You make a living doing what?

You make a living doing what?
James E. Lee

Most months three will be several ideas for this column bouncing around in my head. This has been one of those months when even a mere spark of an idea for this column has eluded me. As the deadline approached I turned to my editor, Randy Neil, for help. At his suggestion I am writing about my experiences in the philatelic literature business.

For Christmas in 1972 I received a three volume set of Lester Brookman’s opus: United States Postage Stamps of the 19th Century. This wonderful gift became the foundation for my philatelic library. For the next 15 years my appetite for acquiring books for my library was insatiable. By the mid 1980s the book shelves were full, and file storage boxes were employed to house the overflow. At times I would purchase an entire lot of books at auction to get just one title. It was during this period that I endured a setback in my personal life. My room full of books was one of the few things that moved on with me. However, this only created another dilemma. Just try fitting a room full of books into a two bedroom apartment. My dilemma became one of the factors that propelled me into this business.

In order for my sons to spend quality time with me during the week and on weekends they needed a bedroom so there went the library room. After sorting down the boxes of books I found that about 40 percent were duplicates. I turned to advertising them in “The Members Clearing House” in the Philatelic Literature Review. Over the next few years I sold most of them. By this time I was remarried and living in a three bedroom town house. There were now shelves for all of the remaining books, the clutter was gone, until lo’ and behold, opportunity came in the form of a phone call at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

On the phone was Robert McClellan, the famed Black Jack collector, and relative of the late Civil War general by the same name. Bob, had read a small classified ad that I had run in the U.S. Philatelic Classics Society’s Chronicle, in which I advertised a few books. He wanted to know if I would like to buy some books. Since he only lived about 10 miles from me we agreed on a date and time when I would stop by to review what he had for sale. Bob, didn’t have a few feet of books on a shelf, he had a 30 foot square room, with built in floor-to-ceiling bookcases that covered every square foot of wall space, except for a window. After I gathered up my jaw from the floor I spent the entire day evaluating what he had.

My prior experience buying books had been limited to buying a few cartons at a time. This was going to be a very major purchase. That evening Bob and I agreed on a figure. Fortunately I had just enough to cover that amount which approached five figures. Since I was still working for a living, I had to pack the books in the evening and cart them back to what had been my two car garage. Over a week’s time I packed and moved (down two fl ights of stairs) 175 file storage boxes of books. The boxes filled the garage and I was now in the literature business big time or so I thought. Two months later I left a fabulous 14-year career in the printing business, to sell books. Every one of my friends, business associates, and clients suggested that I seek counseling instead.

In about three months time I realized that man cannot eat on books alone. I soon expanded into United States stamps (now long gone), postal history, and essays and proofs. Over the years, the sales of postal history and essays and proofs have far outdistanced book sales. However, book sales still produce annual sales in the low six fi gures. And of course, I still retain my longtime love of great philatelic literature.

Bob McClellan’s library started it all, but there are two other acquisitions that helped to put the business on the map. In 1992, I received a call from a gentleman stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Facility by the name of Henry Hensel. Henry was a career Navy man and he had also sold philatelic books, stamps and covers during the time he was stationed in Louisiana. He had around 70 cartons of mainly in print titles that had traveled with him when he was transferred to Great Lakes. Henry was about to retire from the Navy and return to Norman, Oklahoma, where he was born and raised. The books were not part of the plan for his return trip home. Henry’s stock provided me with something that I did not have—depth. His stock really provided a platform upon which to build my literature business.

The second acquisition came just a few years later and this was the purchase of the stock of legendary philatelic literature dealer Louis K. Robbins. I have been told that Lou had sold out his inventory on two previous occasions over the years. I was the third fish and did Lou ever provide me with ocean full of books, auctions catalogs, and pamphlets to swim in. Travelling to New York City to acquire the Robbins holding is another story and I’ll continue this column next month with the tale behind the Robbins purchase and the title of this two part column.

The legendary Louis K. Robbins was the premier philatelic literature dealer in the United States for decades. With his wife Estelle, Lou operated from an office on West 42nd Street in New York City. Lou was also the leading auction agent in this country. What is truly amazing is that at age 95, Lou is still active today.

As a collector I could always depend on Lou for a hard to fi nd title. His literature auctions were also a source for a scarce book or auction catalogs. Over the years he sold chunks of literature inventory to other aspiring literature dealers. In the mid 1990s an opportunity arose for this aspiring literature dealer.

On a brisk fall morning I received a call from a New Jersey dealer. He had just returned from looking at a literature inventory that was for sale. The inventory was huge and he thought that it was beyond his reach to bring to market. When I asked the name of the seller my friend responded with the name, Louis K. Robbins. He asked if I would be interested in looking at the deal. This was an opportunity that I could not turn down and later that morning I was talking to a legend and setting up an appointment to view his literature holdings.

The ASDA Fall Postage Stamp Mega Event was just a few short weeks away. I was planning to attend to walk the floor and see what I could buy from the show dealers. A day was added to the front end of the trip to view the Robbins inventory. Our appointment was for 9:00 am on a Wednesday morning and I arrived at 8:00 am.

Lou met me in the lobby of his cooperative and took me down to the basement. He had rented two rooms there to house his inventory. These we not small rooms, and were packed with shelving  units housing books, pamphlets, auction catalogs and periodical runs. I just stared in amazement. Lou abruptly brought me back to earth. He said: “Here’s the deal. I want (a low five figure amount) to be paid over a number of months and the figure is not negotiable. Look it over and tell me if you are  nterested.”

For the balance of the morning I wandered the aisles, making notes, and realizing that it would take weeks to fi gure what the inventory was worth. The amount of literature was overwhelming. I gave up trying the figure it and just estimated the number of cartons it would take to hold everything. Once I reached 300 cartons I gave up on this approach as well. Based on the volume I was sure that Lou’s asking price was more than fair. The only downside was how to move the contents of these two rooms to Illinois. That afternoon we met again and I told Lou that I would give him an answer at the show on Thursday.

Back at my hotel room that evening I tried to figure out how to make this deal work. As great an opportunity as it was I also realized that the sheer magnitude could  sink my business. I wound up writing a new business plan just for this acquisition. The plan included not just the steps necessary to transfer the stock and a marketing strategy, but also a strict outline as to the time I would spend on this project each week. It was important to keep my business going and only work on this outside of prime business hours. If I had not stuck to the plan I would not be in business today.

On Thursday at noon we had a deal. I would come to New York the first week on December and spend seven days packing and preparing the literature for shipping. I stayed at a hotel in Secaucus, N.J., and drove into the city each day. For nine hours a day, for five days, Lou and I packed cartons. By Saturday night we had 356 cartons ready to ship. There was also a pile of auction catalogs that went to the dealer that gave me the lead. He picked these up on Sunday morning and they filled a cargo van from fl oor to ceiling. There was also another pile which filled a second cargo van that went into a Lowell Newman Auction as a single lot. On Monday, Yellow Freight picked up the cartons which fi lled a 40 foot trailer. The hard part was wheeling the cartons from the basement to the street to be loaded onto the truck. By fi ve that evening I was on a fl ight back to Chicago. The flight was empty and I just laid across three seats and slept the entire way home. It had been an exhausting week.

The best part of the week that I spent with Lou and his wife was lunchtime. Everyday Lou would regale me with stories of his over 60 years in the trade. His stories were priceless.

A week later the 356 cartons arrived as 11 skids that went directly into warehouse space that I had rented. Fortunately I had the foresight to number the cartons and record the contents as we had packed them. The Robbins purchase really solidified the literature portion of my business. Twelve years later I have just opened up the last carton.

Fast forward to a Sunday night in December of 1998. On that night I had a blind dinner date with the women whom I would marry on the beach on Hilton Head Island in August of 2002. Over dinner I tried to explain to Melanie what I do for a living. Her response is the title of this article. Nearly ten years later while she may not completely understand my business she does know that it works and it also pays the bills.

Jim is a member of ASDA his philatelic business is, James E. Lee, and he can be reached by email at

United States of America - IL
James Lee
Business Address Postal Address
PO Box 3876
Oak Brook, IL 60522-3876
United States of America
PO Box 3876
Oak Brook, IL 60522-3876
United States of America
Additional Info
Quality U.S. stamps, fancy cancels, essays, proofs & 19th & 20th century postal history. U.S. Essay & Proof literature and auction catalogs.