A good poker payout nudged Rich Spinelli back to his long-shelved interest in stamp collecting.
The Greece resident is president of the local stamp-collecting club, the Rochester Philatelic Association. He got into the hobby as a teen, then forgot about it for decades - until he scored big one day. "We had a poker club, and I won some money," said Spinelli, 71. "It was burning a hole in my pocket."
A stamp show was in town. Spinelli stopped in, and the spark was rekindled. He left with purchases, and has been at it since.
The Rochester Philatelic Association started with 13 collectors in 1913 and now has close to 100 members, organizers say. A centennial banquet was held in March. The club claims to be the longest-continuously running one of its kind, and perhaps the largest, in the country. Members come from nine states and Canada.
Stamp collecting attracts a lot of history buffs, Spinelli said, and the field has an interesting history itself. The British were the first to issue postage stamps, in 1840, he said. The United States followed suit seven years later.
Spinelli is particularly fascinated with the era just before that.
"My specialty is the 'stampless covers,' prior to roughly 1850," he said. "Letters were written and folded like an envelope, then closed and sealed with wax. The person who got the letter paid the postage. The reason they were kept is because of the notoriety of the people who sent them out. It might be from, say, the president of the University of Pennsylvania or a U.S. senator."
Spinelli, of course, owns plenty of stamps, too. He also collects engravings, etchings and lithographs. Collectors focus on all kinds of themes, Spinelli said - some want sports-related stamps, others concentrate on flags or puppies or presidents. Spinelli knew one collector who focused on stamps from German prisoner-of-war camps, where prisoners created their own post offices.
Just like baseball-card collecting, stamp collecting has its Holy Grail. With baseball cards, it's the Honus Wagner T206 card, which has sold for millions. With stamps, it's the Inverted Jenny, a U.S. stamp first issued in 1918 with the image of an airplane appearing upside-down. Sheets of four might sell for $4 million, Spinelli said.
The Post Office recently issued the Inverted Jenny stamp along with 100 additional sheets of stamps with the plane flying right-side up. Those 100 sheets - essentially, a misprint of a misprint - already are highly collectible, said Tom Fortunato of Greece, president of the Rochester Philatelic Association before Spinelli.
"Man overall is a collecting animal," said Fortunato, 54. "Some people collect rocks or minerals, some collect stamps or coins."
Fortunato got into stamps when he was just 5. A neighbor who was a collector died, and Fortunato was the beneficiary of some of her stash.
"I got the leftovers in a big, clear plastic bag," he said. "They looked funny. They were very colorful. I kind of picked up on that, and here we are, almost 50 years later."
He stopped counting his supply years ago.
Spinelli grew up in the Edgerton neighborhood of northwest Rochester and didn't get into the hobby until he was about 13. It was a way to bond with his father, who collected coins and stamps, Spinelli said.
He "put away" the hobby for 40 years or so for the obvious reasons - Spinelli got married and raised a family and went to work. He resumed the philatelic pastime after that poker game some 15 years ago.
Most people collect U.S. stamps, Spinelli said, and some concentrate on "First Day of Issue" stamps or "unused" stamps.
"In some cases, the canceled stamps are more valuable," he said. "The older stuff, because of the sense of history, is more valuable. With the new stuff, there's some beautiful printed artwork."
That newer stuff - stamps with a pre-adhesive which are pulled from wax-coated sheets - comes with its own problems for collectors. Yes, kids, once upon a time, you had to lick the back of the stamp to get it to stick.
"That's the biggest change," Spinelli said. "It's not like in the old days, when you soaked your stamp in hot water (to separate it from an envelope). It's harder to transfer them now. The government thinks it's simpler. The collector doesn't necessarily agree."
Spinelli worked at Bausch & Lomb, then at Xerox, in engineering and product development. He retired in 2003, and that gave him more time to devote to his hobby. Spinelli estimated that he spends about 30 hours weekly on the hobby, including time spent in his role as club president. The club meets twice monthly except in November and December.
Spinelli is trying to instill the same philatelic fascination in his 8- and 11-year-old grandsons. He takes them to shows, and he gave the older one a box of used stamps to explore.
So far, like a used stamp, it hasn't stuck. But you never know. They might have their own "poker payout" moment, like Spinelli did, years from now.
by Alan Morrell - freelance writer from Rochester.