"I felt that your program would help to educate young people in the world of stamps"
In September, the APS development team, Diana and Erin, were pleased to be able to speak with James Lee about the Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship program, a scholarship program run by the American Philatelic Society. YPLF supports young philatelists, offers them unique opportunities to attend stamp shows across the country, and connects them with experienced mentors in the philatelic world.
James Lee is a beloved stamp dealer, postal history specialist, APS On-the-Road Course teacher, and the recipient of the first annual APS Dealer of the Year Award in 2017. He is also a dedicated supporter of the YPLF program and sponsor of the Donald & Bonnie Lee Fellowship.
See the full interview below.
D: Thanks for making time to talk to us. We really wanted to talk to you about your support of the program to highlight the impact that you've had. I wonder if you could tell us what led you to donate to YPLF for the first time.
Okay. Well, it's gonna be rather emotional, 'cause it involves my parents, and they're both deceased.
I started collecting stamps when I was seven years old. My parents gave me a "My First Stamp Album," which was produced by Minkus for Christmas when I was seven. It just took off from there. By the time I was twelve, I'd organized a junior program at the Beverly Hills Philatelic Society Stamp Club, and I was buying and selling stamps through high school.
I took time off at college, and then, when I got out of college, I had an uncle up in Racine, Wisconsin, who I'd gotten interested in stamps. He was a stamp dealer part time, and I worked with him, and I worked with a dealer in Chicago by the name of Freddy Israel who was a Holocaust survivor. He had amazing U.S. stock, and I helped him sell it to dealers around Chicago. So, it just kept growing.
My mother was very supportive. She was a big believer in giving back. So, when Alex [Haimann] started up the program, I told him that I would donate $5,000 for one of the first . . . I think it was the second year, for one of the younger people. Then I said, "I tell you what. I'll donate $25,000, $5,000 a year over 5 years." With this year being the fifth year. That was my way of giving back.
So, I gave it, I didn't want my name associated with it. I told him that I wanted it named for my parents.
E: That's a really great sentiment.
D: Yeah, that's really beautiful.
Now, I don't need the credit. My feeling has always been, "Do whatever you can for your clients." Whatever it takes to fulfill their wants and needs, and if you do that, if you keep them your primary focus, everything else takes care of itself.
It's been a great thirty years. I have no regrets. I built two very successful businesses, one for myself and my partner, and one for another person. When I was forty, I retired. I told the guy that I was working for that I wanted to buy his business. He didn't want to sell it. You know, he kept saying he wanted to sell it. So, one day, I just retired. I said, "That's it."
"I'm going to go into the stamp business full-time."
He thought I was nuts. I gave him six months' notice. I'd already hired and trained my replacement. And three weeks later, he said I could leave. I didn't let the door hit me on the butt on the way out. I was outta there before you could whistle. I never looked back.
I mean, it was tough starting out, 'cause I was under-capitalized and it took a while to determine--I realized , having been in marketing my whole life, I realized I had to develop niches that I could exploit and dominate and sort of keep out competition. That's why I went into essays and proofs. At that time, I had collected essays and proofs, and my good friend, the late Bob Finkleburg, was my mentor, along with Richard Taylor. I just hung in it, worked with it every day. I had a little passion for the American postal history of the Civil War, so I added that, and I added fancy cancels. I also developed a literature - philatelic literature - business. I only had three competitors, Rob Hartman, Phil Bannister, and myself. The three of us dominated that industry, that segment of the industry, for twenty-five years till I sold off my stock seven years ago. Because it was just . . . it got too big for one person to do.
When I ran the company that I ran, my last company, I had thirty-five employees. None of them were over thirty. Every Monday morning, I had thirty-five different stories of why I was late, yada, yada, yada. I was in my thirties at the time. So, I decided, if I'm gonna--when I went into business for myself, I wasn't gonna have any employees. I knew it would hinder me in terms of size I'd get, but that didn't matter. I just didn't want to deal with people on Monday morning anymore. [Laughter] So, that's my story. Stickin' to it.
D: That's quite a story. I wonder if there's something in particular that you enjoy witnessing as a result of the program. Like a favorite result or reason that you continue enjoying supporting us.
I am not a doomsayer, and we are an industry of doomsayers today. You know, people saying, "Well, stamp collecting's dying." There's all sorts of negativity out there. I've never once believed that. I can tell you for a fact that in 1996 when I found the internet, my business took off like a rocket. And I would say, of my top twenty clients, twelve of 'em are under the age of 45.
And these are people that spend real money. So, the whole industry is--I've written, if you go back and look at my newsletters that are in the APRL that I've written for twenty-two years--I've written a column there and on my website. I wrote a column called, "Where have all the stamp stores gone?" Which was a parody on Peter, Paul, and Mary's song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."
D: Oh, yeah. That's a good one.
The economies of scale changed over time. Brick and mortar became unaffordable for people to have a stamp store, based on the volume of sales that they could generate. It just became impractical. That gave way to the rise in shows. For the next twenty years, shows really boomed. Now, shows are starting to wane, primarily because there's a lack of really good dealers out there. There's a lotta wanna-be stamp dealers; there's a lot of weekend warriors. Most of 'em are not well-educated in terms of what they're doing.
I felt that your program would help to educate young people in the world of stamps. I mean, I'm amazed over the years the amount of material that I've been able to buy from other dealers who didn't know what they were doing. Now, I would not buy something from a collector that they didn't know what they had; I would pay them fair market value for it. But a dealer has an opportunity to learn and understand what they're selling and put a price on. If they're not willing to do that, buyer beware.
I think the program that you have is small, you know? Only because of, probably, funding. It's creating a whole new generation of enthusiasts that are going to go into all different segments of the market, whether it be the journalism segment of the marketing, collecting segment of the market, dealing segment of the market. It's going to create people with knowledge. And that's something that you find lacking at shows today.
Now, the shows--now that the shows are in decline, and I don't mean that in a negative sense . . . they've just become, if you don't have dealers with real inventories, other people can't afford to really do the shows because of the expense. So, that's given way to the internet. The internet has now become the marketplace for stamps, for better or for worse. When you see a lot of the stuff that's on eBay, it's mis-described. And not in the favor of the people selling it, that they're selling things to people that aren't what they say they are.
There's a lot of that going on on the internet. That's the future right now. Unfortunately, there are people who are going to get burned and who will get turned off to stamps because they realize they've been had. Now, the person that sold it to 'em may not have had the attention of that because they simply didn't know what they were doing. So, the more that the APS can educate the population of collectors, the stronger the hobby's going to be.
I am not a doomsayer, and we are an industry of doomsayers today. You know, people saying, "Well, stamp collecting's dying." There's all sorts of negativity out there. I've never once believed that.
D: Absolutely. We've talked to a couple of alumni so far who taken that time in the program and really been able to build very concrete results for themselves. It really impacted the rest of their life, their participation, and so I can definitely see those goals for your philanthropy in support of YPLF impacting the lives of these fellows on a daily basis.
E: I would agree. You were saying how you really wanted to give back and have that happen, and I think that's really true with one of the individuals we've talked to. I mean, he couldn't say it enough, how much of a big thank you he wanted for the donors to hear from him.
D: And so we really appreciate your continued support of the program. I wonder if you could reflect on how you've seen it grow over those five years of your support?
Well, I had lunch with . . . I had breakfast, I took the class out to breakfast at Omaha. And they all seemed very enthusiastic about the journey they were starting, and they all seemed to come from dissimilar backgrounds, which makes it even more interesting, because that means you're reaching a broader audience of people. So, that's a plus.
D: Oh, absolutely. There have been so many people with different backgrounds and different goals who've studied as fellows. The last person we talked to really used it in a concrete way and works in philately professionally now, which is amazing. I know, I've heard Cathy [Brachbill, Education Director] talk about one of the fellows who graduated recently, whose parents have thanked her for the program and all that it gave their son, because it really helped him come out of his shell in a big way. He's just more confident and ready to talk to anybody. The self-confidence that he has in his knowledge of the hobby but also as a person operating in the world has been really dramatic. That's something that we've heard about often, just how impactful the program can be for the fellows within it.
Well, they can learn--to give you my own example--I don't think I'd ever cracked a history book in high school. And I got honors and A's in all my history courses in high school, just because of the knowledge that I had accumulated up until that point in my life about events in history. That all came from stamp collecting. I know that $5,000 per person is a lot of money, and you're really immersing them. If there was another way to create a secondary program that wouldn't cost that much--as much--money, but you could expose a lot more young people to it, looking at it from the standpoint of learning about history through stamps, all the tangibles, it would be nice if there were fifty kids that were taking a similar-type program.
D: I know that one of the things Cathy and Ross in the Education Department are doing right now is developing different lesson plans that teachers can use to request stamps and request a plan to bring history to life more for their students in classrooms. That's a completely different scale, but that's certainly a worthy goal, given the benefits that we've seen just in Fellows we've met around the building here and in Omaha.
E: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our audience of alumni, donors, grant fellows, and potential applicants?
Well, I think one of the great--I don't want to call this a success story, but a person who really emerged and is gonna make a name for himself in this business, on the business side of this, is Charles Epting. He's really taken off.
D: His story is really incredible. We actually just spoke with him yesterday. He wanted to personally thank every donor forever, because it's been so impactful in his life. That's so exciting for us to hear about.
It changed the whole direction of his life.
D: Yeah. [Laughter] What an incredible story, going to Monte Carlo, and then Germany and back to the United States to work in fine stamp auctions. It's just amazing. And it really shows you what's possible when you're willing to learn and keep an open mind.
Well, I can tell you it's a fabulous--from the business side, it's a fabulous business, because it's very rewarding. You're working for people every day, and helping them to fulfill their dreams or needs or want lists or whatever you want to call it. It's very rewarding.
And I think one of the great assets of collecting is the relaxation that it gives people. In this stressful world that we live in -- in terms of work again, I remember when I built my first business. I mean, I worked eighteen hours a day, six, seven days a week. It was unbelievable. It really took off, and it required that much time to keep it going and growing. I found that playing with stamps really helped reduce my stress level.
D: What are your personal, primary interests in collecting right now?
I'm seventy years old. My wife is a retired college counselor and consultant. She's winding her practice down. I'm winding my business down in terms of . . . it's still as busy and active as ever, but the amount of time I spend on it is considerably less. We travel . . . we're only home about twenty-three weeks out of the year. The rest of the weeks, we're either in Atlanta--we have five grandchildren in Atlanta--and we built out her son's house in Atlanta, put an in-law suite into it. So, we spend months down there.
We also spend a lot of weeks every year on Hilton Head Island, which is our favorite place in the world. As a result of that, I collect Hilton Head postal history from the Civil War, when Hilton Head was occupied by Union forces in November of 1861 and throughout the war, because Port Royal Sound was the best deep-water port between Boston and Galveston. They wanted to take that away from the confederacy, which they did. I collect postal history from that time period.
D: Are there antique stores that you prefer to visit or are there other dealers that you work with to expand that?
I support the historical society, the heritage/historical society on the island, which is the repository for the largest and only collection of records of black troops from the American Civil War. So, I support them, and I use their library as a base of operations down there to do my research.
It's amazing what I learn, each time I go down there. It's a really interesting engagement because it was an overwhelming Union victory when they battled in Port Royal Sound, which is two miles wide. It was eleven ships that knocked out two Confederate ports in a period of about six or seven hours. Then they went up the Sound to Beaufort, which is the deep-water port, and captured Beaufort. I think the best piece I found was a letter written by a Union soldier on captured Confederate stationary about the sacking of Beaufort.
D: Wow, that's amazing.
We really enjoy going down there. It's very peaceful there. It's twelve miles long and eight miles wide. There's forty thousand people who live on the island. In the summertime, it grows to about a hundred thousand. But the way the island was laid out in the late 60s, with Sea Pines Plantation and six other plantations, you don't feel the number of people. It's all pretty isolated.
D: Thank you for your time this afternoon. I really am grateful that you were so open with us in your interview. I want to thank you for your support of YPLF, because I've seen the direct impact it's had on Fellows' lives and also the indirect impact, too, that it'll continue to have over time. So, thank you for very much for all you've done for the program.
It's my pleasure.
D: Thank you, sir. Have a good afternoon.
Thank you both for your time. Take care.