Circuit books: WTF?

Circuit book and catalogueHello and welcome to the new occasional segment I just decided to launch! Here’s how it works: you ask ‘WTF?’ 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. Circuit books (also known as 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 book Latin America
Anyone got a Latin American catalogue? I have no idea what I might have here

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 AF. 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 shit 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?

Tanzania 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics stamp set and miniature sheet

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.

Ghana 1960 3rd Anniversary of Independence stamp set

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.)Papua New Guinea 1990 Gogodala Dance Masks stamp set

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.

Singapore 1971 50c ASEAN Tourism Waterfront stamp

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?

Fire engine spotting

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.

UK 1974 Bicentenary of Fire Prevention stamp set

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.

Circuit bookWhen 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.

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© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities

Fondue is big this year

Switzerland 2018 Fondue CHF1 fondue caquelonSo I look away for one moment and suddenly everyone is putting fondue on their stamps. And by ‘everyone’ I mean mostly Switzerland, but also Jersey.

Switzerland can be forgiven. Fondue as a mainstream dish is a surprisingly recent development in cuisine, but it’s theirs, and it’s a thing of national pride. Back in the 1930s, sitting around dipping stale bread into a pot of melted cheese must have been a fun way to pass a cold Alpine evening while discussing in four languages how the nearby rise of fascism left you feeling completely neutral. Continue reading

The 12 Stamps of Christmas

UPDATE! I’ve added a couple of reader’s nominations to the bottom of the list! Read on…

It’s the 12th day of Christmas. The Christmas tree withers in the corner, unwatered for days. The batteries on the toys have expired. The gurgling remnants of Christmas lunch are in a fight to the death with New Year’s resolutions. So it’s the perfect time for me to give you my 12 Stamps of Christmas! After all, I am your true love.

As mail revenues continue to plummet, for the postal administrations of Christendom, Christmas offers one last chance to hear the bells jingling on their cash registers. (Do you know how many Christmas cards I got in the mail this year? None. That’s a first. It might be that I’ve been crossed off multiple lists. But I choose to blame The Pace of Change.)

So which countries brought their festive philatelic A-game in 2018? These are my favourites of the stamps that crossed my radar. Continue reading

A new year, a new Punk. Get drinking.

France 1938 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Dom Pierre Pérignon - Traditional Costume of Champagne 1.75F stamp

It’s not very often I get meta about blogging this blog, but indulge me for one New Year’s Eve post.

A naughty little secret has been hiding in plain sight for a while now, alluded to in the ‘Punk Philatelist Manifesto’ page. If you haven’t spotted it, prepare to have your MIND BLOWN. Continue reading

Stamp of the day: sunnie side up!

Australia 2011 Living Australian Little Man's Business and This Is So Relaxing 60c se-tenant pairSometimes you can see a stamp dozens of times without fully appreciating its majesty. I suppose you could say the same of any artwork, or building, or person. And then, for some reason, you happen to notice it in a certain light, or at a certain magnification, or across a cosy bar eight vodka and tonics into a Friday night, and your breath can be taken away.

This happy little issue came out in 2011. They called it ‘Living Australian’. Look at those Australians, just going about their lives all Australian-y and shit.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Best Friends and Embrace Friendship 60c se-tenant pair

I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention at the time, and I’ve only vaguely clocked them since. But when I saw this one cross my desk on the weekend – and I mean I really saw it – it filled me with joy.

Australia 2011 Living Australian Cricket at the Gabba 60c stamp

At first glance, it’s entirely possible to miss what’s going on. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t fully taken it in until now. Continue reading

Shoutout to StampShow 2018

USA 2018 Dragons Orange Forever stampA big hello to any US (or visiting) readers attending this weekend’s Stampshow in Columbus, Ohio!

USA 2018 Dragons Green Forever stampI read in a news report that organizers (jointly the American Philatelic Society and the American Topical Society) are seeking to tap into more of the pop culture appeal of stamps at this exhibition. Sounds like a good idea to me. I appreciate the effort that old-school philatelists put into their exhibits on obscure paquebot markings or the plate proofs of Upper Biddlonia, but the hobby is evolving with the times. If that means that more fun begins to sneak into philatelic exhibitions in the form of stamp art or dragon mascots, then I’m all for it. Continue reading

Exploring Exploring Stamps

Exploring Exploring Stamps tnf

A day off work due to illness presents a perfect opportunity to binge-watch a series that you’ve been meaning to see for a long time. So it was that I recently popped a painkiller, snuggled into my bed, and reached for the comforting glow of my laptop.

Which series would see me through the day? A dystopian futuristic drama about women in sexual servitude? One of those quirky Aussie comedies with no jokes in it? A day-trip back to Westeros and Game of Thrones?

Oh no, my friends, I had bigger fish to fry. It was time to explore a YouTube series that had been on my radar for a long time. It was time to explore Exploring Stamps.

Exploring Stamps title board

Exploring Stamps debuted on YouTube at the end of 2016, comprising seasons that are 20 (short) episodes each in length, along with occasional specials. At the start of each regular episode, our host, Graham, plucks a stamp from a trove stashed in a big cardboard box, and uses it as a launching pad for a journey of discovery. Most often this involves the stamp’s history and subject matter, with a bit of philately-for-the-beginner along the way. But his tangents can delight and surprise. Continue reading

A big, BIG issue

Australia 2018 Silo Art $1 Brim Guido van Helten stamp
Brim, Victoria
Artist: Guido van Helten

One of my favourite Aussie issues of recent times was 2017’s Street Art – vibrant, modern, urban and startlingly different from the usual stamp fodder. Not surprisingly, those stunning works were a big hit on my Instagram page. They’re very like-able.

I’m a month late with this update but I still wanted to say how much I loved seeing Australia Post continue the theme with May’s Silo Art issue. Silo art is the rural equivalent of street art, except that it’s painted on grain silos, and it is, as a rule, fucking ENORMOUS. Continue reading

Cold War propaganda stamp of the day

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl T-55 tank stampPolitics and human rights abuses aside, I love propaganda stamps. When I was very young, almost everything I knew of life behind the Iron Curtain came from my kiddie stamp collection. Countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary must have earned some sweet forex coin getting their stamps into the Western collector market. Eastern Europeans, I knew, were mad for Lenin, space, the Winter Olympics and military hardware.

This stamp isn’t the most propaganda-y of my propaganda collection, but it was always a fave (despite the damage at the bottom, marking this as a genuine Punk Philatelist artefact of the era).

I looked into it this week, and found that it was one of a 1973 set marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Polish People’s Army. That’s the kind of thing they called armies when the Soviets ruled the roost.

Look at that stamp again: it’s so action. It says more than “We have tanks.” It says “We have tanks and they are coming for YOU!”

Poland 1973 30th Anniversary of Polish People's Army 1zl MiG-21 D fighter stampThe issue also featured a plane, a ship, and a missile, all of which are also coming for YOU.

What makes them so dynamic? Sure, there are streaks of color representing the dust being kicked up, and the turbulence caused by the various aircraft, and there are the foamy breakers against the battleship’s hull.

The answer lies in one simple design feature: Continue reading