Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Charles Berg, 74, philatelist and owner of Stamp King (7139 W. Higgins, 773-775-2100).
“My grandfather was a lifelong stamp collector, and I used to love watching what he was doing; I thought it was really cool. What did I know? I was a six-year-old. On one of those occasions, I was home with the measles, and he said, ‘Would you like to collect stamps?’ Well, anything my grandfather thought was cool, I was all into. He gave me a box of stamps, he gave me an old album, he showed me what to do, and that was it. I tell people, ‘When I was six years old, I caught the measles and stamp collecting, but the measles went away.’
“There was just something about my grandfather. He was from the Netherlands, and he came to Chicago with his dad in 1893. His father was a master brewer who came to work at the Dutch pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and they never went back. My grandfather was simply my idol. We had a couple of little tables in the den, and he’d work on his stamps and I’d work on my stamps, and we wouldn’t even speak; it was like being really close to each other without communicating. Over my desk I have a picture of him, and he’s carrying me in one arm and my brother in the other arm, and my brother has just plucked my grandfather’s stamp tongs from his pocket.
“In Chicago there used to be dozens of stamp stores. Marshall Field’s had a stamp department at one time, and so did Carson’s. I used to work for the guy who owned this store. He sold the business to a customer of ours, and then the two of them had a falling out. Years of court battles, and then what was left of it fell on my head. I’m sitting here trying to keep this place going. It’s kind of a mess. But I’m still here. I’m really trying to keep it going, because it’s the only stamp store left in the whole city and suburbs.
“I was sitting here one afternoon, and a couple comes in with a cover [a used envelope bearing canceled postage], and they want to know if it has any value. It’s a large-size cover, with a 10- and a 12-cent stamp from the 1870s. It also has a black-and-red stamp depicting Lincoln, a 90-cent stamp from 1869. I happened to know that that stamp [is priced at] over $2,000 for a used copy. What is that worth on cover? I turned to the catalog. It’s not listed.
“So I made a phone call to a friend of mine who specializes in 19th-century U.S. stamps. I told him, ‘I have an oversize cover that has a 90-cent Lincoln on it, sent from Boston to Calcutta in 1873.’ And he tells me, “That’s the Ice House Cover. It was stolen almost 40 years ago. You cannot let that out of the store. Have you called the police?’ My response was ‘The couple who brought it in is with me. Can you help me?’ He knew what I meant. A few minutes later, there were five squad cars outside. Long story short, five hours later, the cover left in the possession of the FBI.