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An Addiction That Can't Be Stamped Out

December 07, 1987|DAVID DEVOSS | Times Staff Writer

Karen Reid and Jeri Wade caught the early flight to Los Angeles so they could be on hand when the doors opened. On the drive down from the airport, the two high school teachers from Tempe, Ariz., steeled themselves emotionally for the day of pressure shopping ahead.

But as they stood on the threshold of the Carson Community Center, they were still unprepared for the frenzied din within. Like a wave crashing on the rocks, crowds swirled around exhibits. Some tables were completely obscured by bodies wedged in gridlock. It was as if a Honduran soccer match were being played in a Mideast souk.

"I told you it would be like this," Reid grinned enthusiastically. Wade began to smile. "We all have the same disease," she said.

Addicted to Hobby

Collecting rubber stamps is not a disease. But for the 1,800 people who, like Reid and Wade, attended Saturday's sixth annual Holiday Rubber Stamp Convention, it's certainly an addiction.

Take New Jersey calligrapher Suze Weinberg, who flew across country for the seven-hour event. "My budget for the day is $1,000," she announced. "For me stamping is an obsession."

Or Susan Dworski, who used to be a television writer until she bought two rubber stamps--an alligator and a pig--six years ago. "They were so lovable," she sighs. "I carved clothes and accessories for them out of erasers. Then I made bigger pigs and more alligators. They were like a second family." Dworski called them Gawumpkins.

She subscribed to rubber stamp catalogues and began ordering more stamps through the mail. "Suddenly, I realized I was stamping everything," she says. "I stamped pot holders and book covers, all my pillow cases and the wallpaper. I couldn't stop. . . . One day I even stamped argyle socks on the legs of my children and sent them off to school."

And then there are people like Betty Harris of Whittier. "I have over 11,000 stamps," she says as she methodically culled a tray of dancing elves. "Been collecting for 10 years. I keep them in tin cans that fill an entire room of my house."

Followed by her husband, Richard, whose pen remains constantly poised above an open checkbook, Betty Harris is a bloodhound on the prowl. "Today, I'm after brownies," she confides, but in practice she buys almost everything: London Bridge, a pterodactyl and Edgar Allan Poe with a raven on his shoulder. As Betty exhausts one exhibit and moves on to another, Richard moves in with the checkbook.

Rubber stamps have been around since 1839, when Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered the process of vulcanization. But for more than a century they remained in kindergartens, corporate mail rooms and on the desks of government bureaucrats.

Rubber Stamp Companies

In the early 1980s, however, a handful of tiny California companies inspired by Monty Python, the Dada movement and the legacy of pop art began to turn images, both whimsical and bizarre, into rubber stamps. As artists carved new stamps and experimented with incongruous juxtapositioning, people who couldn't draw a straight line became aware that with just a firm downward thwack, they too could produce personalized cards, gift wrapping and even cartoons.

Today, about 125 companies produce rubber stamps, up from 30 five years ago. Stamp-o-Rama in Huntington Beach specializes in bunnies. La Mirada's Stampendous offers a wide variety of teddy bears. And there is even a porno stamp company called Plain Brown Wrapper.

"California is the center of the rubber stamp subculture," says Melody Stein, editor of National Stampagraphic, a magazine devoted to rubber stamp networking. "Californians will stamp anything that stands still."

Stampagraphic and the Rubber Fanzine, a quirky quarterly prone to the surreal, keep underground artists abreast of current trends and personalities. But the journal of record is Rubberstampmadness, a bimonthly tabloid published in Ithica, N.Y., by Roberta Sperling.

Sperling owned a chain of five weekly newspapers in Upstate New York until she discovered the creative potential of rubber stamps five years ago. Her embrace of the medium was as dramatic as Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus. In 1983, with proceeds from the sale of all five papers, she bought Rubberstampmadness . Today, she calls herself Rubberta and commissions articles on "Zen and the Art of Rubber Stamping."

Identifying rubber stampers and knowing what they want is vital for entrepreneurs like Kat Okamoto, organizer of the Carson convention and president of A Stamp in the Hand Co. in Long Beach. She keeps ahead of changing tastes in rubber art by reviewing dozens of mail-order catalogues.

"There will always be people into rhinos, and teddy bears are a hardy perennial," she says. "But look at unicorns. They looked hot early in the year until the dinosaurs came on strong. And flamingos? Well, I don't think anybody's buying flamingos."

Started With a Pig

Certainly not Seal Beach mailman Rick Clark, 39, whose collection of 900 stamps began with the purchase of a single pig and who represents one faction of the highly polarized stampers' market.

"You'll never catch me buying a teddy bear or any of those other cute stamps," Clark says, brandishing a bag filled with images depicting a prison inmate, a Victrola and various musical instruments. "As a letter carrier, I love to see the strange stuff coming through the mail."

Booming sales in California, coupled with the spread of stamping eastward, make Rubberta Sperling optimistic about the future.

"The growth of rubber stamp art is a tribute to our affluent society," she says. "It takes a dedicated leisure class to spend thousands of dollars on rubber stamps."

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