Couple builds life, love and a business out of a stamp collection

Nearly 46 years ago, Bob and Barbara Chisholm met because of stamps. A Santa Ana dealer introduced them.

The two soon realized they had a common love — stamps — which probably explains why their first date was to a stamp show in San Diego.

The courtship was brisk. Within six weeks, they were engaged and four months later, married.

Eventually, they decided to take their mutual love of stamps to the next level.

Bob was already working at a stamp store in Los Angeles. Barbara was a paralegal, but that all changed forever by 11 a.m., Oct. 28, 1975, when they opened their very own stamp store, Coast Philatelics, near Baker Street and Randolph Avenue in Costa Mesa.

It was tiny. Only 250 square feet.

The rent was $85 a month, which they covered with an $85 loan from their firstborn's bank account. Another $3,000 loan and some of Bob's personal collection helped get things started.

On opening day, Coast Philatelics made $167 — more than enough to pay back that $85 loan from their infant son's bank account.

On Wednesday, exactly 40 years later, over cake, sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres, the Chisholms quietly celebrated their business anniversary milestone, reminiscing about that first day and the many after it. They've had ups and downs, moments where they had to scare up enough spare money to buy groceries for the week.

But, as dedicated hobbyists themselves, it's fruitful labor. They love the stories behind stamps, their origins — even the history of the postal industry.

"It's a joy to get up in the morning," Barbara said, "and say, 'Gotta work.'"

Philately is the collection and study of postage stamps. Bob and Barbara Chisholm are expert philatelists who — in addition to manning their roughly 1,000-square-foot store at 1113 Baker St., Suite D — frequently sell at industry trade shows. They moved from their first shop in 1977.

Walking into Coast Philatelics can be a little intimidating, though certainly not uninviting, for its sheer number of items for sale. It smells like a library and its offerings are categorized into seemingly endless stacks of folders and boxes, all labeled.

Some stamps are sorted by topic, from mushrooms to dogs, and others depict places, from Aden (a port city in Yemen) to Zimbabwe (a country in southern Africa).

Between the store and those trade shows, the Chisholms have no time to sell on the Internet.

"I don't knock the Internet. To me, it's a viable option," Bob said. "I'm just not one to be on the computer all day long."

How many stamps does Coast Philatelics carry?

Not even the Chisholms know for sure.

Maybe a million. Maybe quite a bit more than that, between what's in the store and back at their Mesa del Mar home.

One thing's for sure, though: The store hasn't changed much over the years; it's just getting fuller.

What is changing is philately itself, a hobby whose enthusiasts are mostly age 70 and above. The Chisholms are quick to acknowledge that stamp collecting is not as popular with the younger crowds, who are more enthralled with video games.

Coast Philatelics remains among the last of a breed. It's a dedicated stamp store, once common, now less so.

The Chisholms attribute their longevity to old-fashioned hard work, good service and loyal customers.

"If you're fair and honest with people, they'll come back to you," Bob said.

Barbara quickly added: "Your reputation follows you."

The Chisholms may have celebrated 40 years in business, but it's not stopping there. They have no plans to retire.

"When we were 60, we talked about retiring at 70," Bob said. "And at 64, we looked at each other and it scared us to death; 70 was three years ago. I tell them I'm going to be like Custer. I'm going out with my boots on."

Stamp auction

An auction featuring U.S., British and other postage stamps from around the world, plus postal history, essays and collections, continues through Saturday at the Hilton hotel at 3050 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa.

The catalog for the event, presented by stamp auction company H.R. Harmer, can be viewed at hrharmer.com. Online bidding is available.

For more information, e-mail info@hrharmer.com.

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