not only vital to the hobby, but its results constitute some
of the most important advantages that the hobby has to offer
collectors. And, as is often the case with so many crucial processes,
trading is often a delicate and fragile affair. It needs to be
initiated, nurtured, guarded, and often repaired in order to
The Current State of
Affairs: Years ago, as I was updating my own list of
traders, I noticed it was time to make another push to find more
people to trade with. At the time, I was already trading with
150 collectors, but people are constantly dropping in and out
of collecting; some run out of trading stock; some trade only
sporadically; and some pass away. So, I took the membership list
of a fairly large Eastern club, picked 45 collectors whose wants
matched up pretty evenly with my own, and sent off invitations
to one and all to trade. I kept a record of the results.
After five weeks, my efforts had resulted in: five new traders
(11%), eight polite nos (17%), and no responses from 32
(71%). Pretty typical of the shotgun approach, as
most other collectors can attest to. Since then, the hobby has
done much to try and solve this problem (i.e., clubs now denote
in their membership lists which of their members will trade,
but the inescapable conclusion, here, is that traders looking
for more traders are a definite minority, a rare and valuable
commodity. Each, both old and new, is to be treated with deference
and respect. You help each other, you befriend each other, and,
in many cases, relationships that span decades will be formed.
You have a special status with your traders, as they have with
you. You look out for each others interests and take special
satisfaction in sending off those particular covers that you
know will be appreciated.
Also, since the late 1980s, trading
has drastically declined due to ever rising postal rates and
the continual decline in collectors (I'm not down to 15 regular
traders, for example). It behooves us, then, not only to appreciate
and care for the traders we already have, but also to constantly
cultivate new collectors, and thereby (hopefully) new traders.
Dan Bitter, OK, had gotten me started, for example; Bill Thomas,
FL, had gotten Dan started...and so it goes...and so it should
dont have to trade; they just buy what they want. But,
a big part of the fun in our hobby comes from trading with others.
Trading face-to-face is great, but we can enjoy our hobby 365
days a year if we also trade by mail.
First, you should decide if youre prepared to trade by
mail. Do you have covers to trade, and are you prepared to follow
the basic tenets that we have adopted as standard practice? If
so, then you should decide on how many traders you want to deal
with, how many covers per trade, and how frequently.
Once youve decided on those questions, compose a Dear
prospective trader form letter/e-mail in which you say,
Hey, want to trade? What kind of covers do you want? I
seek the following kinds of covers... Mention your preferences
for frequency and volume, and give a little autobiography. If
writing by mail, enclose a few covers, and be sure to say theyre
a gift, not a trade. This will accomplish two things: it partially
repays them for replying to unsolicited mail, and it shows that
you know how to flatten covers and dont send used, damaged,
or National covers. A SASE is unnecessary. And, you can close
with, Please reply only if you are interested; in any event,
please keep these covers as a gift. Or, for many propective
traders, you can simply contact them via e-mail (their addresses
are often listed in the club rosters and on the bigger hobby
sites, such as this one and RMS.
Who do you send the letters to? Use
a club membership list that has collectors willing to trade so
marked. Or, if you like covers from Hawaii, write to a Hawaiian.
Bear in mind, if youre writing to collectors who arent
already indicated as traders, that not all collectors are traders,
and some who are dont want any more. Include some inducement
For example, if you write to a railroad collector and say you
have tons of old rail covers to trade, but speak the truth!
Once you have established a trading cycle, do adhere to the things
you agreed to with your trader. Perhaps a few more biographical
details will reveal some common ground, like sharing a foxhole
together in Vietnam. Find out what alternative covers your trader
will take if you cant send him his preferred categories,
and tell him the same. Early on, decide if the trades are meeting
your expectations, and tell him if they arent. If you run
low on the covers he likes, tell him so; maybe you might want
to take a breather for a month or so while you rebuild your trading
stock. Always keep you trader posted on any change in your status.
Don't just simply 'disappear'.
Also, be sure and agree on whether or not you want to trade one
for one; its whatever you both agree on, although in 25+
years I don't think I've ever run across anyone who didn't agree
to one for one trades. Youve already exchanged preferences,
why not keep a box, envelope, etc. with your traders name
on it in which you put covers for him as you come across them.
That way, when you write to him, you dont have to search
for a trade.
In these days of .45¢ letters [seems
as if I have to update that figure annually these days!], weight becomes more meaningful, so be sure
to weigh your mail before sending it. The ideal is to include
the most covers for the least postage. Remember, theres
a thickness charge of some .10¢ on the first oz. if you
go over 1/4. You can avoid that by putting two side-by-side
stacks of covers in your envelope. The penalty only applies to
1 oz. letters.
If you should generate a special need for certain covers, tell
your trader; he might be able to help; and, if you learn that
your trader is going somewhere significant (say, to Sarajevo
for the Winter Olympics), by all means ask him to remember you.
It can also be interesting and helpful to mention others whom
you trade with.
How about recording which covers you have sent to a trader? It
can be done, but I think that it converts our hobby from fun
to labor, and it's unreasonably time-sconsuming. Remember, unless
youre trading by lists, trading is a shotgun thing...you
both take your chances. When I receive a trade of 20 covers,
Im content if two or three are new to me, but I've been
collecting for years . What more can I ask? You should TRY to
avoid sending your trader repetitive trades, if your memory bank
works well, and certainly try to avoid sending him back his own
covers! It's always satisfying when you send a cover that you
KNOW is new to your trader, and he comes back with a big, HEY,
If you should receive a trading invitation from someone else,
just put these words in reverse, and if you're not interested
in having a new trader, at least be courteous and send a reply.
Finally, what about a divorce? If you want to discontinue trading
with someone, dont be bashful or afraid: TELL HIM. Dont
ever drop a trader without telling him; thats rude,
unkind, and tacky. Lie if you have to, but at least tell him
something ['fatal illness' is always a good one]. Hes
entitled to know that you are stopping.
are your expectations? What should your expectations for trading
be? Often, there is quite a gap between the two, and Ive
known more than a few collectors who have stopped trading altogether
because their expectations werent being met. The problem
is two fold.
Its obvious when realistic expectations arent being
met; youre getting covers that are struck, damaged, Nationals,
covers that you know your trader has sent you before. All of
these are examples of unacceptable trades (unless the usual trading
etiquette has been amended by mutual consent), and, consequently,
all of these would constitute legitimate gripes. From my own
observations, however, both as a collector and a rather fanatical
trader, such legitimate gripes arent the usual problem
in dealing with trading expectations. Instead, its maturity...not
of the collector, but of his collection.
The first covers you get are normally the most common ones, since
theyre the ones that circulate the most. After a few, or
many, years go by (depending on how much trading you do), more
and more of the covers you receive look just as familiar. Eventually,
you begin to get frustrated; you question whether all this trading
is accomplishing anything (and by this time, youre questioning
the parentage of some of your traders!)
Thats the crucial point in your trading career. If you
decide that youre just acting as a middleman, passing collector
As covers on to collector C and not adding enough to your
own collection in the process, you may decide to chuck it all
and give up on trading...and many do, especially with escalating
postage rates. And, the hobby loses another trader.
I can understand that; Ive felt the same frustration many
a time, myself. But, I keep trading, and Ive always found
that Im glad I stuck with it. Its really a question
of expectations. As with building up any collection, you tend
to get the easier, more common items first, and then work your
way up to the items that require more time, effort, and perhaps,
money. As your collection matures, you simply cannot expect to
use 100% of what you receive in trade (unless you're trading
by specific lists). By then, you will already have many of those
covers. And the percentage can be expected to steadily decline
as your collection grows. Im at a point in most of my categories
where Im satisfied if I can use 10-20% of incoming covers,
and I expect things to level off right around there. Most of
us will never have every cover in a category, so there will always
be covers out there that we can still use.
But, is 10-20% an acceptable figure? In dollars and cents, if
Im trading 15 covers at a time for .45¢ postage, Im
basically paying .45¢ for those 1-2 covers that I actually
end up using. Now, I probably wouldnt pay that in an auction,
but I do it all the time in trading. Its just a matter
of expectations. Im willing to accept that as a fact of
life for a number of reasons. I think of all the relationships
Ive established over the years, and by building a group
of traders, youre planning for the future. Youre
creating a network of eyes and ears, often on an international
level...and theyre all going to be looking out for your
So, in the short run, you will reach a point where trading
may look like a losing proposition, but, in the long run, there
will be all of those wonderful days when the mailman is about
to deliver a veritable treasure into your hands, courtesy of
your trader. And, not infrequently, its a cover that has
gone for $$ in auctions...but youve just received it for