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Flame Outs : Who would have thought matchbooks would be a casualty of the war on smoking? Collectors say the souvenirs are being doused.

It’s certainly not the first fallout that might flicker to mind.

But amid the war on cigarettes--with ever-more-rigid smoking restrictions, dire warnings about secondhand smoke, and protests over Joe Camel’s corrupting influence on children--an accessory, though largely innocent bystander, quietly contemplates its fate:

The matchbook.

Oh yes, those little souvenirs of a moment, marking a special occasion, a fond memory, a long-lost dining hideaway, find themselves quietly replaced on hostess stands by generous bowls of peppermints or toothpicks--if anything at all.

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America’s pursuit of health is endangering the business of making souvenir matchbooks, and the hobby of collecting them, says Mike Godwin, national sales manager for Atlas Match Corp., headquartered in Euless, Tex.

He says the industry has been feeling the burn for at least a decade. American matchmakers produce about 2.5 billion covers a year, far fewer than a decade ago. The industry has downsized considerably, leaving only about three major U.S. companies producing the mini-memory books.

“No-smoking campaigns continue to have effects,” says Godwin. “And California is a very volatile area. So is Austin, Tex. We find it just crops up sporadically across the U.S.”

Consequently, the match industry over the years has attempted to keep up with changing times.

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In this health-conscious age, some restaurants are quietly replacing matchbooks with “scratchbooks,” Godwin says. These feature the same artwork as souvenir matchbooks, but instead of matches each contains about 20 sheets of paper--"Just about the size to write a phone number.”

Other souvenirs between the covers range from mints and toothpicks to condoms. But that, Godwin admits, “really hasn’t taken off.”

Who’s most upset by this sign of changing times? Well it isn’t smokers. They, Godwin says, are often more twinned with lighters.

It is, of course, the collectors.

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But these aren’t collectors of the brandy snifter, fishbowl or junk drawer variety . . . these are aficionados who are well into the millions--of specimens that is.

With 44 clubs throughout the world, two trade shows (one in California, one national convention hosted annually by the Rathkamp Matchcover Society out of Newark, N.J.) and about 10,000 hobbyists, matchbook collecting, some insiders worry, is moving into the big-league realm of stamps and baseball cards.

For someone like Ed Brassard, a member of the American Match Cover Assn. from Del Mar, it all started as a ruse, shielding a habit that . . . well . . . became a different habit.

When Brassard was 15 and flirting with smoking, his mother found some matchbooks scattered on top of his bureau and demanded an explanation. He thought fast and told her they were . . . a collection. “She shined off the smoking,” Brassard, now 31 recalls, “and then brought some more home from work.”

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Sixteen years and more than 2 million matchbooks later, Brassard has long kicked the smoking habit. The matches? Another story. He started combing hotels, zoos, restaurants, national park gift shops to build his world-record-worthy collection.

“I have a hobby room, match book albums, and I put them in organized cheese boxes.”

Traveling coast to coast, from mortuaries to brothels, Brassard specializes in National Parks and books emblazoned with images of bears. The oldest--an 1892 advertisement for J.H. Styles Leaf Tobacco--he obtained 10 years ago for $27 and recently sold for $100.

But matchbook, or match cover collectors, if you will (since many remove the matches from the book), prefer not to put a price on their goods. Far removed from the high-stakes world of baseball card collecting, Brassard says, there is instead an emphasis on simply trading or just giving away some hard-to-locate cover to someone who has a hole in his or her collection.

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But this isn’t to say that there isn’t money in the passion.

A 1927 match cover celebrating Charles Lindbergh’s flight went for $4,000, Brassard says.

Matchbooks celebrating any flight are more and more difficult to come by. With domestic airline flights gone nonsmoking, Brassard has observed, the only place in airports where matches can be found are in some of the frequent-flier clubs. He has it down to a science, he says: Sneaking in, “I empty the fishbowl and bring them back to our club members to share.”

Grab-table trading sessions at meetings or collectors’ conventions play an important part in keeping the mood friendly, says Santa Ana resident Bob Hiller, who has been collecting matchbooks for about 25 years with his wife, Emily.

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Both are members of Associated Match Cover Clubs of California, which has satellites in Sierra Diablo, Long Beach, Pasadena, and in San Diego and Orange counties that meet just about every weekend.

Hiller, who serves as auctioneer for the regional and national conventions, says that although collectors look at the pursuit as mainly a social hobby, the prices “can get up there.”

Within the last five years, he says, values have climbed steadily. He attributes that less to the smoking bans and more as an indication of “just the times . . . the newer people in the hobby. Like sports people who are looking into the clubs with a lot of interest.”

Over the years Hiller has watched trends and interests in particular kinds of covers wax and wane. “Restaurants are up. Casinos were slow and now it’s popping back into play.”

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Atlantic City may not be so strong, but never fear, Las Vegas is here--with orders that exceed 175 million per year. “Wherever the hospitality industry is,” Godwin says, “New York, Florida resorts, Chicago--we do quite well.”

Even so, many collectors have noted that hotel chains are beginning to keep their goods stowed away behind the counter on an ask-and-ye-shall-receive basis.

And, with the absence of easily obtainable matches, Brassard says, spotting a trend: “They’re stealing the ashtrays instead.”


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