Mary L. Martin's of Perryville is mecca for collectors

WHERE THE NICEST POSTCARDS DROP IN

February 12, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Whether it's Melbourne, Fla., or Melbourne, Australia, city halls or concert halls, old houses, outhouses, executions, elocutions, paintings, faintings, cows looking east or cows looking west -- if it's on a postcard, chances are you'll find it at Mary L. Martin LTD.

The Cecil County business, which occupies the site of a former auto dealership on U.S. 40 in Perryville, is home to more than 10 million postcards on thousands of topics. Inside, the Martin family -- Bill and Mary, son David, and daughter and son-in-law Mary and Paul Russell -- operate a mail-order business selling mostly antique postcards from all over the world to collectors from all over the world.

Babies, battles, banks, beaches, bells, billiards, birds, birthdays are just a few under "B" in the storehouse of postcards Bill and Mary Martin started accumulating nearly 30 years ago.

"I've sold postcards that were mailed from the Titanic before it sank," says Mary Russell, who with her husband and brother handle the business' daily operation.

"People will generally pick a topic, like their hometown," says Paul Russell, "and they'll try to get every card published of that town."

Customers come in a wide variety -- from the Massachusetts man who collects lighthouses to the New York filmmakers who were re-creating a small New Jersey town of the 1920s and wanted every picture of it that they could get.

"We have one customer who collects just lynchings," said Mr. Russell.

While the postcard business is mostly mail-order, Mary L. Martin LTD's location attracts passers-by periodically, too.

Those who stop in seem surprised at what they find in the former auto showroom. "Moderns" -- newer postcards that include the humorous, the sexy, the political -- fill display racks out front. But the heart of the collection sits in back in a combination storage room-library.

There, pre-1920 postcards, filed in shoe boxes of 1,000 cards each, line shelves in alphabetical order, by topic and state. California alone fills at least 100 boxes.

"There are millions of subjects that people collect," says Mr. Russell. "People will usually pick a topic and then wind up expanding it."

That's how the Martins, now in their 50s, got started in the business.

Mary Martin began collecting old postcards of children and Christmas greetings. Bill, a former stamp collector, soon joined her, concentrating on views of New York state, where the family lived at the time.

Soon, Mrs. Martin started a mail-order auction, advertising cards in magazines and waiting for the highest bid. "There were no books about postcards then," says Mrs. Martin's daughter, Mrs. Russell. "She learned from her customers and from other collectors."

By the early 1970s, Mrs. Martin had learned enough to make a living selling the cards. Several years later, her husband quit his job as a lawyer to become a full-time dealer along with her.

The Martins, who moved back to their native Maryland in 1974, ran their business out of their garage and their basement for years. Later, they moved it to a small warehouse in Millersville, Anne Arundel County, where it remained until 1991, when they bought the Perryville site. While most of their collection is there, the most valuable cards are locked away in a safe.

Today, Mr. and Mrs. Martin spend lots of time on the road, traveling to postcard and related antique shows on both coasts of the United States and in Europe. David Martin and the Russells maintain the business in Perryville and attend weekend trade shows.

Wherever they go, they buy postcards, frequently entire collections. When the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans ended, they bought every postcard the publisher had left, probably a million of them. "My grandchildren will probably be selling them someday," says Mrs. Russell.

The Martins advertise in weekly and monthly postcard hobby magazines, and they are known among collectors worldwide.

The business employs a half-dozen part-timers who help sort, price and file postcards, sell supplies to collectors and fill orders that come in every day. One day last week brought requests for postcards of Illinois, North Carolina, Halloween and covered bridges.

One recent letter writer requested postcards from a particular county in South Africa in the 1930s. The writer wanted only used cards that had been stamped and postmarked.

"That was one we'll probably have to hunt for," Mrs. Russell says.

Whether a postcard has been postmarked or has a written message on it doesn't really matter to most collectors, the Russells say. The card's subject and its condition determine the value.

Most antique cards at Mary L. Martin LTD sell for $3 to $10, though the occasional rare find can bring hundreds of dollars or more. Most of the cards were produced between 1907 and 1915 -- generally considered the heyday of postcards. Then postage cost a penny, and people mailed postcards as frequently as one might make a telephone call today.

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