Gordon Trotter, 78, stood behind a table in the home economics room at Harpers Choice Middle School in Columbia on a recent weeknight.
Wearing a short-sleeve black polo shirt, dark brown slacks and brown loafers, the longtime Wilde Lake Village resident raised a small stamp in the air with his right hand.
"Afghanistan," said Trotter, describing the origin of the stamp. "Much in the news lately, you might have heard."
The congenial, dry-witted Trotter, with snow-white hair and glasses, spent the next 40 minutes playing the auctioneer at one of the regular meetings of the Howard County Stamp Club.
The group, which began in 1972, meets the first and third Wednesday of every month, and a few times a year holds an auction. On this night, about a dozen members sit quietly as Trotter quickly makes his way through 159 lots of stamps.
The stamps run the gamut, from beavers on a Canadian stamp and a World Cup soccer stamp to stamps from Austria, France, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Latvia, Ireland and many other countries.
Members of the 40-year-old club do not need to live in Howard County and some come from neighboring counties, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Prince George's.
At the recent meeting, all but one of the members there were men and most were in their 60s and 70s, But over the years, the club meetings have attracted at least two youths, as well as college faculty members, computer programmers, an antiques dealer, a retired Navy officer and some in the medical field. Dues are about $10 per year.
"I started collecting when I was 8 years old and never really stopped," said Trotter, one of the charter members when the Howard County Stamp Club began.
"One of the things that I like about it is how educational it is," added Trotter, noting that a person can learn a lot about history and geography while collecting stamps.
But while the club is four decades old and the hobby far older than that, many collectors worry about the future.
Member Jim Kuttler, of Ellicott City, said the U.S. post office has made decisions that have hurt the hobby, such as printing self-adhesive stamps.
"And of course kids have a gazillion other things to do. They have computer games, tweets and texting," he said. "I think stamp collecting is definitely a dying hobby. But that is in the U.S. It turns out it is pretty popular in Europe, especially in Germany. But it is a long slippery slope down" in this country.
"People don't use the post office as much or the same ways as we used to it," said David Mann, another member of the Howard club. "It used to be that everything you sent was with postage stamps. I think that is part of it."
Kuttler, who works at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel, began collecting stamps as a young boy. "I was living near St. Louis and I was probably about 13. A neighbor gave me an old stamp collection that was in the attic. I collected for hours. I went off to college, got a job and got married and put (the hobby) aside."
Kuttler, who has been part of the club for many years, said in the past stamps were perfect to collect.
"People like to collect about anything, and stamps are popular because they are small," he said. "They are easy to acquire."
In recent years Kuttler, who has German roots, has combined his interest in stamps with another hobby: genealogy.
"One of the things that you can do when you run into a brick wall is see if you are related to anyone famous," he said. "That is a lot of fun."
Kuttler had a great grandmother who was a Seward and learned that she was related to William Henry Seward, the secretary of state under President Lincoln. And it turns out that Seward appeared on a U.S. stamp.
"I gave (a presentation) to the Howard County Genealogy Society and got some people interested in stamps. I gave my presentation to the stamp club and got some people interested in genealogy," Kuttler said.
Learning through collecting
Longtime North Laurel resident Mann, 72, another club member, said he learned a lot as a young boy by collecting stamps. Even a few weeks ago, he heard something on the news about American historian Francis Parkman, who lived from 1823-93 and wrote about the Oregon trail, among other topics.
While Parkman may be unknown to most Americans, that was not the case for Mann.
"I knew who that was. He was on a stamp," Mann noted.
Mann points out that some small countries, such as island nations, will use stamps as a way to generate revenue for their government.
The oldest stamps at the auction in October in Columbia were U.S. stamps from 1893 to mark the 400th anniversary — albeit a year late — of Columbus discovering America.
"Things moved slower then" in 1893, noted one of the Howard County collectors.
The three Columbus stamps in the series at Harpers Choice included one that depicted the explorer in sight of land, another of Columbus soliciting aid from Isabella and Columbus being welcomed in Barcelona.
The highest asking price for one of three at the auction was $24 and most of the stamps that were sold one recent evening went for less than $3 per lot.
The only female member in attendance this night was Marriottsville's Aldona Pilius, who collected stamps when she was younger but put the hobby aside while raising her children, she said.
She returned to stamp collecting and joined the club in 2003 when her children were older. Her parents were born in Lithuania and she did some translation for some Lithuanian stamps at the recent auction.
"You go to a stamp show and everyone is in their 60s and 70s," Kuttler noted. "You don't see a lot of women. It is about five guys to one woman.