“Yesterday, nobody came in.”
At 80 years old, Charles Berg is an old-fashioned looking man, with a white mustache twirled at both ends and a short-sleeved blue dress shirt, its pocket populated with pens. He runs an old-fashioned business: Stamp King, the last stamp shop in the city of Chicago. It’s in an old-fashioned neighborhood, Norwood Park — a storefront on Higgins Avenue, between a law office and an insurance agent.
If anybody had come into Stamp King, they would have been confronted with a handwritten sign on the door: BUZZER BROKEN. PLEASE KNOCK. Inside is a barrel of canceled stamps marked 2 cents each, 100 for $1.75. At the top of the pile: a torn sheet of cardboard affixed with three stamps honoring Marianne Moore, the Brooklyn poet who died in 1972, but lives on in the Poetry Foundation’s library. Cardboard boxes, packed with stamps, are stacked so high and deep they leave only a one-abreast path to Berg’s desk, where he sits with the tools of the stamp dealer’s trade: a lamp with a magnifying glass, tweezers, a Scott catalog, a retractable knife.
If you want to feel like the 21st Century never arrived in Chicago — and I imagine a lot of people want to feel that way these days — there’s no better place to do it than at Stamp King.
“When I was kid, everybody collected stamps,” says Berg, who was a kid in the 1940s and ’50s. “There used to be several dozen stamp shops downtown, and scattered all over the neighborhood. Marshall Field’s had a stamp department. We don’t have enough stamp collectors anymore. They’re all dying. Times have radically changed. Youngsters don’t collect stuff like we did. A lot of people don’t save things. It’s very minimal.”
Berg’s love of postage began when he was 6 years old. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, where his father opened a medical practice after leaving the Navy. In the first grade, measles kept him home from school. During young Charles’s convalescence, his beloved grandfather asked him, “Do you want to collect stamps?”
“I caught the measles and stamp collecting,” he recalls. “The measles went away. When I was a Boy Scout, my first merit badge was stamp collecting. My second was coin collecting. When boys get to high school, they develop nasal problems: their noses become affected by perfume and gasoline. They stop collecting stamps. I never stopped.”
Even if youngsters did collect stuff, they probably wouldn’t collect stamps. Youngsters don’t use stamps. According to Bloomberg News, “Americans are sending less mail than they used to, with overall volume falling 43 percent since 2001. That decline is especially pronounced among Millennials. In 2001, Gen X-ers between the ages of 18 and 34 received 17 pieces of mail per week. By 2017, that number fell to 10 pieces of mail for Millennials in the same age range.”
“A lot of people don’t mail letters anymore,” Berg lamented.
Wedding invitations are an exception. The soon-to-be-wed often mail out envelopes with stamps depicting the wedding’s location. A couple about to be married in Maine asked Berg for lighthouses, sailboats, pinecones and blueberries. He ordered the stamps from a dealer in New York. The postman brought them in on a Wednesday afternoon — in an Express Mail envelope, stickered over with stamps.
“Vintage stamp dealer” is the most staid occupation imaginable. Most days it is — except for the day five Chicago police cars converged on Stamp King, to investigate a stolen cover worth $1 million. A couple had brought in an oversized envelope with a 90¢ Lincoln stamp, issued in 1869, which they had found while cleaning out the house of a deceased relative. The envelope had been mailed from Boston to Calcutta in 1870. Berg couldn’t find it listed in a catalog, so he called a colleague knowledgeable about 19th Century stamps.
“That’s the Ice House Cover,” the colleague said, so called because it was mailed to an ice house in Calcutta. “It was stolen over 40 years ago. You can’t let it out of the store. Have you called the police?”
“The couple is with me,” Berg responded. “Can you help?”
The colleague called the police. At first, the Chicago Police Department was indifferent to a stolen stamp caper, until Berg told them how much the envelope was worth. The FBI took possession of the Ice House Cover, because the cops were worried about evidence theft, and eventually returned it to the original owner’s widow and daughter.
That’s as exciting as it’s ever gotten at Stamp King, unless you find it exciting that the 60-year-old “Sanitary 6 Cent Stamps” machine on Berg’s desk still dispenses postage when you drop in a coin and turn a crank. (The machine promises “2 Four Cent Stamps for a Dime,” but only produces 1¢ American Kestrel stamps.)
As he begins his ninth decade, Berg has no plans to retire, or close Stamp King, even though more people come into the store to sell him old collections than to start new ones. “I don’t need any more stamps,” he complains. A sign taped to the safe behind him reads, “The Only Difference Between This Place and the Titanic: The Titanic Had a Band.”
So, before I left Stamp King, I bought some stamps off Berg. I wanted stamps that illustrated the names of my children: Lark, Birch, and Rose. Berg found them for me. In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a “state bird” series. Six states have named the Western Meadowlark as their official bird. The gray birch appeared in the 1978 American Trees sheet. A 29¢ rose stamp came out in 1993.
The stamps were worth $6. I owed Berg $3, after subtracting the price of a blueberry muffin I’d bought him at the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner. Of course Stamp King doesn’t take debit or credit cards.
“You can send me a check, or send me three singles,” Berg said. He handed me an envelope, with three stamps, and pounded his name and address onto it with an ink stamp. When I got home, I filled it with three dollar bills. There was no more old-fashioned way to pay, and no more old-fashioned place to send the money.