"There's so many different paths you can take in this hobby, and the YPLF really opened me up to a lot of things I never expected."
In September, the APS development team, Diana and Erin, were pleased to be able to speak with Charles Epting 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.
Charles Epting graduated from the Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship program in 2015. He completed the Author track as a U.S. Philatelic Classics Society Fellow. Epting currently serves as the president and C.E.O. of H.R. Harmer Fine Stamp Auctions.
See the full interview below.
Charles: So, this'll be fun. I'm glad you asked. I'm happy to do anything I can to promote the YPLF.
All right. I'm really glad to hear that, because I know we just hit that ten-year mark last year, and we really want to celebrate the achievements that people have made professionally after graduating from the program. So, I'm looking forward to hearing about what your time there was like. Just to start off with, we're curious why did you choose to apply for YPLF? And what did you expect to accomplish?
I hadn't been to Hartford for--I know, it's amazing that it's coming back next year.
Oh, that's exciting.
Sure. I was kind of a late bloomer when it came to stamp collecting. I did not collect as a child. A lot of my friends collected from the time they were very young; I didn't start till I got into college. For me, it was just a way to--I was studying history, and it was a way to feel a bit more connected to what I was reading about in the history books.
So, it wasn't until I was about nineteen-ish years old that I actually started collecting. I very quickly looked for any sort of resources, or just anything to help guide me along, because I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing. [Laughter] Again, I feel like a lot of people had a head start on me. So, I was just buying 100 stamps on eBay for a dollar. I was very, very basic with my collecting, and looked up the APS, obviously, because I thought if I was gonna start anywhere, that would be the place to start. The YPLF really just seemed like a perfect fit. The travel component was very exciting to me, because the first show I went to was in Hartford.
Yeah. So, getting to go to Hartford, and then Grand Rapids was the next year. I mean, the fact that it was . . . travel for stamps seemed too good to be true for me. I like to write. I'd written a couple of books on history before that point, and the fact that there was a writer track seemed like a perfect introduction into the formal hobby for me. I felt like it would be a lot less intimidating if I had someone holding my hand, and that's why the writer track, in particular, jumped out at me. And yeah, it just seemed like a perfect fit.
I just sort of stumbled upon it right as I was getting into collecting, and figured it would be a bit of a baptism by fire if I started going to national shows and travelling across the country for stamps. So, that was how I discovered it. I'll never forget the day I found out it was a go, when Gretchen [Moody], who was the head of the program back then, called me. It just seemed like a perfect fit. Everyone at the APS was so welcoming and so friendly, and as soon as I met Alex Haimann, it really just seemed like a wonderful program.
I'm glad to hear that you had such a positive experience, and that you found us that way, by looking on the website.
Yeah. It all came together so quickly. Again, one minute I was first learning what to even search for on eBay if I wanted to buy stamps--again, spending pennies here and there, absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. But the fact that within two or three months, I'd filled out the application for the fellowship, really seemed a bit serendipitous.
Could you refresh my memory, where you were doing your undergrad at the time?
Yeah. I was studying at the University of Southern California.
Oh, okay. Wow, so coming all the way to Connecticut was pretty far. [Laughter]
Exactly. The fact that they said, "Your trip will be covered." And I was a starving college student at the time, the fact that anybody would want to fly me anywhere was very flattering, to be honest.
Can you tell me what you learned about philately through YPLF and maybe if you could recall a significant memory or moment from your learning process?
I learned . . . basically, all of the fundamentals that I use to this day through the YPLF.
My first show, I had never even been to a local show, really. I might have gone to one or two in, like, a hotel ballroom in Southern California. But nothing major. So, I remember being struck by the fact there were dozens of dealers and hundreds of exhibit frames. At that show in Hartford, there were probably six or seven either outgoing YPLFs or alums of the program. I thought it was really cool that there were people my age. It was one of the big things for me. It's the million-dollar question, is how to make the hobby younger. But for me, even the fact that there were six or seven of them was really, really exciting, and I'm in touch with most all of those folks to this day. That was my first big takeaway, that I wasn't alone, which was a lot of fun.
Then John Hotchner was my mentor in the writing program. The fact that he . . . I mean, I've seen his name in the AP and basically every stamp publication ever has a John Hotchner article in it. He's one of the most prolific writers. And the fact that he was so willing to take me under his wing . . . I found it really funny that John is old-school enough that, when he would edit one of my articles that I was writing, I had to mail it to him and then he would print it out and mark it up and mail it back to me. Which was really funny, 'cause that's how stamp articles have been written since as long as the hobby's been around. So, I thought that was--again, it gave me an excuse to send mail, which I thought was really fun.
But I was focused on writer track, so I really learned how to . . . I collect things that are sort of niche and not really everybody's cup of tea. So, how to make these stories interesting to a wide audience, and not just to write a stamp article, but also how to read a stamp article. These things aren't . . . I might not collect Belgian postal history or early airmails or whatever, but so much of what gets put into an article is applicable to what I collect or, now, what my clients collect. You really learn how to, again, both in terms of reading and writing, I think, make something that's universal. Even if I don't necessarily care about a topic I'm reading about, or writing about, in some cases, I think there are certain things that can be applied to every bit of writing in philately. I think that universality of it is fun. I may not understand what you collect, exactly, but I can sure relate to your passion.
That's really awesome. Can you give me some examples of what you remember writing about in that early period?
So, my collecting interest, especially early on, was the postal history of the 1930s. That's what I was studying in school, so I wanted basically anything having to do with Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. And Roosevelt being a stamp collector himself, having a hand in designing so many stamps himself, there was a lot to collect from the 1930s. My first big article that I wrote was on post offices of the 1930s and how there were 1,100-some odd post offices built across the country. I was collecting covers from the dedications of these post offices.
Which was--again, I look back on it now and I still like them. It's kind of silly and naive, in retrospect, I guess, but it's still a collection that I'm very proud of. It was actually at that Hartford show that I met Jay Bigalke, who was then-editor of the AP. Now he's back at Linn's, but he was looking for new, young, fresh blood in the AP, I guess. Somehow I fit the bill. So, he was kind enough to run my article on post office dedications in the AP back in 2015, it must have been.
Oh, that's awesome. Yeah, I just met Jay at the last StampShow.
Yeah. Jay and I are now best friends, but back then, I was doing anything I could to get him to publish me. [Laughter]
That was my first article, post offices of the 1930s. Then, with John Hotchner, I wrote a couple of other things just on random bits and pieces of postal history that I'd found. That's still what I actively collect; I haven't changed too much. So, it was fun to really cut my teeth on what I loved.
And since graduating, can you describe for us the ways you've continued to be involved in philately in the community, and maybe both professionally and in your personal hobby?
I'll get the professional story out of the way first. It was a whirlwind. In the winter of 2015, I was invited to attend Monacophil, the big, bi-annual exhibition in Monte Carlo. That was at the request of Alex Haimann. He had all of the YPLF alums invited to attend for free.
I got a letter in the mail that said "your free trip to Monaco," and I threw it out, because I thought it was spam. A scam. I thought, "There's no way." So, I was talking to a buddy of mine a couple of weeks later, and he said, "Oh, are you going to Monaco?"
I said, "No, I threw that away. That was just spam. There's no way."
"You know, that was real. Alex set it up. I think the deadline's due in, like, two days."
So I had him scan it and fax it to me and I filled it out really quickly, and at the last possible second was accepted to go to Monaco. Again, all because of Alex Haimann putting in a kind word for the YPLF.
While I was there, there were a couple of gentlemen from Germany who were looking for any young American philatelist to potentially go intern in Germany. Alex immediately thought of me because I had just graduated from college and was considering graduate school or just looking for a job or just not really sure what I was planning on doing. Alex said, "Well, if you don't have anything lined up, you need to go to Germany."
I met with these two gentlemen. They said, "We'd like to host you for two months in Germany. You'll stay with us; you'll work for us. It'll be like you're a part of the office." I had to think about it for about half a second before I said yes. So, they flew me over to Germany in the early part of 2016. I was very up-front with them. I said, "I love collecting stamps, but I have no interest in working for an auction house. I'm just a collector; I don't want to sell my soul. I want to be a historian."
I gave them this whole speech about how I didn't want to work at an auction house. They said, "We understand. We still want to have you over." Within about two or three days of being in their office, I went to them and I said, "I want to do this for the rest of my life." I immediately fell in love with the work. I was as happy as I'd ever been doing anything.
Coincidentally, they owned an auction house in America, located in Orange County, California, about fifteen minutes from where I grew up. They said, "You can start full-time as soon as you're back in the States." So, to get a job fifteen miles down the road from me, I had to go to Monaco and then Germany in order to be hired in my own backyard, which I never thought would happen.
At the 50th anniversary celebration of the American Philatelic Research Library's founding, Epting gave a short lecture titled "The First Family of Philately: A Century of Harmer Auctions," available to view now on Youtube.
Yeah. Again, everything seemed to really fall into place. I can't give enough credit to Alex for being sort of the puppeteer pulling the strings in all of this, both with the YPLF and the introduction he made.
So, I very quickly took the job in California. I've been with H.R. Harmer for about three and a half years now. After a couple of months with the company, there was a personnel change. I was made president, which didn't actually change what I did with the company; it just changed my title, is the way I like to look at it. It's been the greatest couple of years of my life. I have never looked back on my decision to join the professional side of things at any point.
We recently relocated to midtown Manhattan, which is where my company was founded in 1940. So, I look at it as a homecoming, and a long-overdue move for H.R. Harmer. Professionally, again, without the YPLF and that invite to Monaco, I probably would still be applying to history graduate programs. [Laughter] To be honest. Hopefully I would have gotten in by now, but I . . . am so grateful for this job, and to have gotten to explore the professional side of philately these last three-some odd years. So, that's the professional side of things.
Personally, I've remained--it's funny, because I sit in the office all day looking at other peoples' stamps. Then, when I get home at night, the first thing I want to do is look at my own stamps. So, I don't get burned out on it. I haven't gotten sick of it yet, which I think--my parents and friends all thought I would have at this point. But I'm still very active personally; still try to join as many societies as possible and attend as many meetings as possible. I'm presenting to the Collectors Club of New York two weeks from today, I guess, which is a very nice honor, that I never thought I'd be asked to speak for them. But very happy to be doing that in a couple of weeks.
I've been to every APS show since that first Hartford show in 2014, as well as . . . as many of the World Series of Philately shows as possible. It's not just a job for me; it still is my hobby. It still is what I love. I've dabbled in exhibiting. I still try and write as much as possible. But it's not just a job or a paycheck for me. It's still a very integral part of my life.
That's amazing. That's a very unique track that you've been on, and it sounds very fulfilling.
It has been. It's something I never could have anticipated in a million years. Again, the fact that I would even go to Europe--well, the fact that I'd go to Connecticut in the first place, and the fact that I'd go to Europe . . . and then be offered a job back in the States. It's been serendipitous, is the word I always come back to, because I don't know how anybody could have planned any of this out.
[Stamp collecting] is not just a job for me; it still is my hobby. It still is what I love. It's still a very integral part of my life.
Can you tell me how what you learned in the YPLF informs you on a daily or annual basis? For instance in your work with H.R. Harmer right now?
Absolutely. With the YPLF, for me personally, going to a big StampShow like that is very intimidating, especially as a nineteen- or twenty-year-old. And not knowing anything; seeing all of the exhibits and the dealers and the exhibitors is beyond frightening. The fact that I was part of the YPLF, I was part of the APS, I had my little badge on, it really gave me a purpose to be there. It really helped give me the confidence to deal with these great collectors and dealers who might have seemed unapproachable otherwise. At that first Hartford show, I met many, many . . . yes, they're important collectors, but they're also just really great, decent human beings.
I think that that was my biggest thing with the YPLF; it just really gave me a reason, a purpose for being in the hobby, which I really appreciated. I wasn't just introducing myself to people as a collector; I was one of the new YPLF fellows, which again, helped boost my confidence greatly. I think I'm still feeling the effects of that today. A lot of the people I met in Hartford, I still speak to on a regular basis. So, there was that.
But then also, we would take exhibit tours. Getting inside the mind of an exhibitor, I hadn't even thought about exhibiting at that point. As part of the YPLF, I went to Summer Seminar and took a course on exhibiting. That has helped me greatly, again, get inside the minds of people, even if they don't collect what I collect or even if their knowledge is way beyond where I'm at. Just learning the very basics of how an exhibit flows and what is necessary for an exhibit. If I see an item, I know to contact a collector and say, "Hey, this would fit perfectly in Frame 2 of your exhibit." From an exhibiting point of view, and in general, a collecting point of view, it really just taught me all of the building blocks of collecting.
Again, I was sitting around on eBay before the YPLF, and all of a sudden, I'm being flown across the country to go to a show and sit in on board meetings, hear what dealers expect from auction houses and what auction houses expect from dealers and collectors. It really did just display all of the building blocks. When I was thrown into an auction house setting, without the YPLF at the foundation, I would have really been a fish out of water.
YPLF really gave me a reason, a purpose for being in the hobby. I wasn't just introducing myself to people as a collector; I was one of the new YPLF fellows, which helped boost my confidence greatly.
I wasn't just a nobody at my first show. I was already a YPLF fellow.
Yeah. I can tell what a dramatic effect it must have had for you, 'cause that's such a rapid shift.
I really went from 0 to 60, but Alex and Gretchen, at the time, and John Hotchner, as my mentor, really held my hand. But I can't say enough, too, for just the dealers and collectors who didn't know who I was, as soon as they heard I was a YPLF fellow, they would offer me a free membership to their society, or they would offer to loan me materials to write an article about it. That program really has a lot of cachet in the hobby, I think. Again, I wasn't just a nobody at my first show; I was already a YPLF fellow. I think that really helped build my relationships and build my confidence in the hobby.
Absolutely. And I wonder, looking to the future, if you have any long-term goals for your collecting or for your professional work? Do you have a long-term idea of how you'd like to contribute to philately going forward?
Right now, I've just sort of been taking things as they come. I've been pretty happy with it so far. So, I'm excited to see what's in store for the future. I'd love to personally continue exhibiting; that's something that has sort of fallen by the wayside as I focus more and more on work. I haven't had to time to sit down and map out a five- or an eight-frame exhibit, so. And personally, through the YPLF, I took a wonderful exhibiting course at Summer Seminar which has provided me with the basis of my limited knowledge on exhibiting. I'd like to do that.
Really, what's fun about the auction business, for me, is I get to handle things that are well outside of my means and outside of my comfort zone. So, it's really like getting to collect other people's stamps for them. For me, right now, my main professional goal is just making the most of the opportunities I have handling rare, exceptional material, and really just trying to learn as much as possible about as many different things as possible. I think it would be easy for me to be so set in my ways that I just focus on my nice collecting field, but when I'm having to describe lots and meet with collectors about consigning their collection, it really forces me to go outside my comfort zone.
I think that's my main professional goal, is just to keep absorbing as much information from people and books as possible. Because I look back at where I was at Hartford or where I was when I took this job a couple of years ago, and then I look at where I am today, and I realize that I still know 1/100th of one percent of everything there is to know. But that's still many times more than I knew coming into this. I'm just excited to see where I'm at in a couple years, when I've had the chance to read more material and read more books and see more exhibits. I'm just really trying to absorb as much as possible.
It's great that, after coming through the program, and even working now in fine stamp auctions, you still have--you retain a learner's mind. You recognize this kind of authority that you have, but you're continuously ready to learn more and take in more.
Of course. At every auction we have--and that's something I've learned through the YPLF, too, is just how much there is to collect. It's one thing, you can look at a set of Scott catalogs and get a sense of what's out there, but then you meet people who collect things that aren't listed or things that are so obscure, I'd have no idea they existed. That's what is really fun about this, is again, I can . . . there's things that I know I don't know, but then there's plenty of things that I don't even know that I don't know. That's really what makes this hobby so fun, is that I feel like I can just keep learning forever.
What would you recommend to a potential applicant? If you were at a StampShow, and you ran into someone in an elevator, who said, "Oh, I was thinking about doing this thing." What would you say to them?
I think the big thing for me is that, while it is great to pick your track--I know they've added a couple of new ones, like cachet design or dealer or author or exhibitor--I think what's really fun is taking full advantage of what the YPLF has to offer.
Again, I took a course on exhibiting. I had my writer track that was the main focus, but then I ended up effectively, in a dealer track, through taking this job. So, I think what's funny is, you don't have to have a one-track mind. You can really milk the program for all that it's worth. There's so many opportunities; there's so many people you'll meet, and so many doors will be opened for you.
I think that's my biggest piece of advice, is don't go into it close-minded. I thought I was just gonna write articles. I never thought that I would . . . had somebody offered me the dealer track, I would have thought it was crazy, 'cause I never wanted to go into stamps professionally. Had I not had an open mind, I would have missed out on an opportunity that's really changed my life. So, I think that's the main thing I would say to somebody, is: you don't know what you're gonna like; you may think you want to collect one thing and be completely persuaded by something else. You may think you want to be an eBay dealer and find out you really want to be a magazine editor. There's so many different paths you can take in this hobby, and the YPLF really opened me up to a lot of things I never expected.
I think that's one thing I would tell a young person considering applying, is just that there's--you can have your expectations going into the program, and I certainly had my expectations going into the program, but there's just so much more to it than that. That's really what's been fulfilling for me, is that all sorts of unexpected surprises popped up when I least expected them.
Don't go into [YPLF] close-minded. Had I not had an open mind, I would have missed out on an opportunity that's really changed my life.
I wonder, is there anything else you'd like to share about the benefits of your experience with our audience of readers, who include current fellows, alumni, donors, and also potential applicants?
The main thing I want to say to the donors is just a big thank you. I've met a lot of the donors personally, and I was on the board of the Classics Society when they renewed their donorship a couple of times. I really just think that it's--and there's a lot of different societies, organizations, in the hobby to donate to--I think you'd be hard-pressed to find one more fulfilling or rewarding than the YPLF. There's a couple of my best friends who also went through the program and also have professional philatelic jobs. I really just want to say thank you to the donors more than anything.
Other than that, to alums or to current YPLFs or to potentials, the friends I've made through the YPLF have been great, and it's amazing to go to a stamp show in some random part of the country and see five or six familiar faces. I always get excited to stop by the YPLF booth, because they're not just your colleagues or your classmates, they really become your friends, after seeing them twice a year for so many years. So, the social aspect of it, I've enjoyed very much.
I owe my entire career to the YPLF, and Alex in particular. Again, I don't know what I would be doing if it wasn't for the YPLF, and when I signed up for the YPLF and I thought it would be fun to travel a couple of times a year, maybe write a couple of articles, I had no way of knowing that it would so profoundly impact the trajectory of my life. So, I guess it's just respect and awe and appreciation for what the YPLF has done for me, because again, there's no way I would be in my current position if it weren't for the program.
I'm very glad that you were able to participate, and I can tell that the class was very lucky to have you when you were in it, as well, someone as thoughtful and ready to learn and be active as you. I want to say thank you to you, too, both for your time and participating.
Of course! Again, I can't speak highly enough of the program. It's why I am where I am. Again, none of it was planned out, but it's been a really fun journey for the last four and a half or so years since I was a fellow.