By Niko Courtelis
It’s a cool spring morning in Portland, Ore., as David Markowitz unlocks the door to the Uptown Stamp Show.
“Stamp collectors are early risers. There’s almost always someone here waiting for us to open,” says Markowitz.
In an uncommon and delightful move, Markowitz, a lawyer by trade, opened a brick and mortar stamp shop in March 2016. His simple, contrarian act flies in the face of the longstanding perception of the slow and steady decline of stamp collecting.
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“The good news is the stamp market today is so much better — people who think that the market is worse than it was in the golden years aren’t considering all aspects of the market,” he states matter-of-factly.
Markowitz is a charming dealer with a warm smile and youthful twinkle in his eye, confident he has something for just about anyone who visits. He constantly shops auctions worldwide for stock and on any given day can be seen breaking down (or “triaging” as he refers to it) large collections.
He prices very aggressively and has no interest in any of his stock gathering dust. Indeed, like a stamp show, he’s even designated a table within the shop for invited guest dealers to diversify the range of material available to customers.
He has been involved in the hobby for more than 55 years, and started working at Arcade Coins & Stamp in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1962, before entering college. Since 1990, he has been a full-time lawyer and part-time stamp show dealer, doing 15 to 20 shows per year along the West Coast, while carefully developing an avid following.
“I love not only being a collector, but also buying and selling. I love being a dealer. The number one thing I always wanted to do in my life was to be a dealer,” says Markowitz.
Most intriguing, however, is his depth of knowledge, multi-channel sales philosophy, appreciation for technology, and approach to the store’s stock, all of which might very well help him achieve his business goal of becoming one of the leading sellers of worldwide postage stamps, and could become a roadmap for other dealers.
Uptown Stamp Show caters to a wide range of collectors, dealers, and resellers. On a recent Saturday, collectors of all types sat shoulder to shoulder at cloth lined tables; all of the shop chairs were filled. The enthusiastic response is no accident. From true philatelic rarities stored in an impressive, purpose-built safe to 10¢ pick books, the shop’s stock is diverse, deep, and constantly changing.
Markowitz is well aware of the cautionary tales of the over-enthusiastic stamp collector attempting to turn their philatelic passion into a business, and ignoring the potential blind spots their love of stamps may create. Nothing was left to chance with the creation of this jewel of a store; his careful planning and research stretched all the way to the rue Drout, the legendary street of stamp shops in Paris.
“I walked into every store on the rue Drout in Paris. It showed me that you don’t need a large physical space to carry an extensive inventory and have a pleasant buying experience with a lot of customers in the stores.”
Beginning with a raw concrete space in Portland’s exclusive Northwest neighborhood, the densest residential population north of San Francisco, Markowitz carefully planned every aspect of the store with his daughter Michalina, who is the business manager. It’s well-conceived and inviting, with comfortable seating and crisp lighting, decorative touches such as plants, and a large, flat screen monitor highlighting new, high-end items.
“Our concept requires a small footprint. We have a 555 square foot space, which is all we need, and that includes storage and an ADA compliant bathroom. So we have around 450 square feet of actual sales area, which is plenty of room for 10 buyers and two sellers in the store, comfortably. It holds enough inventory, which fits our strategy to move that inventory quickly. You cannot buy large and have a ‘hold’ attitude with anything less than a warehouse-sized spot. Every foot I increase, increases overhead.”
In equal measure, he has embraced technology and all it has to offer as both a marketing tool and a sales channel, developing a thriving eBay business partnership.
“When I was selling at a store in the 1960s, we had extremely expensive advertising. The print advertising cost to reach potential customers was very high until the Internet. We’re reaching collectors and new customers through our website, which is inexpensive. New customer acquisition and reaching sellers, people who are selling to us, is much, much cheaper than it was historically.”
When it comes to acquiring and turning over stock, Markowitz’s philosophy is simple. Buy big. Sell quickly and inexpensively. Repeat.
“I’m constantly trying to source material. I’m looking every day in national and international markets,” he explains.
“I try to buy large. That’s the simple philosophy, buy very large. The reason is, the smaller the volume, typically the higher percentage of catalog. So a single stamp sold at auction will almost always sell for a higher percentage of catalog than it would have if it was priced as part a large collection, and that collection will be priced at a higher percentage of catalog than it would if priced as a part of a group of collections to make up a major estate. So the largest purchases typically result in a widest variety of material and a lowest percentage of catalog. And the larger the purchase, the smaller the competition. The reason the prices are cheaper are that the number of people who are looking, who have reason to want to buy an estate-sized purchase is very small.
“Collectors typically don’t want wide variety of material — they don’t have the space for it, they don’t have the need for it, and most dealers don’t have money for it. They aren’t turning over their inventory fast enough or otherwise don’t have the resources to go out and buy a major hundred volume worldwide estate, major, big, deep and expensive collections. They might do it once, but if they don’t sell fast and cheap through multiple outlets, like we’ve done, then they’re not going to buy it again, because they have to sit on it, hold it until they can get all their money out of it.
“So my philosophy is to compete in that rarefied air of the biggest possible collections that are in auctions worldwide, on consignment, or by private treaty. I do buy small collections and individual items, but the goal is to find the largest, biggest, deepest stock I can get — that’s what I’m looking for.”
To encourage quick turnover of the store’s inventory, Markowitz prices aggressively, (90 percent of his stock is priced at 40 percent to 50 percent of catalog) and sells through multiple channels, which enables him to reinvest in even more fresh stock.
“You cannot buy big and sell fast just with low pricing; it requires multiple outlets.” He explains: “One of the major ways to sell fast and low is to sell to resellers, not just to collectors. Most dealers try to sell to collectors; that’s my smallest business. Over three quarters of my dollar volume has always been and continues to be sales at discount to resellers, typically the other dealers who have tables, vest pocket dealers and dealers who come into the store to buy for their inventory, whether they’re buying boxed lots to resell on eBay, or collections to resell at their stores or individual items to resell to their customers.
“Consistently my pricing levels and discount philosophy are set to encourage resellers, and we put on our website that we’re interested in them being our customers. We publish our discount schedule, 99 percent of our worldwide stock is priced at half catalog, but to dealers the initial pricing is 60 percent off Scott. Again, 99 percent of our stock is 60 percent off, but we’ll increase the discounts for high volume dealers. And so high volume dealers account for by far our largest customer: dealers who are going to buy large quantities, who can rely on us because we’re buying widely, but they’re buying narrowly, just things that fit their customers needs, to fill the gaps in their inventory.”
Markowitz explains: “That’s part of the overall strategy, you can’t buy large and sell fast without having multiple channels. And multiple channels means you’re not just selling retail, you’re selling wholesale. You can’t sell fast without reaching every kind of customer, and even with the store we still have to have eBay.”
Uptown Stamp Show is very much a family business, with three generations working side by side. Daughter Michalina is the shop’s business manager. Grandsons Elijah and Cyrus can often be seen assisting customers with larger boxes, while also learning the ropes of stocking and breaking down collections. Sharing family time was an important reason for opening the store.
Markowitz explains: “The three reasons I opened the store are, to do exactly what I want to do and to spend time with the people I want to spend time with, both family and friends. It’s really fun to build a successful business, and now I have an opportunity to do that in stamps.
“Some of these ideas are just pipe dreams unless you actually execute them. So Uptown Stamp Show gives me an opportunity to not only spend the time in the hobby I’ve always loved in the way I really love it, which is being involved in the business, not just collecting but in the business itself that surrounds that hobby, spend the best great quality of time with my family, particularly my five grandsons.”
He concludes: “Everybody else think stamps are dinosaurs, and things of the past. I think they’re a better business opportunity than they’ve ever been.”
Uptown Stamp Show is located at 2373 NW Westover Road, Portland, OR 97210; phone 503-444-7119.