When I was nine or ten and living near Christina and Devine streets I would often trade comic books with a pal named Pat Ryan.
Pat lived across from Sam Lampel’s junkyard (now Rainbow Park), on Christina Street.
It was inside one of Pat’s comic books that I discovered the Garcelon Stamp Company, located in St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
An ad from Garcelon advertised a free bag of 1,000 used postage stamps to anyone who wrote to the company – which I promptly did.
My father had collected stamps for years and, back in the 1950s, many of my schoolmates were also collectors.
Ralph Garcelon had discovered he enjoyed buying and selling stamps more than just collecting them, and started his business in 1932. It began in a room on the family farm, and by the 1950s he had his own building and more than 60 employees. At its peak, Garcelon employed 150 in a town of 3,500 residents.
Along with my 1,000 free stamps came a selection of “stamps on approval.” This included multiple glassine sets of stamps from various countries. Each glassine was overprinted with information about the stamp and the price. You selected the ones you wanted to keep, and returned the rest with payment for those you were keeping.
I collected stamps for the next 55 years, with time gaps devoted to university and chasing girls. Primarily I collected rare stamps in mint (unused) condition, buying from many companies.
It was a constant source of amazement to my work colleagues that the value of stamps sent to me “on approval” often amounted to thousands of dollars. “Stamp dealers are trusting people,” I would explain to those surprised by the practise.
The most skeptical, however, turned out to be Canada Customs.
In the days before 9/11 I kept a large post office box at a U.S. post office. I would pop over every few weeks and recover a mountain of mail, which I’d toss onto the back seat, leaving it to be sorted once I got home.
But one morning I was directed into Secondary at Customs and an officer began combing through my mail.
“What’s this?” he demanded, holding aloft a fat manila envelope.
As it turned out, the envelope contained more than $10,000 worth of stamps “on approval.”
Attempts to explain the process to Customs officers proved futile. “No company would be that trusting,” I was told.
The officer was convinced he had captured a major smuggler in the act.
Twenty years later I am no longer a stamp collector – although I still get suspicious looks when I cross the border.
Got an interesting tale? Contact columnist Phil Egan at firstname.lastname@example.org