John Leszak got hooked when he was a little kid, like most stamp collectors. In his case, you might say there was a bit of divine intervention.
“The Sisters of Mercy got me started in 1963,” Leszak recalled last week at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Cheektowaga, where the Buffalo Stamp Club had its monthly auction. “I was 7.”
“I volunteered to stay after school to cut stamps off envelopes for the missions. The sister said, ‘Gee John, the other kids are in detention who do this.’ She asked if I’d like a holy card or stamps for helping. I took the stamps. I could get the holy card for two cents at the Basilica.”
Postage stamp collecting — or philately, to use the technical term — became Leszak’s passion and his livelihood. He opened his first stamp store in the city in 1978 and has had one somewhere in the area ever since. His current shop, The Cover Connection, is on Seneca Street in West Seneca.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I was a lousy baseball player, but I read every stamp magazine and catalog as a kid. I was editor of Stamps Magazine for several years. The publisher was constantly calling me for ideas. I said, ‘You should just make me the editor.’ She called a few days later and said, ‘The job is yours.’”
Leszak is a member of the American Philatelic Association and has been on the boards of every major stamp society around the world.
“I could go on and on,” he said. Later that night, he would demonstrate that gift.
As a boy, Leszak watched the auctioneers at stamp shows and knew he wanted to be one some day. In 1977, when he was 21, he did his first stamp auction. He’s still at it. Last Thursday, he was auctioneer for the Buffalo Stamp Club event.
Alan Davis, the president of the club, said there are around 125 members. About 30 showed up for April’s socially distanced auction. The auctions ceased due to the pandemic in mid-March of 2020. They returned for a couple last fall but stopped again when the COVID-19 numbers surged.
“That doesn’t mean the hobby fizzled at all,” Davis said. He acknowledged that stamp collecting has declined over the years, that the hobby has become largely the province of older men. The crowd in Justin Hall on Thursday reflected that.
“Yeah, that is true,” Davis said. “That’s why the numbers have declined a bit. As people have gotten older, or unfortunately died off, there aren’t enough younger people coming in to replace that.”
The American Philatelic Society says a lack of diversity has certainly hurt, along with the multitude of diversions available for today’s youth. But the society says stamp collecting isn’t dying. Still one of the world’s most popular collecting hobbies, it’s evolving, as younger people — including women and minorities — engage with the hobby on social media.
Leszak pointed to a sheet of Benjamin Franklin half-cent stamps, which was up for auction for $3.
“People buy those and frame them. It becomes a knick-knack. I go to dentist offices and they have the first-day dental covers (canceled envelopes) hanging. I’ve gone to an osteopath and seen the 8-cent osteopath stamp blown up.
“The true collectors from back in the day just don’t exist in the truest sense anymore. It’s like, ‘Won’t that look nice on my wall.’”
Kelly Kreuzer, the only woman on the Buffalo Stamp Club Board, is one of those new collectors. Kreuzer, and her mother, Pam, own a craft store in Eden called Southtowns Artisan Shop. At 25, Kelly stands out among a crowd of septuagenarian males.
Kreuzer, who collects Egyptian items, went to a flea market in 2013 and saw some Egyptian stamps for sale. She was struck by the beauty of the stamps.
“I said, ‘Maybe there’s a club,’” Kreuzer recalled. “I came here, and I’ve been at it ever since. I got my mother into it. We do a lot of comic book stamps. We do Disney. We frame those. Any sci-fi stamps. Anything kind of cool, we frame them and sell them. We like the colorful, the more colorful the better.
“We’re showing them to a younger generation in a different format, so people can see them more as art than as just a stamp.”
She’s in the young group that likes the way stamps look on the wall. Kreuzer said it’s difficult to get friends interested in a seemingly archaic pursuit.
“They look at you kind of funny,” she said. “They think it’s a bunch of old men sitting around looking at very boring stamps. Some of it is boring, but if you find something you love to collect, you can jump right in.”
Nick Carluccio, 73, is one of the old guys. His story is similar to Leszak and most of the veterans. He got started at age 7, when he traded a ring for another kid’s small stamp collection. He was hooked.
“From there, I went on to buying stamps,” said Carluccio, a Vietnam veteran who is retired from his job as a supervisor for computer operations. “My aunt got me more into it. She was a stamp collector.”
Carluccio estimates that he has 60,000 or more stamps in his collection. Like Kreuzer, he collects world-wide stamps, from other countries. He has a U.S. collection as well. But his favorite “topical” subject is butterflies.
“I used to collect real butterflies,” he said. “I have several mounted on the wall in cases from when I was a kid and used to collect.”
Bob Meegan is another member of the over-70 set who got started with stamps in grade school. Meegan, chairman of the club’s membership committee, is one of 83 people in the U.S. certified to judge national stamp show exhibitions.
“I’m slowing down with age,” said Meegan (he’s not the former Buffalo police union head, though they’re related). “It takes quite a bit of effort to judge a national show.”
There can be millions of dollars of stamps in those big collections. Rare stamps can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in a few cases more than $1 million. The most valuable were in the 1800s and are rare because of “errors”. The most valuable American stamp is the Inverted Jenny, a misprint of a 1918 stamp in which a Jenny biplane was accidentally printed upside down.
But most stamps are commons, and worth little. Like baseball cards, they have limited value when millions were produced in recent years and there are so many in circulation. There are 124 million Elvis Presley stamps around from 1993, for example. The Philatelic Society estimates that 99 percent of stamps issued in the last 80 years are traded between dealers at discount to face value.
“You can go in all kinds of directions with stamp collecting,” said Davis, whose parents — who hosted international visitors in Buffalo — got him involved when he was 7 years old. He’s a fourth-generation owner of Tapecon, a printing and contract manufacture business in the Larkin Building.
“Sometimes, it just takes a personality that likes to collect things. As a kid, I collected fossils, coins, postcards. I also had an interest in geography and history, which made stamps very appealing. A lot of people like them because they’re miniature pieces of art. I wasn’t successful in getting any of my four kids interested. But I’m working on my grandkids.
“You can do it relatively inexpensively,” Davis said. “During the pandemic, we’ve gotten an enormous number of calls from people who finally cleaned their attic or went through that pile they hadn’t gotten to in a long time. They say, ‘I’ve got this stamp collection. What’s it worth? What can I do with it? We’ve had a lot of donations to the Stamp Club.”
Some of the donated stamps were among the 200 items in April’s auction. The rest came from club member’s collections. The proceeds from donations go 100 percent to the club to defray expenses. The club gets 10 percent of sales from a member’s lot.
The auctions aren’t quite what they used to be.
“Back in the day, this was a political event,” Leszak said. “All the politicians would come to the stamp shows and campaign. The biggest guy was Thaddeus Dulski, a congressman back then (from 1959-74). He was on the stamp committee, and he would bring all his cronies. He was responsible for building the Buffalo Post Office on William Street.
“I’ve been doing these stamp shows since 1974. Jimmy Griffin used to come to the stamp shows and talk to everybody. They would make these token purchases. In Buffalo, it was always an election season. Jack Kemp used to come to this stuff. Alfreda Slominski. I think the last one we had was Tony Masiello.”
The stamp enthusiasts say it’s not about money, but the sheer love of collecting. You could tell during the auction that the people had spent a lot of time together, shared a lot of memories. Essentially, it was a fun night out with friends.
Meegan pointed to Leszak when it was time to start at 7 p.m. and said, ‘There’s the fun.”
Leszak was in his glory. He talked non-stop for two hours, needling the club regulars, exaggerating his fondness for certain unpopular stamps, speeding through the items that weren’t likely to sell.
On numerous items, Leszak announced “We’ll pull it,” which meant no one bought it and it would go back to the owner. A lot of items failed to fetch their “reserve,” or minimum price, and he would often have it talked down to as little as $1. Often, he or one of the board members would buy it.
“Everybody needs a classic specialized catalog. This one goes for $3. You know what? You could afford to buy this one for three bucks, read it in the bathtub, drop it in the bathtub and have no shame whatsoever. Bob, can we do any better? A dollar? Let’s say a dollar. I’ve got a dollar.”
There were stamp books from various countries, everything from Malaya and Malaysia to Monaco; stamps from the opening of the Buffalo subway and Pilot Field; a collection of western legends, like Wyatt Earp and Annie Oakley; stamps from the World University Games, the Iditarod, the Apollo 13 launch.
“They made a movie about it,” Leszak pleaded. “You can rent the movie, watch it, show the stamps to people. No? We’ll pull it.”
There was a set of butterfly stamps.
“Ooh, come on Nick!”
“I’ve got ‘em all,” Carluccio said. He bought them, anyway. How do you resist butterflies at $5?
The “premier” item of the evening was an inverted two-cent George Washington stamp from Meegan’s collection. Printed in 1871, it has Washington upside-down, which makes it worth $475 in the Scott Catalog. It had a reserve value of $200.
“You’ve all seen it,” Leszak gushed. “It was this big in the newsletter, or on the internet. This is a beautiful item, hard to find. This is a show piece. OK, here we go.” It went for $215, easily the highest of the night.
A lot of items were pulled, though it seemed routine. Avid collectors aren’t apt to give up their best stuff. But any novice could have put together a heck of a starter kit for $25 or so.
“This was a rough night,” Leszak said afterwards, still on a roll. “I tell you what’s killing us. We didn’t have the Canadians here. The Premier doesn’t want the border open. One of our directors is from Canada. We’ll get two carloads of Canadians, usually. They can’t find this stuff.”
Leszak said it’s about the love of the hobby. He said auctioneering is a volunteer position. He praised all the board members who come early to set up.
The auctions go back to 1927, he said. There used to be a Benjamin Franklin Stamp Club, sponsored by the Post Office. Postal employees would dress up in colonial garb and tell kids how to address envelopes.
“They would go to schools!” Leszak said. “It was a wonderful thing. It started for the Bicentennial in 1976. Guys who were kids in ’76 are still my customers. I was a Boy Scout merit badge counselor for stamp collecting at one time. I’ve still got guys I counseled.”
He used to have as many as 11 employees working for him in the old days, mostly part-time. Now he works alone, confident the hobby will survive. He has traveled the country and been encouraged by small pockets of stamp collecting among the young.
“Now I’m semi-retired,” he said, “but I can’t get it out of my system.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.