Hello and welcome to the new occasional segment I just decided to launch! Here’s how it works: you ask ‘What the…?’ and then I explain a thing. Got that? Great.
So a few years back I joined a local philatelic society. A stamp club. I hadn’t been in a stamp club since primary school, and it’s not something I mention to my normal friends, because we all know how it sounds (except for people who join stamp clubs, many of whom do not realize how it sounds). I also joined the club’s circuit book list.
Stop right there! “Circuit books” – What the…?
Circuit books (also known as exchange books or club books) are an endearing remnant of real ye-oldey-timey stamp collecting. They’re scrapbooks full of stamps and other philatelic material for sale, generally owned by small-time collectors. This is how eBay worked before the internet.
Vendors with lots of time on their hands compile sheets full of stuff they want to sell, annotated by how much they want. Those sheets are compiled into books. Those books are passed around from club to club, and from member to member. Let me take you through my latest delivery, complete with images. (The pics are wonky because of the curves of the pages. The bad lighting is totally my fault.)
An honesty system prevails: you get the books, you take the stuff you want, you pass the books onto the next member on the list, and you send the money to the coordinator of the circuit books. The cash finds its way back to the seller of the stamps, usually with a commission taken by the clubs facilitating the arrangement. (Their commercial siblings, ‘approval books’, are compiled by dealers to send to clients, and they pretty much work the same way.)
Circuit books have some charming differences to buying online. There are no menus, so you don’t know what lies in wait as you turn each page. If you’re thinking of buying an item, you’re looking at the item, not at a scan or a description.
And, best of all, circuit books can be cheap as! Only an idiot would go to all the hassle of affixing unwanted material into a circuit book sheet and then ask a price for it that makes it impossible to shift.
If there’s one big drawback, it’s that stamp hinges are still very much in vogue in this world. Some compilers will (thankfully) go to the trouble of sticking in stamp panes for stamps to sit in, but you can safely assume (at least in my neck of the woods) that much of the used material, and a good deal of the mint, will come with this remnant of the olden days attached.
To be honest, when I signed up for the circuit books, I didn’t think I’d have much use for them. I already have a cupboard full of stuff I need to offload. And what I AM still buying, doesn’t show up much in circuit books.
At first, that held true. There was lots of trawling through pages of low-value definitives, or worthless wallpaper stamps from the third world. Who could have known that Tanzania was so into the Winter Olympics?
But someone, somewhere, collects that. And anyway, you can also regularly feast your eyes on spectacular issues that wouldn’t normally cross your path. This one celebrating the 3rd anniversary of Ghana’s independence really caught my eye, with its joyful designs and vivid (for 1960) colours.
I turned another page, and this 1990 Papua New Guinea Gogodala dance mask set took my breath away. So gorgeous I nearly took up PNG collecting on the spot. (I’ve done a great job of washing out the colours.)
I do have one fun little side-collection that scores regular hits in these circuit books: the Holiday Collection. Stamps depicting locations I’ve been to. You know postcards, right? Like that, but on stamps. Not just from countries I’ve been to – that’s too easy. The rule is, I must have beheld the depicted landscape, edifice or artifact with my very eyes.
And what do we have here? A 1971 Singapore 50c ASEAN Tourism stamp depicting the Marina Bay waterfront! (I said that like I knew that stamp existed. But I didn’t. Not until I turned the page and immediately recognized the scene. It’s changed a bit since 1971. Way more skyscrapers.) That’s what’s fun about this collection. Suddenly I’m back there, on a humid Singapore night, surveying the colonialist majesty of the Fullerton as I chow down on a chicken rice at Gluttons Bay. Mmmmm, chicken rice.
Page turn, and we’re in the UK. I love modern British stamps and I’ll own them all one day, but not by buying them one-by-one from circuit books. I’ll buy some dead guy’s whole collection at a thrift shop for five bucks when I’m the only stamp collector left alive. In the meantime, circuit books give me a chance to window-shop. Hang on… nearly missed this. In the middle there. Is that… an ancient fire engine?
A while back, I just decided that I like stamps with fire engines on them. It’s not an official thematic collection, that would be too much effort. It’s just… I have a page of fire engine stamps, OK? Get off my back.
It took a few minutes of wrestling with adhesive tape while not destroying the whole page, but I’ve earned my reward. All bundled up together, it’s the 1974 Bicentenary of Fire Prevention issue. Let that be a lesson to you, circuit book vendors… too much efficiency with your display, and you might miss a sale. At least put the most eye-catching stamp at the front of the bunch.
Post script: the same set showed up a few pages later, all four stamps laid out and easily seen. Same price. Phew!
There’s a third reason I sometimes yank something out of these circuit books: the lure of tiny profit, when I find something that I reckon I could get more for. These books are compiled by amateurs, selling stuff they’re not interested in rather than the stuff they know, so there’s always a chance of discovering a sweet nugget for a good price. The dream thousand-dollar rarity hasn’t shown up yet. But a misidentified variety, or an aerogram that was stuck into the book at a ten-year-old catalogue price of $20, which might be worth $70 by the time it gets around to me… yarrr, even if I get $30 for it, there be ten bucks for Punk to spend on fire truck stamps. Woohoo!
So it turns out my initial skepticism was wrong. I DO find things I want in circuit books… because – and here’s the twist – when I signed up to the list, I didn’t actually have a Holiday Collection or a thing for fire engines. They were inspired by the regular practice of leafing through these books and being reminded of the simple pleasure of exploring the world through stamps. It’s a childlike thing to write, but it’s also a childlike thing to experience, and it’s something I’d forgotten in my pursuit of grown-up philatelic goals.
When a new batch of circuit books turns up at the doorstep, it can be challenge to put to one side the life of an average, flustered member of the full-time 21st century workforce and find the couple of hours it will take me to get through them, but I always make it happen. On a cosy, rainy afternoon, pass me a circuit book and a few catalogues, pour me a glass of something nice and let me settle in for my semi-regular dose of zen.
Postscript: two months after I wrote this piece, I came across the same Ghana set, mint, in another circuit book. I loved seeing them again. I took them (for 20 cents less than the lot above). I guess I collect Ghana now.
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