The Penny Black stamp that got away

Published on March 12, 2014
Burton K. Janes

We’ve all heard stories about "the one that got away." Perhaps we’ve told a few ourselves. I admit to being "guilty as charged."

When recalling memorable fishing expeditions, for example, we sometimes idealize the trout that escaped our hook. "She was some big, b’y!" we exclaim, extending our arms in a generous if fictitious gesture. Such fish are simply too perfect for this world. Perhaps we should do the honourable thing and add those stories to the tall-tale category.

David Mason has a story about the one that got away. However, in his case, it was not a fish but, of all things, a postage stamp.

First, a word about the man himself. David Mason has been an antiquarian bookseller in his hometown, Toronto, since 1967. He has had five different locations and continues to insist on operating an open shop in downtown Toronto in spite of the huge costs, the general indifference, and the disappearance of most of his colleagues. His present shop is called David Mason Books.

He tells the story of the one that got away in his autobiography, The Pope’s Book Binder: A Memoir, which has been variously described as entertaining, moving, informative, enchanting and irresistible.

"Whenever I’m pricing a library," David explains, "if I find, in flashing the pages of a book, any ephemera, I flash all the books in that lot, for people who do that tend to do it as a habit. I’ve found … some pretty interesting ephemera."

In his earliest shop on Gerrard Street, an envelope, with a stamp affixed, fell out of a book he was pricing.

"It was a nineteenth-century book," he says, "and the stamp was dark brown." It depicted Queen Victoria. The price was 1d, or a penny.

"That," David thought perceptively, "could be a Penny Black."

The Penny Black needs no introduction to philatelists. However, for the sake of those uninitiated in the stamp-collecting hobby, it was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was issued in Britain on 1 May 1840.

It has been said that "the introduction of the Penny Black was a revolution in communication. It was the Victorian equivalent of the Internet, and an invention which changed the world."

It’s not that rare a stamp, as 68,808,000 were issued. A used Penny Black can realize as little as $20 and up to $300 for one in very nice condition.

Knowing nothing of stamps, David checked with a friend who had collected stamps as a child.

"Marty," David exclaimed, "I think I’ve found a Penny Black!"

"Don’t be silly, Dave," Marty responded. "You’re acting like one of those people who think a book-club edition is a first edition. It won’t be."

So, David showed his find to his friend.

"It is a Penny Black," Marty exclaimed.

"I’m rich! I’m rich!" David exulted. "What’s it worth?"

"It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty nice. It’s worth about $10."

Disgusted, David put the stamp back in a book, "deciding that my career as a stamp collector had both begun and ended in the space of half an hour."

Years later, when a stamp-savvy customer expressed interest in the Penny Black, David was unable to find it, for he had forgotten the book into which he had put the stamp. And, he adds with keen sorrow, "it’s still missing."

Which is why David Mason says, with good reason, "It’s a very bad idea to hide anything in a book."

David has found other objects in books. A sheaf of cash, amounting to $200, fell out of one tome.

"I’ve found U.S. Civil War currency and lots of other money from other countries and times," he says. "Somewhere I have framed a German banknote, found in a book, in the sum of one hundred thousand Deutschmarks. When I checked it out I discovered it was from 1923 when it would have bought me a loaf of bread — but only if I’d spent in immediately on the morning it was issued, because by the same afternoon it probably wouldn’t have bought a single slice of the loaf."

Another story — tall tale or not — concerns a well-known Canadian journalist who delivered 12 cartons to David. One of them turned out to be the contents of his wastebasket, in which, David says, he "found a very interesting letter" from the Canadian free verse poet, Al Purdy.

So, who knows what lurks between the covers of books or, for that matter, in one’s wastebasket?

"The Pope’s Book Binder: A Memoir," is published by Biblioasis, Windsor, Ontario.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at