One Friday night in November as most Eurekans were easing into their weekends, two men sat in front of their respective computer screens preparing to do battle. They were not zombie-hunting online gamers, but postcard collectors, or deltiologists (del-ti-ol-o-gists), bidding against each other on eBay for rare images of Humboldt County.
In the living room of his 1906 classical revival Victorian, Steve Lazar logged in under the handle Warnshuze. Across town, his eBay nemesis, Leon Warmuth, the 77-year-old founder of Leon's Car Care Center, typed in his then secret moniker 4Luly2.
Lazar, 33, had just finished his week at the Humboldt County Planning Department where, among other things, he's served as the designated staffer for the new marijuana ordinance. A relative novice at deltiology, his recent purchase of a historic home spurred an interest in local history. That led him down the path to become Warnshuze, a self-confessed "postcard collecting addict." He doesn't know exactly how many cards he's amassed -- he refuses to count -- but he knows it's in the hundreds.
Every deltiologist has his or her own reasons for collecting. For some it's a window into the past. For others it's about building a valuable collection to pass on to heirs.
Lazar/Warnshuze has a grand plan for the images he's collecting, a web site he calls The Humboldt Project. "One of my primary interests is to connect the dots between all of these images of the various cities and towns of Humboldt County where people have historically lived -- with places like Eureka, Arcata, and Garberville being the biggies where I have collected the most stuff. I plan on using mapping, aerial photography and other tools to group and consolidate information spatially and provide it in a readily accessible digital form."
Leon/4Luly2 looks at his large collection as a legacy, something to pass down to his grandchildren. He derived his eBay handle, 4Luly2 from their names. "That's for my granddaughter and grandson, Emily and Lucas," he said. "I'm going on 78 and I hope somebody enjoys [my postcards] and keeps them and adds to them."
One November evening, these rival collectors fought a nine-second bidding war over a coveted card listed by a seller from Santa Cruz. When this deltiological smackdown was done, Warnshuze, the history buff, had beaten 4Luly2, whose secret identity as Leon the Muffler man was not then known -- and the title of Humboldt County Post King seemed up for grabs.
The Humboldt Project
TheHumboldtProject.org is still in nascent form: It's basically a single aerial photo of Eureka from the Merle Schuster collection (See Heidi Walters' Journal story "Aerials Over Humboldt" Feb. 9, 2006) with some Photoshop manipulation applied to make a few buildings stand out. When you click on a yellow building, the old Humboldt County Courthouse for example, it shows you a view of that building. There's no identifying information or any text at all at this point; the site is more to show the potential for presenting imagery. Use your imagination and the possibilities are endless.
The Lazar collection shows the potential for postcards as tools for research. When the planning department finds need for a survey of the historic buildings of Garberville, he has images of the town's streets through history. "Not only do I have old postcards of the town, I have '70s postcards of the same views so you can see the evolution of the downtown buildings and what's left," Lazar said. "So I guess the collection may serve some purpose, but I don't pretend that this isn't something I do for myself."
His taste is totally eclectic. A fair number of Eureka and Arcata street scenes from the turn of the century onward are mixed with school class pictures, shots of landmark buildings, logging scenes, roadside attractions like one log houses and drive-through trees, even a series of glossy color cards showing the Eureka Inn Christmas trees over the course of the 1980s.
"I'm looking for anything that gives some insight into the past," he says. "It doesn't have to be super old, it could even be from the '70s. When I first started, I was just blown away by everything. It didn't matter the vintage, whether they were 20 years old or 50 or a hundred years old. Now I think I've developed more of an eye: a sense of which things are more precious. I see some cards again and again; some I see rarely or never at all."
A Mity Nice Clue
In the relatively short time he had been collecting, Lazar had repeatedly found himself in pitched eBay battles, usually with the same rival bidder. Because eBay now redacts user names in auctions, until recently he only knew the mystery collector as l***u.
He'd heard that Phil Burns, owner of Mity Nice Bakery in Eureka was a collector -- could he be the one? In an attempt to sleuth out his rival, he went to the bakery, ordered a pastry and coffee and casually perused some postcards he'd brought along. The ploy worked. The counterperson spotted the cards and fetched Burns from the back of the bakery.
Lazar recalls, "He comes out and starts rifling through my cards and asking questions: 'You're a collector? Yeah, these are nice. I collect some, haven't been doing it so much lately. What do you collect? What's your handle? How long you been doing it?' I told him mainly all sorts of Humboldt stuff. He says, 'Yeah, well I'm sure you know Leon. He collects Humboldt; you know, 4Lulu7 or whatever -- I think that's it [his guess turned out to be incorrect]. He bids on everything. I can't compete with him.'"
Mr. Mity Nice was not certain, but he assumed "4Lulu7" aka l***u was Leon the muffler magnate. He remembered his full handle from before eBay changed its identifier policy. Lazar finally had something to go on.
"I was really intent on finding this guy because he'd just burned me on a couple of auctions," he said. "I won one, but paid way more than I should have paid. He ridiculously bid up the price."
Leon Warmuth, whose Fifth Street car care center is a Humboldt County icon, has spoken a little about his once-secret collection since the postcard war heated up last fall.
The retired businessman doesn't remember exactly when he started collecting, but said he has been buying cards on eBay for more than 12 years. "It came to me one day that they were inexpensive to ship, they were easy to store and they provide a wealth of information," said 4Luly2. Like Lazar's, his collection includes all sorts of postcards, as long as they're connected to Humboldt County.
"I don't know exactly how many I have; some haven't been put into albums yet," he said. "I keep saying next winter, next winter. My garden takes up a lot of time. But I'd say I have between 2,500 and 3,000 postcards of Humboldt County" along with a few from surrounding counties and the Redwood Highway in general.
He also has some things he's set aside for the Humboldt Historical Society and the Timber Heritage Museum, although not postcards, old photos and other memorabilia. "I feel bad because I'm probably outbidding some locals on items they'd want."
His method is to figure out in advance how high he's willing to bid on any given card, and stick to it. He doesn't base his bids on market prices -- he's not looking to sell cards to turn a profit. He's building a collection for himself and to create a legacy of what he calls "windows on the past."
The Battle for Korbel
4Luly2 only vaguely recalls the November auction for the cards from the Santa Cruz seller. He mostly remembers that he got a few good cards that night (he beat Lazar on some railroading scenes). Asked about a particularly expensive battle for an "RP postcard," a view of the town near Blue Lake called Korbel, he changed the subject, explaining that RP, or RPP, stands for "real photo postcard."
"They're real photos. Photographers in the early 1900s had a tough time finding a market for their photographs, so somebody, maybe a Swede or Austrian logger or someone said. 'If you'd make that into a postcard, I could send it back to the home country.' And they did. Believe it or not, we have a postcard of my wife's step-grandfather who was a donkey engine tender for [the lumberman] Carson."
One can imagine a turn-of-the-century Korbel mill worker sending a postcard showing his workplace back home to wherever. The town is gone now, but the photo remains.
Lazar wanted it.
"Those cards from Santa Cruz, I'd never seen any of them before. There were some unusual things like people working on the railroad tunnels through the Eel River canyon, shots of Eureka done from weird angles looking down some block or at some building. There were so many great shots. I was googly-eyed."
Lazar wanted pretty much all of the cards. And based on the way they were listed, he knew he would not be the only one bidding. The seller, known on eBay as g0ing_g0ing (aka Leslie's Antiques Photos Ephemera) did well that Friday.
Lazar recalled, "It was classic eBay: Days went by with no bids, no bids. I was holding back with my e-snipe ready to go. E-snipe is a remote proxy bidding program that's timed with the end of the auction; I can actually set it up using my iPod. I had 30 or so auctions in there with maximum bid prices. There were no batches [one bid for multiple cards], all individual cards, each set to end within a couple of minutes of the next one. It was all happening on a Friday night starting at 5:30. Prime time -- you get off work, just got paid, blow a bunch of money on postcards. It was the best and worst of all possible scenarios for me."
4Luly2 says he does not use an e-sniping program like Lazar -- it's just him sitting in front of his Mac. "I've got all the time in the world. I wouldn't know how to set up one of those programs. And eBay provides a countdown clock; you put your bid in and confirm it at what you hope is the right time. I have missed a couple."
When the first auction closing time came close, it was a waiting game. "I'm looking to see if there's any bids; no bids, no bids," said Lazar. "Then at the last minute, boom, boom, boom -- bids go up. The first card ends at something like $50. I was the second highest bidder; 4Luly2 was the highest, he outbid me. Then I outbid him on the second auction. He outbids me on the third. We're going back and forth and it's getting worse and worse."
There's a certain thrill that comes with coming out on top in an auction. On eBay they call it "winning" -- you are a winner. Of course, it really just means you bought something and you paid top price.
"When all the dust settled, I'd won maybe 80 percent of the auctions," said Lazar, "but I was out a lot of the money." He ended up spending $600 on 17 cards that Friday, so much that he had to borrow money to cover his bill. "All to fund this ridiculous effort. That one card of downtown Korbel went for around $130. I'd never approached anything like that. Usually I'm paying more in the $8-$10 range -- the highest I'd ever bid on a card was like $20 -- but that night, the cards were so rare and the mystery guy was willing to go up and up."
Postcard Lecture / 4Luly2 Revealed
What makes a collector like Lazar pay so much for a postcard? On a certain level there's the impulse to impress. Around the time of the battle for Korbel, Lazar was taking a night class on Humboldt's forgotten towns from local historian (and occasional Journal contributor) Jerry Rhode. He brought some of his cards into class; his teacher was duly impressed and ended up asking for some scans, both for the course and for a lecture he was planning for the Humboldt Historical Society.
That talk on a Saturday in January, titled "Keeping Posted on Humboldt History: Seeing the County Twenty-Four Square Inches at a Time," proved a turning point. Lazar guessed other collectors would be drawn to the event and he was right -- one even came all the way from Portland, Ore., to hear Rohde speak. He'd have an opportunity to make a pitch about his Humboldt Project to folks who might be willing to expand it by sharing their cards.
His confidence boosted by the fact that Rohde was drawing on his collection for the lecture, he was ready to find out once and for all if his hunch about the mysterious "4Luly2" was correct. He put in a call to Leon's son, Dale Warmuth, and learned that Leon usually came in Saturdays to hang out at the shop. So the morning before Rohde's talk, Lazar walked into Leon's Car Care Center with a box of postcards under his arm.
"I knew meeting him it would be fraught with complications," Lazar recalls. He was hoping for, but not really expecting, a positive reception. Warmuth wasn't shy about the fact that he was the one outbidding him, but as Lazar tells it, he barely acknowledged the younger deltiologist's collection. "He pulled out a couple of cards while we talked, but that was about it." He did not appear particularly interested in Lazar's pitch for The Humboldt Project.
Later that same day, 4Luly2 would attend Rohde's lecture at the Humboldt County Library and hear the pitch again.
When the event was over, Warmuth announced to the crowd with a touch of pride something to the effect of "I'm 4-Luly on eBay, the guy who's been beating you in all the auctions." He did not linger to talk shop with other collectors.
Lazar figures Warmuth's general lack of interest in his Humboldt Project means he'll never gain access to the extensive 4Luly2 collection. Leon confirmed that when we asked him point blank if he'd let Lazar scan any of his cards.
"No," he said flatly. "This is personal thing for my family. I paid good money for them; I'm not going to share them." He paused then added, "Besides, I don't think I have anything that special."
Leon the Postcard King also noted that he paid a visit to the Eureka Inn recently and bought their latest postcard, "just to add to the collection."
When he gets caught up with his filing, he'll add it to others showing the history of that building and, in some small way, painting a portrait of the community we live in, one little piece of the past at a time.
[Note: A lot more of Lazar's postcards and images he received from Dave Rodoni are posted here.]