all day at a show and spend $10, or you can come here and spend as much as you like,” he said as we walked down a hallway lined with framed, full size Rock and Roll posters.

At 9:45 the next morning there were about 35 people in the bidding audience, heavy to dealers. Lyn’s son, Eric, announced corrections to the catalog, and Lyn welcomed us all. Eric took over again and worked quickly through the lots in his calm and friendly voice. It seemed that about 60 percent went to bidders not on the floor who had mailed in early bids or were on the phone or bidding on eBay in real time. Complex? Yes! And also pleasantly efficient. Janet and I had our paddle ready for one nice lot of cards for which we’d set a limit of $125. Thanks to mail in bids I didn’t have to strain my arm raising it. The lot opened at $440. It was lunch time, and we left a bid for a lot in the second day’s sale. On the way out Jim Taylor, now a Lyn Knight representative, told us of the “pro-collector” changes Lyn has in mind – including, perhaps, weekly online sales.

Lunch in Kansas City is a lasting memory that has been renewed on several occasions. To me KC = BBQ = Arthur Bryant’s. Double checking the address in the phone book I learned that the restaurant had sprouted several new branches; we chose the fun, busy, smokey original on Brooklyn Street. The building had not changed noticeably, but the sauce, signs and prices had all been slightly transformed since our last meal there. If they had had postcards a decade ago, I would have dipped one in the sauce to keep memory and aroma together. A few blocks away, at 18th and Vine, we found the Jazz Museum along with the Blue Note night club and Black Baseball Museum. All were, like Arthur Bryant’s, friendly, fascinating and postcard poor.

At home the next day an email from Lyn Knight Postcard Auctions was waiting. The bid we had left was a winner! I paid by PayPal, and the well packaged cards arrived two days later.

WRITE NOW: Edouard Pécourt has been fighting bravely against the disease that has invaded his body. It is a tough enemy, and an encouraging word from his old time friends and fellow postcarders would boost his, and Jocelyn’s, courage. Write, soon, to PO Box 22223, Portland, OR 97269.

A few days ago at the California Capitol Show in Sacramento I heard the bad news about a strong-arm robbery and was reminded of Cole Woodbury’s tale of his loss. Cole had parked in a motel lot near the freeway. When he came down in the morning his entire show stock was gone. He was devastated but relieved because the cards were fully insured. He was far more distraught – and darned mad – when the insurer reneged on its agent’s promise of complete coverage. He has since changed insurance agents and offers these tips to dealers to help prevent other robberies: Pay attention while driving. Is someone following you? Turn off the highway and then back on to check. Take your cards into the room, or if you’re lazy, take just the boxes of your best cards.

LOTSA WORDS, too few postcards: Our winter vacations often take us to the Arizona dessert and Lake Havasu City where we see inflatable speed boats and water skiers zip around London Bridge. It was moved, stone by stone, from the River Thames and reassembled. The McCulloch Corporation execs supposedly thought they were buying the ornate Tower Bridge and were surprised when this low lying arched stone crossing arrived. We see it here during construction in 1970. The $2.46 million has long since been spent by the British, but the bridge remains across Lake Havasu. [Ill. #4]

The back of a card is occasionally as satisfying as the front. Here’s what Janet found on the verso of a map of Portland Head and the Gulf of Maine. [Ill. #5]

We all know what Mucha’s Waverley Bicycle card looks like, so I won’t show you the one just added to my collection. It’s a full size continental – not the much smaller vintage view of the pensive beauty – issued as a promo for Swann Auction Galleries’ recent sale of Important Art Nouveau Posters. Yes, I would prefer an original, but my vision does better with the larger, clearer modern.

Love that reader mail! Especially when it’s a homemade add on like this autumn leaf adorned postal card from Roger Titus in Dunsmuir, Calif. [Ill. #6] Roger noted that he enjoyed this column and that Destinations Magazine published his story on “How Trolleys and Postcards Helped Create the Southern California Dream 1898-1950s.”

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