REMEMBER WHEN…

His name is Israel Bick. Occupation: collectibles, mainly postage stamps and coins. Israel has been buying and selling stamps to collectors since junior high school days in the early 1950s.

Those years are remembered in elderly circles today as the time when stamp collecting was the number one hobby of young and old.

“Practically every kid I knew collected stamps, for good reasons,” Israel recalled. “It was an inexpensive hobby, fun and fascinating.

A learning experience

“Without realizing it, we were also receiving history and geography lessons while enjoying one of the most popular pastimes in the world.

“Collectors everywhere were being introduced to famous individuals. Their accomplishments were recognized too. Stamps also briefed us on historical events and current activities of countless countries. It all broadened our knowledge and understanding of the world around us,” declared this budding Bronx businessman.

For readers unfamiliar with the word “Bronx,” it is the name of a borough in that famous five-borough eastern city which guarantees that if you can make it there, “you’ll make it anywhere.’’

To young Mr. Bick Bronx, New York was home. “Making it there” meant selling enough stamps to earn a few dollars that would somewhat ease the grinding burden of near-poverty that plagued his family.

Heading for success

The most meaningful enterprise in his life during those hard times was getting good grades. The Bick family rightly considered this essential on the way to success no matter what career Israel chose. Fortunately A’s and B’s came regularly from junior high through four years at Yeshiva University in the Big Apple.

There he not only sold stamps to students. A number of university professors became regular customers as well. “This led me to believe that if the demand for what I was selling remained strong and steady among students plus their professors, stamp collecting would probably continue as a habit of many graduates along with others in the adult world.”

Student-teacher support plus a short but growing list of direct mail customers promised at least a steady cash flow in the near future.

Encouraged by what he saw as probable assurance of security, Israel founded Bick International immediately after graduation. It was largely a mail order operation. And its Founder/President was well aware that “we were nowhere near competing with the giant mail operations of the industry. But business was steady. We were also building a name for ourselves nationally via mailings.”

Putting the country first

In a sense, Bick International was a pioneer venture as well as a business with a bright future. From 1961 to ’63 it was run by a woman— very much a rarity in those days. Israel’s sister, Lorraine, took charge while her brother served a two-year stint in the Army. Upon his return to civilian life, the boss happily announced, “Lorraine did a terrific job in The Bronx. Our company is in great shape”

He also declared that “as far as I was concerned, we made it in New York and had an excellent opportunity to expand if we set up shop in Southern California. The area was booming, especially Los Angeles.”

The move west not only boosted business. It provided an opportunity for Bick International to reach new regional markets through recurring attendance at prestigious coin, stamp and collectible shows. “Show appearances have played a key role in the growth of our company,” Bick explained.

“The most current example of this is our appearance every two months at the Hotel Orleans in Los Vegas. A selection of our choice items are on display, and for the most part serious collectors attend this stamp and collectibles showing,” he added.

End of an era

On that note, we conclude our look at what might be considered stamp collecting’s bright side. Unfortunately there is darkness to spare, while postage stamps as a hobby steadily fade into history.

Linn’s Stamp News, the industry’s leading publication, sums up the story by the numbers. An LSM study reveals that approximately five million Americans, averaging 72 years old, now collect postage stamps. Virtually no new young collectors are joining them to sustain the hobby. “Those who do collect are well-to-do senior citizens, searching for rare high-value investment stamps.”

Similar situations are evident worldwide, according to a Wall Street Journal report in 2013. It put the number of stamp collectors on the entire planet at only about 60 million.

“In short, stamp collecting is clearly at rock bottom and has been there for quite some time. Active collectors are largely well-to-do seniors,” according to Bick.

What caused this fall from the top?

Bick pointed out that collectors began to lose interest with the end of World War 2 and the appearance of new, action-packed mechanical and electric toys and games. The final blow was the computer era.

Unbeatable competition

Very few if any 21st Century hobbyists would be satisfied quietly collecting little colored pieces of paper representing nations around the world. Their kicks come from playing and collecting fast-moving games set in thrilling, life-like worlds of their own, featuring daredevil adventures, athletic competition, outer space discoveries.

These and countless other games make up a steady flow of new and remarkably inventive designs to chose from.

In their own way, members of the world’s dwindling bands of stamp collectors are quite possibly as enthusiastic as today’s game-players. Many may happily share moments of the past filled with fun and friendships that came from trading stamps with other collectors. Or they may enjoy browsing through the old stamp album and letting the moments come to them as they turn page after page, traveling the planet.

Whatever they are up to is pure pleasure.

Just ask Israel Bick.

ENTREPRENEURS—AN ENDANGERED SPECIES

 

How’s this for a sign of the times? Studies show that the number of 25-year-old and younger Americans planning on entrepreneurial careers has dipped below the levels of previous generations. And the downward trend continues despite a rise in the population of this age group.

Apparently many of our best and brightest young people are convinced that the current recession makes starting a business—or anything else that’s new, improved or innovative— too risky.

Risky, yes. Too risky? Not for Mike Shenk, who has been there and back and finds himself there again, trapped in a recession with the rest of us.

Shenk owns Watsonville, California-based Seascape Lamps, a thriving upscale lighting company offering modern, contemporary, retro style lamps and custom shades at his retail website. Seascape’s wholesale outlet meets the needs of a long list of business clients. These include hotels, designers and firms that serve production companies in the film and TV industries.

Not the best timing

Shenk opened his business in 1980 at age 24. Less than a year later, the country was mired in a recession that plagued us from July 1981 to November of the following year—a relatively short time but long enough to do some serious economic damage.

Holding things together required a combination of smart selling techniques, business know-how, and aesthetic sensitivity. Shenk measured up on the first two items thanks to on-the-job training at his uncle’s Long Beach, California waterbed store. The aesthetic part came naturally.

“I’ve always thought of that store as sort of a business school as well as a workplace. I learned a lot there, like different approaches to selling and marketing strategies, things I apply to my business even today,” Shenk pointed out. 

Weekend work pays off

  Added experience gained as a waterbed bedding salesperson at a weekend swap meet helped, too. More significant is the fact that this job provided a starting point on the way to establishing his own business.

It all began when he became friendly with a neighboring swap meet entrepreneur who was selling his own handmade ceramic-cast lamps.

Their meeting coincided with Shenk’s decision to move to Northern California. He appreciated the artistry his new found friend brought to lamp designs and decided to buy some, hoping to sell them in a flea market in San Jose. The plan was a success, and Shenk’s lamp-making friend joined up as Seascape’s regular supplier of lamp bases.

A do-it-yourselfer does well

To obtain lamp shades, Shenk hired a Los Angeles designer; an arrangement that lasted until he figured out how much overhead could be reduced by doing the job himself. So the firm’s self appointed shade-designer-in-chief set up shop in the garage at his home in nearby Santa Cruz. He later moved into a quonset hut.

When more space was needed to accommodate his growing business, Shenk re-located to a small shop where he offered custom designed lamp shades separately as well as complete lamp-and-shade packages. His client list included stores and other lamp designers who favored his custom shades.

Topping the list was a Chinese lighting company that signed on with Seascape in 1991. This bit of good fortune was worth sales of   up to 1,000 shades per week.

Boss plus lamp maker

 In the following year, the artist in Shenk surfaced again. Besides designing shades, he took on the job of making lamp bases. In the process he became a leader in the revival of the retro look. Soon Shenk was turning out about 30 designs a year while maintaining an inventory of up to 130 different styles.

If you’re thinking he held a non-stop ticket to success, don’t.  This master of multi-tasking was forced to navigate some pretty big obstacles. For example, after the first nine years of operation, Seascape was found to be a stagnant no-growth company. And its founder could not figure out a way to turn this unprofitable situation around.

In desperation he raised all prices 12 percent. “I figured the way things stood, I would probably go down anyway. And I had nothing to lose.” Actually he had plenty to gain. By hiking up prices he burnished the image of his lamps to the point where the Seascape brand became more desirable than ever. Business picked up, except for Shenk’s retail store in San Jose. It closed after three years.

A big “ouch”

These weren’t the only hits Shenk took. In 2002 he bought a second lighting business, one that dealt in imports. “Four years later I was on the verge of bankruptcy. For the first time in my life I had to borrow money. Eventually I managed to sell the import business and pay off all my debts.”  Such is the life of the entrepreneur.

Today, the wholesale operation is by far the larger part of Seascape. Hotels and design firms make up its top tier of clients.  Luxury hotel chains such as Marriott, Hilton and Four Seasons offer selected guest rooms enhanced by custom-designed Seascape lamps. Some Seascape creations were seen in the motion picture “Legally Blonde” and ABC-TV’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Among earlier wholesale customers were Neiman Marcus and Crate & Barrel.

All things considered, Shenk can point with pride to his company’s track record. But how does the future shape up? “It’s a good news, bad news situation,” he said. “On the good news side I look for a 10 percent increase in our business in 2012. And I think fabric lighting fixtures will repeat as our most popular product.”

Good news…sort of

 “Why the optimism? Because we’re among the very few lighting companies in America that still provides custom-designed lamps, which are highly popular. And that, in large part, is where most of the extra ten percent will come from—this year and for the foreseeable future.” That also leads him straight to the bad news.

“Customizing is fast becoming a lost art because the U.S. lighting industry as a whole is shrinking,” he stated “The problem stems from a growing demand for lower priced foreign-made lamps—particularly the ones coming out of China.”

“Globalism and recession are key reasons why our economy is on the ropes,” he continued. “But I didn’t laugh all the way to the bank in 1981, either. In those days, Globalism was more a topic of conversation than a reality. And, along with plenty of other people, I somehow muddled through that recession and prospered.”

American entrepreneurs—the real ones—have a knack for doing just that.