Stamp collecting in an e-mail age

The hobby used to revolve around trading at conventions or chance finds at a local shop or show. The Web has changed all that.

Living along a remote stretch of Northern California's redwood coast, Oliver Seeler painstakingly tracks down stamps from around the world. But not just any stamps. He collects only those with images of bagpipes.

Seeler, the 60-year-old chief of the Albion-Little River Volunteer Fire Department, came to his hobby through his work selling bagpipes and bagpipe music. Pursuing such a niche might once have required a trip to a collectors' convention, or a chance find at a shop or show. Now, he uses auction sites, catalogs and other Web resources to identify stamps that can augment his collection, which he showcases online.

"The stamps are often difficult to find even after you have identified them," he said. "If you had to track them down by phone or by mail, it would just be prohibitive in terms of time and money."

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After five years, his collection numbers 148 stamps, and has inspired a friendly rivalry. A little over a year ago, he received an e-mail message from a 41-year-old piper in Yorkshire, Sean Stewart, who had found Seeler's site and informed him about a bagpipe stamp from New Zealand that he had once seen. Their e-mail exchanges about finding that stamp transformed Stewart into an avid collector.

"Now we communicate almost daily. We are always on the hunt for stamps," said Seeler, adding that their e-mail correspondence now numbers nearly 800 messages. "We compete with each other to see who can come up with the next bagpipe stamp." (At the moment, Stewart has 218 of the 240 bagpipe stamps that they have identified.)

Seeler and Stewart's intercontinental rivalry represents just one facet of how stamp collecting has adapted to the rise of the Internet. Many enthusiasts worry that the pastime may slowly fade in the blare of video games, satellite television and iPods. But for all its emphasis on paper, ink and glue, stamp collecting has found new life in the digital age.

The hobby's online dimension is striking because most collectors are from an older generation less familiar with computers and the Internet. Still, the lure of meeting other stamp collectors, locating that one elusive stamp for a collection, or showcasing entire collections has drawn many onto the Web.

Linn's Stamp News, a weekly publication for collectors, found that 44 percent of its subscribers used computers for their collecting last year, compared with 34 percent in 1996. (And the average age of its readers last year was 65.8.)

An unintended result of displaying stamps on the Internet is the

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