Ben Fast

Culture - Community - Museums - Travel

Category: Postcards

Letter Writing Week and Postcrossing Meet Up at the Royal BC Museum

What’s the best thing you’ve ever received through the mail?  A birthday card?  A postcard from a friend on vacation?  A Christmas present?  A love letter?  Phone bill?

Ok, so phone bills and flyers aren’t likely your favourite things about the postal system, but when something sent with love from across the globe or around the corner arrives in our mailbox we are filled with a great sense of joy and excitement!

Old Letter-1-004

An old postcard from…Germany? Can anyone read this?

In today’s digital age, we’ve turned to instant communication for every type of message.  Our quick hellos, heartfelt apologies, and even our tentative notes of affection have become cold, impersonal clicks and swipes, sent off without a second thought and denigrated to the same level as that phone bill payment, food pic or work email.  And worst of all, we’ve relegated hand-written communication to the realm of “snail mail.”  We’re at risk of losing handwriting skills and long-form letter writing all together!

Letter Writing Week

But never fear!  The Royal BC Museum is hosting a special Letter Writing Week from January 2-9, 2016 to encourage visitors to re-engage with the art of letter writing by sitting down and spending time composing a hand written letter.  Between 11am-2pm, venture up to the 3rd floor and find the letter writing station to join in.  Oh, and did I mention that the museum is open by donation that week as part of their Community Days?!

“The act of sitting down to write by hand is quite different from using a computer or smartphone. We want visitors to re-engage with this simpler activity, to promote literacy, communication and community.”

The Royal BC Museum is providing all the supplies you will need, including paper, pens, envelopes, dictionaries, tablets to look up addresses, and even postage!  You can bring your own materials if you want, the museum will send any letters or postcards written at the station (no late Christmas packages though!).

Send us your mail

Want to take part but can’t make it down to the museum in January?  Then send a letter or postcard to the museum and we’ll put it on display at the station!  Please don’t send anything after January 1 as it will arrive too late.  You can send mail to:

The Learning Department

c/o Royal BC Museum

675 Belleville St.

Victoria, BC

V8W 9W2


You can send anything you like (so long as it is appropriate for children to read).  What did you get for Christmas?  What are your New Years resolutions?  What’s the weather like outside?

Postcrossing Meet Up:

Are you a Postcrosser?  Do you want to be?  Postcrossers are members of the Postcrossing Project, an online community devoted to sending real postcards through the mail.  If you sign up, you can send (real) postcards to random people all around the world and then have other random people send you postcards back!  It’s like a pen pal network, except with different people each time.

Postcrossers host occasional meet ups where members get together and all sign postcards being sent out.  If you’re a member or are interested in learning more, stop by the Letter Writing Week station on Saturday, January 9 between 11-2 and we’ll have our very own Postcrossing Museum Meet Up!  I’m running the station that day, and I’ll bring some of my collection of postcards from around the world to show visitors as well as let people sign some cards to be sent out.

One of the coolest Postcrossing cards I’ve ever received: a scratch-to-play Minesweeper card sent to me by a stranger in Sweden! You can see where some of the top layer got scraped away during the journey.

BC Archives

The Royal BC Museum is also home to the BC Archives where many letters, diaries and notes from BC’s past are kept for future generations.  While you’re visiting the Letter Writing Week station, keep your eyes open for archival letters in the exhibits or on display.  Notice how handwriting has changed, how letters were composed, how people said hello.


We hope to see you down at the museum this January for Letter Writing Week!  You never know, maybe the letter you write will find its way into an archive someday!

Upon Entering Jersey: A Postcard Story

I’m posting this story here as a portfolio piece mainly for the “Travel Writing” #CultureTrav Twitter chat for July 30, 2015.  It’s a story I wrote for a travel writing class at UVic in the spring of 2014 reflecting on a day trip to Jersey with my mom and aunt in 2011 (I was working in Normandy at the time).  The requirements for the assignment included keeping it under 500 words and having more than one character in it (I think that was one of the requirements, I actually forget now…).  Hope you like it!

Note: Being a very literal guy, I took the postcard story to the next level by including a vintage postcard that I have in my personal collection of the actual St. Helier’s harbour where my story took place.

Local Charity Collects from Collectors

This article was written in Fall 2012 as part of a writing class at the University of Victoria.  Because of the time between writing and in-class review it was no longer viable for publishing outside of the class, but for posterity I’ve put it up here with some bonus photos as well!

Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) Victoria collected in a big way at this weekend’s third annual All Collectibles Show at Pearkes Recreation Centre.  Vancouver Island’s Most Amazing Collectible Show (VIMACS) chose the local charity as partial beneficiary for the second year in a row.

Event organiser Al Coccola shows off the third annual VIMACS program.  VIMACS 2012 raised over $7000 for BBBS Victoria!

Event organiser Al Coccola shows off the third annual VIMACS program. VIMACS 2012 raised over $7000 for BBBS Victoria!

Event organizer Allen Coccola, an accountant by profession, picked BBBS, a charity that matches children with adult mentors, as the charity after being a member of their board for six years.

Joining BBBS for the first two-day VIMACS show were 75 dealers from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland selling products on 125 tables.  Subjects ranged from Roman-era coins to Wrestlemania figurines, comic books to dental picks.  While nine dealers hawked rare comics, stamps are still among the most popular of collectibles.

“Stamps are collected all over the globe,” said Bill Bartlett, a collector who also sits on the Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee.  “They may be in a slight decline, but that’s the same for all collectibles.”

Local collecting expert Bill Bartlett shows off some prized illustrations from a popular children's book.

Local collecting expert Bill Bartlett shows off some prized illustrations from a popular children’s book.

Coccola agrees that collecting finds a limited audience in today’s internet generation.

“When I was a kid I collected everything,” said Coccola, dressed in a ‘Lucky Larry’ leprechaun outfit.  “Sportsmen Cigarette packages, coins, comics, things I found on the street.  Young people still collect comics, but you can download them now.  You need disposable income to collect and most people don’t have that or won’t use it.”

20 collectors were lined up by 8:30 a.m. on Saturday for early bird access with another 30 arriving before the general opening.  Most refused to give their names or tell what they were looking for because of the high stakes of collecting in a poor market.

“It’s all competitive and if I tell you it won’t be a secret anymore,” said one collector who preferred to remain anonymous.   “I don’t want you to know what I know.  You’d be lucky to get 10-15% of catalogue value [for stamps] now anyways.  I collect penny blacks, which were the first stamps ever, and they’re not moving at all.”

Chad Stewart, dressed as the Joker, holds a rare edition of the comic Joker.

Chad Stewart, dressed as the Joker, holds a rare edition of the comic Joker.

“It’s making a comeback,” said an optimistic Chad Stewart, 40 of JigglyPig Comics, who dressed as the Joker to get in the spirit of things.  “The movies are dragging comics along.”

“Most of the dealers did well dollar wise,” said Coccola.  “It was our first two-day show so lots of things to consider for next time.”

BBBS raised in excess of $7,000 at the event.

Flea Market Failure: My Two Cents

When I received a free admission pass to the Victoria Flea Market from Sorensen Books owner Cathy Sorensen, complete with advice of which vendor would be selling the best postcards, I had a mental image of an upscale antiques fair selling vintage and rare items to collectors.  I didn’t expect an actual flea market.

“You DON’T want to be covered in my freaky potions?!”

Nonetheless, I carried on, fighting my way through the throngs of people (tens of people) and past the hippy trying to smear me with some kind of skin oil – who, if she reads this eventually, should not throw an angry face fit when someone refuses to be touched by you – flipping through undated “World War One” photos and rusty old farm equipment bits.

I bought a cookie from a little boy, the only non-scary vendor in the place, to tide me through my journey.

I arrived at the market near the end of its run, around 1:20pm on Sunday.  My first stop in the Leonardo Da Vinci Centre‘s main hall was at a table covered in coins.  The man guarding it, some flippant old arse who was incredibly rude to his customers, was wearing a ratty cravat under his ratty beige leather coat and selling old coins un-priced out of Tupperware containers. He also had a collection of broken pocket watches, some pocket knives, and some costume jewellery.  While waiting for the postcard table to clear, I dove into his coin collection.  [I should mention here that not all the vendors were strange, mean old men, just this one.  I had plenty of really great experiences with vendors including one really awesome guy named Dave who not only explained all about the subject matter but gave me a discount for being a student and because of my interest in history.  The gentleman who sold me the German coins (below) was also very helpful.]

When I was a kid I collected coins, among many other things.  I was fascinated by the different denominations, different faces, different feels of each country’s currency.  I had Japanese exchange students send me money when they made it home, friends would bring me coins from their summer holidays, and I’d accumulated enough Canadian pennies from the 1960’s or earlier to start my own bank.  I am not, however, a collector in the quality sense of the word.

As the customers drifted away from the table I had my eye on across the lane, I decided I’d check how badly people were being swindled by the coin man.  I picked five that I thought were interesting and held them out asking how much (one already had a price of $1.25 and was in a cardboard holder, which he quickly ripped off saying it wasn’t the way he priced things).  He held my five coins in my hand, tossed them around a bit as if weighing both their value and mine, and then said $5 for the lot.  I was shocked.  In a good way.

I know nothing about coin pricing.  I had thought he’d come back at me with a gigantic figure of $5 each, or more, which I would then be able to walk away from with a scoff.  Half those coins were pre-Confederation!  I had to have them, my mind instantly changed tact.  Little did I know even $5 was sky-high for coins out of a grab bin.

Here’s what I got, starting with Canada:

Canadian One Cent: 1910

This coin is the most recent one that I bought.  It features King Edward VII on the face, a clear marking of the date, and it’s 92 years old.  5,146,487 of these mostly copper coins were minted, based on the design by G.W. De Saulles.  Probably worth something you’d think.  Actually I was surprised by how much it is worth.

This coin is pretty beaten up.  While the writing is quite clear and the leaf border is still nice, the N in ONE is rubbed off, there is a whole in “cent,” and Edwards face has almost no detail.  The coin’s edges are warped as well.

According to Coins and Canada, this would be rated a G-4 and would be worth about $2.50 (the examples on eBay reflect just a bit lower than this).  Not bad for a coin pulled out of a bin.

Almost the same as the 1910 version, this 1888 coin features Queen Victoria and is in slightly better shape.

My 1888 One Cent example is in better shape, with better coloration, and less wear, so it must be worth millions, right?  Wrong!  About $6.

Still, that’s a $5 profit I’ve made!  This coin has a decent amount of wear on the image, but all the text is in good condition.  The 1888 coin featured some distinct die issues, including a crack after the final A in Canada, and a “double 888″ feature where the date was stamped twice.  These defects more than double the value, especially if in mint condition.  Sadly, mine don’t feature those defects…

Four million 1888 pennies were stamped, designed by Leonard C. Wyon and G. W. DeSaulles.  Source: Coins and Canada.

UK One Penny with Queen Victoria’s “Old Head,” 1898.

This bronze British Pence’s scanning results don’t quite do justice to the fine detail that still remains.  The lines on the shield are still quite visible and all the lettering is crisp and legible.  There is obvious wear on Victoria’s face, but the pearls in her necklace are still visible.

According to Coins of the UK and my interpretation of their value system (which is higher than US coins, I have myself an F to VF rating), this coin could be worth between three and 18 British Pounds!  This example is being auctioned for $9 AUD (Australian Dollars) and is in much worse condition.

Pre-Confederation “Bank Token” from Upper Canada (1854, today’s Ontario).

I was very excited to find this coin, a One Half-Penny Bank Token from Upper Canada struck in 1854.  I was excited to find this because I had never heard about coinage from this period before, let alone held one, and even though it was beaten up a bit, I still liked the look.

I found it very hard to come up with information on this coin, or distinct value references.  There are items on eBay selling anywhere from $2.95 to $134.00, but I don’t trust those estimates nor do I see much difference between them.  Coin Community’s forum has a post asking for more information on the token, although one respondent’s mention of a 750,000 copy mintage is contradictory to Coin Hoarders‘ 1,500,000 total.  The coin’s catalogue or KM number is Tn2 – “Tn” standing for token.  I’d recommend reading Sap’s brief history on these and other Upper Canadian coins here.

1853 French Empire: Dix Centimes (ten cents) with Napoleon III.

This is the jewel in my five-coin collection.  I know both Victoria and Edward were technically heads of an empire (and perhaps the greatest empire at that), but there’s something about the name Napoleon that strikes fear into one’s heart.  Even if it was Napoleon I who was the famous terror of Europe, his nephew and heir would have a similar military leaning, although much less successfully.  Napoleon III was primarily known for being both the first titular president and the last monarch of France, but in that order which is rare.  He dismantled the French monarchy (House of Bourbon) and many of the agreements of the Treaty of Vienna, he was a notorious womanizer, and he established the second version of the French Empire with lands in Asia and Oceania.  To learn more of his fascinating story, and why a French emperor is buried in England, read his Wikipedia page.

It appears that this coin, the A version being minted in Paris, had a mintage of 12.2 million, and the A series is one of the least valuable, so I am not expecting much value for this.  Most sites I could find indicate between $2-5 would be common.  This version is hardly collector’s material either, having distinct scratches and dents and wear on the “tails” side, and the Emperor’s face seems dotted by indentations or other marks.

One thing of interest is that this coin was only demonetized (no longer to be used as currency) in 1935, 80 years after its minting!

Well, with $5 for five coins, I can hardly say I came off too poorly.  I collect things out of my own personal interest, not for the value they hold, but it was very interesting to learn how coins are valued and how much they’d go for.

I don’t think I’ll get too into coins, I’ll stick with my postcards and cameras mainly, but I do like these that I picked up.  Here’s another interesting one to look at that I bought from another vendor that day.  It is a Five Pfennig coin from the Deutsches Reich (Imperial Germany) dated 1900.  I just love the detail and design of the eagle.  I paid $5 for this one.

The point of collecting isn’t always how much rare and unique stuff you own, or even the stories of miraculous finds and total surprises; collecting is about finding what interests you, learning about the subject, and being proud of your collection, even if maybe you did waste five bucks on it!

What about you?  Do you collect coins, or other things?  Have you ever put a price on your collection?  Tell me about your collections in the comments below!

Granville Island Escape (with extras)

Posted on March 24, 2011 at
With journalistic interludes featuring play-by-play for drop in football games.

There are some stores which I should not be allowed to visit.  These stores aren’t electronics stores, or car dealerships, or even flashy record stores, but rather are small, unique, and independent craft and gift stores.  Stores with odds and ends, nicks and knacks, these stores are where I spend the most money.  These stores are both my muse and my economic murderers.

Granville Island is a tourist destination near Vancouver’s downtown core, known for its artsy vibe and unique shopping, a market with craft studios, and the home of the Vancouver Aquabus, two theatre companies, and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.  Situated under a bridge in scenic False Creek, this spot is a must-see in Vancouver.

I’m writing this post while sitting at the BC Ferry terminal in Tsawassen, waiting to catch the evening boat back to the Island.  It’s one of the first nice days of Spring 2011.  I’m sitting outside in the sunshine and nice ocean breeze, listening to the pre-teen cheers of a pick-up game of football, and a flock of sea gulls is harassing a hawk above the vast parking lot.  Hardly a picturesque view, but the ocean atmosphere and patient anticipation of travel makes the setting perfect.

I had spent the morning in Vancouver in a frantic dash for documents allowing me to travel in Europe this summer, and although it made me feel like an international spy, both my mom and I needed a gentle reprieve from the city bustle.  Settling into the bar seating of one of Granville Island Public Market’s many superb food venues overlooking False Creek Rowing Club, we listened to street musicians perform rough cover tunes and watched small children play dangerously close to the ocean.  It was packed, maybe because of Spring Break, but also with professionals and young families.

After failing at working up the courage to chat up a lone traveller sitting next to me (I could tell she was a traveller from her Lonely Planet guide to Vancouver and her backpack from Edinburgh), we began our routine of exploring the many interesting shops.  After a quick stop at Roger’s Chocolates I began a search for two of my favourite stores on the island, ones I had discovered during my last visit.

These stores, Gigi B. and The Postcard Place, both located in the Net Loft, have influenced much of my life today.  Gigi B. carries a line of plastic cameras (toy cameras or “lomographic” cameras) made by the Lomographic Society International (along with many more unique gift ideas).  These old Russian and Chinese designed knock-off cameras with the famous names of Diana, Holga, LC-A, and the Sprocket Rocket are sold in a display at the front of the store, and as a camera enthusiast I was immediately drawn to them.  Since my first encounter with them at Gigi B. I have purchased three of these lomographic cameras and have enjoyed much experimentation with their true analogue nature.

The moms of these rowdy boys stand on one side of the field with arms crossed, quietly talking to each other and tensing as the kids run towards the concrete patio, while the dads lean against a railing at the other end of the small field, occasionally shouting loud encouragements and cheers for good tackles.

While I did not plan on purchasing anything during this visit (I have to plan for Europe after all…), I was brutally tempted with Diana Mini clones like “Love is in the Air” and “En Rose,” and by the highly desired (and highly priced) Lomo Lubitel 166+.  Smaller items like lens adapter kits, aged film, and key chains also caught my eye, but I held out and walked out empty-handed.

In Gigi B., I did have a very interesting discussion on the merits of film with one of the staff, and had a quick exchange with a former art and photography teacher visiting from Wisconsin who told a story about how she used to require students to shoot all film in one course on a used Holga.  With completely uncertain results and an organic creative process, the Holga used to be a staple of photography courses and was very popular in Europe in the 1990’s.  However, with the diminishing supply of film and the rise of the digital age, these items have become quirky collectors items used by artists and garage sale hunters.  This teacher was surprised but excited to see the wide variety of products and interest in Lomography, even though only one version of the original Holga is being manufactured today.

I then walked farther into the Net Loft and visited The Postcard Place, Granville Islands home for postcard related memorabilia.  This quaint, small store has shelves on every wall displaying a myriad of image-related product, from calendars and gift cards to collector art booklets and of course postcards.  Whether you are into collecting, sending, or browsing, this store will have something that tickles your fancy.  For me, this visit brought back memories of my childhood when I read the Tintin series of comics.

One boy leaves the field holding a hand under his bloody lip, bravely shouting back a response to a kid who asks if he is ok, who himself is quickly taken to the ground.

Tintin is required reading in the early lives of most boys (and girls) who enjoy mysteries, adventure, and exploration.  I read each of the Belgian comic stories in both French and English, most books at least ten times!  The Postcard Place hooked me with a line of unique Tintin products and I left with a notebook and pin, a very well-spent $14.  This is especially noteworthy because Hergé creations’ rights are rarely released for memorabilia.

While many of the items in Granville Island’s shops and galleries are either fashion accessories or high art, there is the occasional find of truly unique product makes the Granville Island experience an exciting one.  Whether you are into collecting, browsing, or tasting, the Island is a required visit for those travelling to Vancouver.  Other stores to note are Paper-Ya (“Ya” meaning “store” in Japanese) and the Silk Weaving Studio.

The game disbands as the announcement is made for people to return to their cars as the ferry draws near the terminal.  A quiet game of chess and a kid holding a bloody paper towel is all that remains of the once bustling scene.

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