The More Things Change…

This article appeared in
April, 2021

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The More Things Change…

I went to a hardware store yesterday to get a part to repair a faucet. The clerk helping me was apologetic for needing to ask the store owner for help finding the exact match. “I’m sorry, I’ve been working in this store for four years and still don’t know the plumbing section very well.” Of course the owner found the item in seconds and I went on my merry way. The scene that had just played out was an exact replica of one in which I was one of the players some fifty-five years previous. Replete, even, with the discussion about how the numbers of faucet parts had grown so much.

All of which got me thinking about the inviolable truth of, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

That phrase doesn’t come to mind that often, because most of the time I don’t think we pay much attention to things that don’t change. Sure, we complain about roads never getting repaired and prices always rising. Or maybe why it always rains the day after we wash the car. Those kinds of things are constant. Irritating, but constant.

What really gets under our skin are the changes that don’t seem necessary. Those kinds of changes are easy to spot because they raise our blood pressure. “Why don’t they leave things alone?” “Do we really need ...?” I don’t know about you, but some of the changes I have railed about in the past have turned out to be beneficial long term. That is, once I got used to them and learned how to use them in my world.

For instance, the way my contributors and I correspond has changed radically. Inquiries no longer require stamps, envelopes and a week to answer. Collectors still send images of their certificates, but all are now electronic. Those changes allowed me to collect and display over 19,400 (!) small images on my website, plus an additional 9,600 images that are three times larger. I never imagined something like that would have been possible when I started my catalog project. And it definitely would have been impossible without collectors and dealers learning how to adapt to those radical changes.

Everyone in this and other hobbies knows those very same changes have completely changed collecting. Collectors and dealers alike have struggled – and cursed –those changes, so there is nothing I can possibly add.

Yet some changes have been highly beneficial. Take, for instance, the ability for dealers to display certificates larger in full color. While building a website is no picnic for the technologically-challenged, the actual costs of maintaining one have dropped so much that it is now possible to display large images almost for free. Again, that was something else I had not imagined. Ready access to the web has allowed dealers to display more of their inventory and eliminate their printed price lists and catalogs.

Auction houses have not been quite so lucky. Yes, changes brought access to the web and ways to display all their lots. But those same electronic improvements also forced tremendously higher costs upon them. What auction company could survive by mailing black and white offerings that couldn’t stack up to their competitors’ beautiful and expensive full-color catalogs? Bidding seemed to get simpler, but collectors had no way of knowing the scale of new overhead costs that their sellers were incurring behind the scenes. It is no accident that auction commissions rose from 10% in the 1990s to those common today.

Technology has brought measurable changes to our hobby, both incredibly positive and the exact opposite. At this very moment, we hold an impressive full-color magazine in our hands that would have been impossibly costly to produce when our hobby began. And yet, cultural changes, many brought on by technology, have diminished the numbers of collectors in this and practically all hobbies. The more things change…

However, and this is crucial to appreciate, the basic instincts and desires of many collectors has stayed remarkably strong and constant. Some of the collectors I correspond with now are among the most rabid I’ve ever experienced. There remains a huge thirst for information. And I can absolutely guarantee that collectors thrive on contributing to this hobby when given the opportunity. How in the world could I have ever amassed information about 23,255 varieties and sub-varieties of North American railroad certificates without their help?

While most of the dealers I know have web presences and sell electronically, most of the rest of their business practices remain anchored in the mail order business. Yes, the mail order business! The main thing that has changed is the acquisition of customers. Print advertising is still around, but hardly anyone is using it. Everyone is trying to capture collectors from the web because there are so many eyeballs. Yet capturing those eyeballs is a real challenge and I don’t know many people who’ve learned how to pull them in like they once did.

But you see, mail order is NOT a bad thing. The great thing about it is that all the relationship “rules” preached in hundreds of books about mail order still apply. I know that because collectors tell me. They all still want and need dealers to dispel their fears about buying from people they will never meet. They want to buy from someone they trust. They demand rock-solid return guarantees. They want to know that dealers appreciate certificates the way they do. In a way, they want partnerships. They really yearn for dealers and auction houses to be on their side and help them add to their collections.

Yes, eBay is a thorn in the sides of professional dealers. Still, I think we all know that amateur part-time sellers liquidating flea-market certificates are never going to fill the role of cultivating relationships like professionals can.

Personally, I think relationships are the single most important parts of the collecting equation. If there is one clue in  …the more things stay the same, it is that humans are inextricably wired for relationships. Stable relationships. In the midst of never-ending change, we can rely on that single fact. Leverage that and both parties to relationships benefit.