In The Spotlight
GBCC President-again Gordon Milne interviews
Bill Barrell, GB stamp and cover dealer and long-time GBCC’er
Bill Barrell giving a talk to the GBCC at NAPEX in 1999.
Published in the July, 2002 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.
Milne: Thank you first of all, Bill, for having taken the time out of your hectic work schedule to respond to my questions. I recall some years back — I think it was at a NAPEX show in Washington, D.C. — how (over an ale or two) you regaled me and some fellow GBCC’ers of how you became a stamp dealer. It was a fascinating tale and, to start off this interview, I’d love you to share it, in as much detail as you care, with the full membership now, if you would, please.
|The famous “B–blank” Penny Red. See comment below.|
Barrell: As I recall my later schoolboy days, careers advice was never very constructive. After not being selected for England’s school soccer team (that was my dream!), I drifted into teaching and insurance. Neither, sadly, turned out to be satisfying.
In early 1980, with the boom in the stamp market shortly to break, Gibbons advertised in the now sadly defunct “Stamp Collecting Weekly” for ‘Management: Specialists and Juniors.’
“Yep!,” I thought, “stamp management sounds good to me!” So, several weeks later, I started as the office junior in the Great Britain Specialised Department at Stanley Gibbons.
It had been a curious interview. Expecting to be grilled about British stamps, I had “crammed” (is this word, meaning “studied extensively,” in the American language?) the British catalogues only to find that the interview turned into just a polite chat.
[Yes, Bill, “crammed” is in the American version of the English language, familiar to every American student. — Larry]
I agreed to a drop in salary just for the privilege of working in this esteemed establishment, but I remember the first several weeks as being a period of almost total inactivity with the most constructive job given me being that of cleaning the plastic pochettes in which the stamps were kept!
However, shortly after joining, the International Stamp Show at Earls Court was held, and I recall this office junior trotting off to the show and viewing the GB exhibits.
I vividly recall the 2/– brown complete pane, exhibited by the late Dr. Latto, and the many Penny Black blocks from the late Sir Leonard Atkinson’s collection. But for the budding Penny Red enthusiast, the piece of note at the show was the complete mint sheet from the Penny Red plate 10 that took up a complete exhibition frame.
Despite the humdrum nature of the pochette cleaning, what I saw at the show convinced me that this was the career for me!
Milne: So how did that career advance?
Barrell: Well, I spent the next four years in the Great Britain specialised department — which, of course, was a marvellous apprenticeship. I soon became aware of the strange situation Gibbons is in, producing their catalogues/price guides only to have the trade undercut those quoted prices!
I have always been “pro Gibbons,” but I have to say that I could never understand their wage structure for their staff. I felt that, in those four years, I was a very successful operator on their behalf, but my financial remuneration was, quite frankly, pitiful, with the support staff earning much more than someone on the rock face.
Consequently, personal financial considerations led me to buy and sell on my own account — something, of course, that was totally contrary to the terms of my employment … that was naturally terminated once my sinful ways came to light!
Milne: So that, Bill, is how your Gibbons career became “unhinged!”
[Ugh! — Larry]
Barrell: Yes, but those experiences made it an easy decision to continue dealing on my own account. If I look at the GB trade today I see many of my former colleagues successfully competing against Gibbons — a situation full of irony that has arisen through their continuing lack of appreciation of quality staff. Still, all that is history now.
Milne: Does your wife also now help you with the business? And, if so, how?
Barrell: Well, that question brings me back to the memory of that fateful 1980 interview when, to be honest, I was really far less interested in the job than the gorgeous redhead with the short grey skirt and the fuller figure who escorted me into the interview!
This gorgeous redhead, I found out, was named Stephanie, and we were later married in 1987.
Oh, I almost forgot your original question! Yes, she does help me in the business ……. with invoicing, photocopying and all the postage and general office work, including using the computer. She also does all the necessary running around, i.e. banking, etc., and, of course, now also has a good working product knowledge. When possible, she attends shows with me, particularly the more exotic overseas ones!
Milne: Sounds to me like you make a great team. Moving on to another member of the family, it would seem from the design of the 2001 Barrell family Christmas card and your STAMPEX booth adornment that you’re pointing to in our opening photograph, that your son could be set to follow in Dad’s footsteps. Is this so? What does he collect? And how does he help you? (Note: Photograph was included in the original printed article. -Ed.)
Barrell: The artist you refer to is our lad, Samuel, who has just celebrated his 9th birthday.
That Christmas card was entered into a local competition. The design was all his own work and reflects his interest in tractors and all things mechanical, rather than stamps.
He is a very enthusiastic lad and is ever eager to stick on the airmail labels, stamps etc., when we embark upon the dispatch of one of our lists. I see this as “youth opportunities” rather than exploitation!
Milne: Well, I hope you apply your Gibbons experience and reward him appropriately! Remember, Bill, you’ve got to keep good staff!
Barrell: He does, of course, have a collection of tractors on stamps. If Samuel wished to follow me in the business, I would have no hesitation in giving him the encouragement so to do. I would, however, advise him to take a broader approach than me, perhaps extending his interests to the classics of the world and early British commonwealth.
Milne: What prompted you, Bill, to specialize in GB? And, for those who may not know you or your business, do you deal in all periods, including postal history? To that end, how does your stock split by type/period?
Barrell: It all started when, as a little boy, I was rummaging through a cupboard one day and found this very large, locked leather stamp album. It opened, as most things do, with a bit of force and inside was a piece of black paper bearing the head of Queen Victoria!
The little boy had found his father’s Penny Black, purchased, pre-World War II, for the princely sum of three shillings!
This discovery, allied to the very unusual occurence of there being a stamp shop in suburban Bristol close to where we lived, led father and son on a collecting road that took in most aspects of GB and to Dad’s purchase from the late Donald Forbes-Smith of a substantial starter collection of the 1857 Penny Red star (SG 40).
When I started dealing in the early 1980s, my only knowledge and interest was in GB, particularly in unusual items rather than the basic issues …… and that has, indeed, remained the focus of the business.
If it is unusual, then we are in the market to buy it, from the earliest pre-adhesive covers to the latest modern errors.
When asked for the basic issues, we can and do, of course, supply them, but the core of the business is the “unusual from all reigns.”
The only period which we really do not touch are Machins. Without wishing to offend the many admirers of this issue, since 1967 I really have seen enough of this design without dealing in it as well! Sorry, Larry!
[You are forgiven, Bill. — Larry]
Milne: Well, I guess that’s blown your chances, Bill, of this “In the Spotlight” interview appearing on the GBCC website!!
[Wrong, Gordon, though I wasn’t exactly motivated to post it promptly. — Larry]
Moving on, do you sell philatelic material of other countries, too? If so, which?
Barrell: Thank you, Gordon, for, at last, an easy question! The answer is, quite simply, “No!”
I do believe that the early British stamps almost reached perfection in their design, and whilst I have been tempted to deal in, perhaps, classic South America — also printed by Perkins, Bacon and in similar shades — I do not have the product knowledge in this field, which, I believe, to be so essential. I think it quite incredible that the basic concept of the British definitive postage stamp in size and, in many respects, design has not changed since 1840.
Milne: From where do you obtain the bulk of your material?
Barrell: Until five years or so ago, I could always rely upon a continuous supply of good material at reasonable prices from the London auction houses. However, this is no longer the case.
The stamp market for most things British has been very hot now for a number of years and prices in auction for good material regularly match, if not exceed, proposed retail prices.
Demand is as strong as I have known it since 1980, and acquisition of quality and interesting stock is a major problem.
So, currently, I probably acquire 30% from auction houses, 40% from other traders, and 30% from collectors.
Milne: That’s very interesting. On the other side of the coin — or, rather, stamp — from where, Bill, does most of your business come?
Barrell: Sitting down and looking at the books, I think 35% is sold through the approval business — where stock is sent out to collectors to examine without obligation to purchase, though there is the obligation to return the items that don’t interest them!!
33% of the business comes through our illustrated lists.
Milne: And as a recipent of your Victoria one, you do an exceptionally fine job, Bill (and Stephanie!) in their production.
Barrell: Well, thank you, Gordon! We do strive for a quality product! To continue, 30% of our business comes through our attendance at stamp shows, and the final 2% from the internet.
The above are, of course, approximate figures and do change resulting from new clients being constantly added for the approvals and mailing lists. In this respect, the internet is a key source, as is our attendance at the many stamp shows we visit.
Traditional advertising in magazines I have found to be very disappointing, and usually just results in an invoice and being chased for payment!
You may also be interested to know that, on looking through our last three quarters’ tax returns, goods exported outside the EEC represented 35%, 26% and 30% of our business.
Our main overseas markets, in order of importance, are the U.S., of course, followed by Japan, central Europe and Scandinavia.
Milne: Fascinating! You certainly seem to be kept busy — so, in that vein, what would your best estimate be of how many hours a week your stamp business consumes? And, specifically, how does that break down by activity? For example, how long does it take to put together your impressive lists? And how can an interested collector obtain such an item?
Barrell: I have absolutely no idea, Gordon, how many hours a week the business consumes! Further, our workload varies very much according to things like how long I have been out of the office, the weather — we have a large garden! — and many other aspects of life.
Whilst we like to think we offer an excellent and prompt service, we are not slaves to our company and have many other interests in life.
The lists you refer to (and you are quite correct in stating them to be impressive!) are put together by ourselves using the Corel Ventura desktop publishing package.
It would take us an hour or so to select the stock to be advertised — all stock is entered into the computer when purchased — a minute or so to create the text file and several further minutes to create the list document and then import the text. What, of course, does take a substantial time is the scanning and cropping, etc., of the 600 or so images that have then to be imported into the document and edited.
This scanning can take two days, and, unfortunately, Samuel is not yet able to do this!
Milne: Just remember that when he is, rates of pay should have increased from current day levels!!
Barrell: Have you suddenly become his agent?!!
To continue, the list is then downloaded by the printers and we receive them back a week later. This affords us the opportunity to label up all the envelopes — which is where Steph and Samuel apply their individual and collective talents!
We order 1000 copies of each list and our American clients will be pleased to know that their lists are sent out four days before the European and domestic U.K. lists are dispatched.
You mention ordering from the lists. This is very easy, particularly via email, and we accept all major credit cards.
Milne: Bill, you surprisingly didn’t accept my veiled opportunity to advertise your wares to GBCC’ers by listing your website or email address. So, to compensate you for the extensive amount of time you’ve generously given to answer my questions, I’ll do it for you!!
The Barrell website is www.barrell.co.uk.
Bill, how often do you reprice your stock? And how long does that take?
Barrell: We do not reprice our stock.
Milne: Well, that answer surprised me!
Moving on to my next question …. As the face values of modern issues continue to rise and the number of issues increase, what percentage of your clientele would you say continue to seek “completeness?”
Barrell: Our database probably has a mailing list of circa 3,000 collectors looking for all aspects of GB philately, including thematics.
Of this number, I do not suppose more than 100 would be a “one of each” collector. And, as I indicated earlier, we do not actively seek this type of collector, dealing, as we do, in the more unusual and specialised G.B. material.
What we do have is a particularly strong market for collectors of the Penny Reds, looking for an example of one from each plate — and I do not just refer to the letters in all four corners issue, but also all of the imperfs, and 1d stars covering both dies — a total of about 430 stamps. Here I encourage the collectors to purchase nice copies showing a constant variety from that plate rather than an example without a distinguishing feature.
Milne: You mentioned earlier your frequent attendance at stamp shows. How many a year do you try to attend? Is this number increasing or declining? And why?
Barrell: Currently, on average we attend annually one F.I.P. show, and our two national STAMPEX shows. These I consider to be exceptional shows and ones I’d strongly recommend to any collector from overseas. In addition, we try to attend several shows in the States, 2-3 major European shows and, perhaps, 3-4 regional shows in the U.K.
This is not as many as we have attended in the past. We find the regional shows in the U.K. to be a continual disappointment and diminishing returns have set in with our U.S. shows. Therefore we have reduced our commitments in that direction.
I think that in the U.K. the regional shows just do not offer enough appeal to the collector to attract them in an age of many other alternative leisure pursuits. As far as the U.S. shows are concerned, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify my attendance there, dealing, as I do, in only the one country.
Milne: On what basis do you choose the shows you attend? And, within Britain, how far afield do you travel? Is this changing? And, if so, how?
Barrell: The commercial considerations are obviously of primary importance, but if a show is being held in a city “of significance” and one where I have not been before, I would consider attending.
A prime example of this would be our attendance at one of the Italian shows in Verona. Business was very poor, but, with its strong culture, it was a super trip and a show I will attend again.
In the U.S., I would love to do shows in New Orleans and Boston. Attendance at such shows would be a personal rather than commercial decision.
I would add that a lot of my rivals consider my policy of attending shows overseas as quite bizarre and something they would never entertain. For me, it is not just business, but a way of exploring the world, meeting new people, sampling new foods, etc.
Milne: In my last interview with APS Vice President, Janet Klug, we discussed the problems that the local stamp show faces here in the U.S. How do you perceive the comparable situation in the U.K.? If, as I suspect, attendance is declining, what do you see as the remedy? Or is there not one?
Barrell: I touched on this a little in my last response. To expand a little, the two national STAMPEX shows are very strong both in quality of material available for purchase and the quality of buyer who comes through the door. As some of you may be aware, due to internal politics within our trade organisation, the Philatelic Traders Society, rival shows have been set up to undermine our national shows. It seems a shame that, in this age of easy communication, people do not talk to each other to solve their problems mutually.
The next tier beneath the nationals is the regionals — and here there is a major problem with falling attendance.
Whilst the hobby in the U.K. is very strong, few people are sufficiently motivated to attend their local shows.
We recently attended one in Loughborough (very close to the major metropolises of Derby, Leicester and Nottingham) and the attendance was pitiful!
It is a similar case with the stamp societies, and here the only way I think they can continue is to restructure to cover larger areas, i.e., not just a Midlands or a Northern show, but a Midlands and Northern show.
Milne: A lot of collectors fail to appreciate that a dealer attending a show (of any size) has to face considerable out-of-pocket expenses. Could you dimensionalize this, from your own experience, for attendance at shows both domestically and abroad. Are these costs stable, rising or decreasing?
Barrell: I’m glad you raised this question, Gordon, because it is a good one!
Setting asides salaries, our biggest overheads are the shows. Last year 17.5% of our costs were assigned to exhibitions and that does not include value of time involved and promotional literature.
Very few of the shows that we have done have paid for themselves. Only the STAMPEX shows, London 1990, London 2000, Pacific 97, the APS shows at Santa Clara and Milwaukee, New Zealand 1990 (despite a very, very small population), Australia 1999, oddly enough Genoa 1993 (a thematic international) and most shows in Holland have proved commercially worthwhile. All the others — and there have been many! — have been loss-leading promotional exercises.
I well remember our attendance at Chicago in 1992 with a booth cost of £3,500 plus air flights, hotels, meals etc. for three people ……. and I took in £110 on the first day! But that’s life!
Milne: Do you sell — or buy — through internet auctions like eBay?
Barrell: Last week saw a momentous occasion — my first eBay purchase!
On my frequent visits to California, eBay and all it represents is continually thrust at me. So I thought: Let’s give it a try!
I have to say I thought the quality of the merchandise available for purchase was spectacularly poor and, having surfed for several hours each day for a week, I thought my return of one bargain was a poor one!
However, I am an optimist.
At the moment we do not sell on eBay, as you will gather selling is not a problem for us. We can generally sell our stock without much difficulty.
Milne: Do you see such on-line activity helping or harming the hobby?
Barrell: The quest for and distribution of greater information can only be good for mankind, and from this perspective the internet is a wonderful tool.
Whilst the internet has undoubtedly brought new collectors to the market, I hope they do not offer me many of their internet “bargains”!!
For instance, the number of undescribed reperforated surface-printed stamps I have seen amazes me.
The normal principles and practices that exist in the traditional market place are not yet well established. For example, a little while ago I was interested in a May 6th Penny Black usage. But a certain aspect made me unsure of its status. Now if this was to be sold traditionally at, for instance, Cavendish, they would not hesitate to sell it subject to a certificate. But the internet auction would not countenance this — and it was not a cheap item!
Milne: What’s the highest-priced item, Bill, you’ve ever sold?
Barrell: It has to be the “B–blank” Penny Red used on cover at £25,000 — only one of two believed to exist, and an incredible item.
An illustration is still on our website under “rarities.” Click here to see the cover on an album page
I did have in my hands a few years ago the famous Penny Red plate 77 on piece — indeed, you may remember I showed it off at a GBCC meeting and asked the attendees to spot the rarity.
Milne: Yes, I was there and, as I recall, did identify it!
Barrell: I did not conclude that transaction and it eventually found a home in Hong Kong via the internet. That’s power for you!
Milne: Is there an item you’d like to have in your stock that you’ve tried unsuccessfully to obtain (because I may have it — and I’d be prepared to give you first offer before putting it on eBay!!)? If so, what is it? And why have you not been able to obtain it?
Barrell: Not really for stock. I’m not that obsessive for the business.
Of course, there have been auction lots that one would have loved — those big mixed lots of cancels, those boxes of unsorted Penny Reds. The problem is that these lots were offered in the 1960s and 1970s by Robson Lowe and are not on the market today.
I have an exceptional library which includes most of the auction catalogues from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I need say no more!!!
Milne: In an earlier “In the Spotlight” interview with me, David Aggersberg, Gibbons Catalogue Editor, predicted that, in light of the proliferation of modern issues, many collectors down the road would gravitate back to the earlier (pre-1960s) issues. How do you react to that?
Barrell: I knew David from my days at Gibbons and I have a great deal of respect for him. One has to remember that the pricing is done from London!
But I think David got that one wrong! I think what he should have responded was pre-1860s and not pre-1960s.
The number of new clients I have recently met who are collecting the Penny Reds gives me great encouragement for the future.
At the moment I have sold out of all copies (including my reference ones) of the Brown Fisher plating guides volumes 2 and 3 — the difficult volumes at £40 and £75 respectively.
This reflects a big demand in the Penny Red market.
I do not think that the days of plate reconstructing will return, but all copies of the rarer/scarcer plates or rare combinations of plate/watermark/perforation find a ready market.
One period that is also booming is that of King George VI, and I am sure that its postal history and indeed the postal history for the 20th century has a long way to go on pricing.
For example, attractive and clean illustrated covers from 1920 to 1950 are sought after and not as easy to find as one might think.
Milne: Are you a collector yourself? If so, what do you chase after, not to resell, but to add to the Barrell collection?
Barrell: Of course I am, Gordon, and you well know that!
I have many collections, the primary one being the 1854 to 1857 Penny Red stars — a wonderful field with its 2 dies, 2 watermarks, 2 perforations, 4 alphabets (including the Archers), coloured and experimental cancels, Scots locals, etc., etc. It offers much to the collector, though at first it seems difficult. But a little application will enable the collector to correctly classify these issues.
How do I decide if a piece from that area is for stock or collection?
Quite easy! First, I buy it and put it into stock. If it does not sell and I like it — AND I can afford to — it goes into the Barrell collection!
At the moment, I have a block of 4 Prince Consort Essays — one of the few unsold items on our last list. Well, it is many, many years since I have seen anything larger than a pair. If it is still in stock in a year’s time, into the collection it will go!
My other collections are those of my local area, Spalding, and I collect items cancelled or dated 20th October — my birthday.
The concept behind this last collection was to enable me to justify buying items from all periods and thereby learn about them, but always having that necessary restraint that a British collection needs. I recommend this type of collection to anybody and everybody.
Milne: How do you house those collections? And how much time do you devote to being a collector?
Barrell: At the moment, I admit, they are a bit of a mess!
Milne: The man IS human!!! That answer, Bill, is the one I’ve enjoyed the most!! So, it’s not just me who is in that state!
Barrell: Well, I do have them stored very carefully, but they are just accumulating until I can justify the hours to mount and exhibit them ……. only to be savaged, I suppose, by the judges!
I display for enjoyment rather than competitively, and if that means the mounting is not consistent throughout, then so be it!
Milne: Does your wife collect too? If so, what?
Barrell: Of course she does — parking tickets!
Philatelically, she has two collections — a superb collection of the town of Grantham, including superb postal history, a [Penny Red] plate 225 and a £1 green. She also has a box full of stamps showing horses on stamps. An imperforate version of the £1 green, with “Specimen” overprint, is shown to the left. Image from Bill’s web site.
Milne: Most “In the Spotlight” readers seem to like to know as much as I can unearth about the person behind the name. What personal information would you like to share about Bill Barrell, the person?
Barrell: I like to keep life in perspective and remember that this is only a hobby, with little impact upon our world.
I think that, as we spend thousands on our hobby, we should remember that there is a drought in Malawi.
I recall an image during the recent WESTPEX show. During breakfast across the road from the hotel, the diner was full of collectors discussing how much they had paid for this and that cover and how many hundreds of thousands of dollars their collection was worth. Outside was a man obviously very distressed, very dishevelled, very poor with only his crutches for support.
I gave him my change. Nobody else even gave him a look.
Milne: A very moving response, Bill, and one that I hope sends a poignant message to us all. It is so easy to forget that others are not as fortunate as ourselves!
For my penultimate question, what do you most enjoy doing outside of stamps?
Barrell: Soccer, as you know, Gordon, is a massive culture in England, and I run a Junior Soccer team. This year, it’s the under-9’s; next year it’ll be the under-10’s; and so forth.
It is a big commitment, but the lads (about 16 in number) really enjoy it.
We play in the Mid-Lincolnshire League, one of the toughest in the country, and have to match ourselves against some of the best under-9 teams in the whole of the U.K.
I try to create a quality coaching environment, centred on technical excellence, which puts my limited technique to the test when showing them the tricks on the ball!
In several years’ time I hope to bring them over to the States to compete in a tournament in Pensacola in Florida.
Another interest is our garden. In the good old days when one could make good money out of stamp dealing (!!), we saved and saved. This enabled us us to buy a lovely old house in the country, but with extensive gardens.
We have now become quite green-fingered and Samuel and I spend hours in the greenhouse planting seeds and potting. I also enjoy a nice pint of English beer after playing five-a-side soccer …….. or just the pint of beer!
Milne: I know you must have thought I’d never get there but this is the last question! Reverting to stamps, what do you personally wish most for the hobby and its future?
Barrell: Unlike a few of my competitors, I do not think the hobby is under that much threat.
On the international stage, I am dealing with a lot of younger buyers whom I greatly respect.
I would like to see greater coordination of major stamp shows (how on earth could F.I.P. allow South Africa and Milan to clash their dates?) and less promotion of passports at the internationals.
Surely the proliferation of modern issues will be judged by market forces, which we, perhaps, should try to influence through education.
I do not see collectors put off by this situation but rather perceive them redefining their collecting fields.
Personally, I hope we do not see another investment-fed boom, although there is certainly pressure on prices.
And, lastly, I would like to become involved with philatelic publishing on early G.B.
Milne: Bill, what can I say, in summary, but WOW!!! And, of course, immense thanks for having taken hours from your already busy life to respond to my questions.
Prior to doing this interview, and from the many times we’ve connected through the years, I thought I knew Bill Barrell pretty well. But now, I admit, that I only had scratched the surface.
What this interview has done is open my eyes to the wonderful, supportive father, the doting husband, the genuinely good, caring, Christian person that hadn’t surfaced before.
I feel enriched by having got to know you better, as I hope all the readers of this interview will do, too.
Thank you — and good luck in all your many future endeavours!