At the Postcard Show recently, I picked up a brochure that contained the following question and answer: Q: “How many postcard collectors are there?” A: “Everybody who has ever saved a postcard is a postcard collector.”

The gathering was held on an overcast Sunday afternoon in a senior citizens center; there were streamers still on the floor from a dance that had been held the night before. At least 20 tables filled the room now, presided over by dealers from several states.

Dave Long’s table was over against one wall. He was about 40 and sold mostly modern postcards. When I asked him how he started collecting, he said he’d been doing it since he was young (a story I heard many times during the day), and then along with a couple of friends, he decided to try it “it” as a business. Several years later he bought out the two friends and now makes his living on the road. “I’ll be in Philadelphia one week, and Toledo the week after that. It gets kind of lonely being out there by myself but that’s my life.”

When I asked him what the typical collector was like, he shook his head. “Everybody you see in this room has a different reason for being here. They’re all interested in something of their own.”

Walking past the various displays I’m amazed not only at the sheer number of cards but at the almost limitless, and sometimes obscure, categories into which the boxed cards have been grouped. There are not only the obvious ones–cities of the world, movie stars, art reproductions–but topics like ocean liners, moons, baby storks, donkeys, flirtation, swastikas, multiple babies, and mosquitoes.

J.W. Kuster, a dealer in his mid-50s from Dixon, Illinois, was especially interested in Gene Autry memorabilia. “When I was nine years old, I remember looking at a newspaper and seeing a picture of this guy in a white hat. It was Gene Autry. I said to father, ‘Dad, let’s go see this.’ And from then on I was hooked. Just a few months ago I sent Gene the lobby card for the first movie of his I ever saw. He sent it back to me signed, and you know, he didn’t have to do that.”

At Ralph Lopez’s table, on large pieces of black cardboard covered with clear plastic, were posters and unpunched tickets from Riverview. (Ralph had fewer postcards than any other dealer.) Ralph lived a half block away from the park as a child, got his first job there, and has gotten his livelihood from it one way or another ever since,

“Riverview had eight high rides, more than any other in the country, with six wooden roller coasters. Wooden roller coasters are much safer than steel ones, because I don’t trust the welding and in most amusement parks X rays of the welds are taken only once a year.” Ralph founded the National Amusement Park Historical Association and hopes to bring Riverview back someday, especially since he owns the blueprints for all the rides. People like to buy his collages as conversation pieces for their dens; many of his customers have happy memories of “the country’s biggest and finest amusement park ever.” At the other side of the room, Ken Wiedenmann, the president of the Windy City Postcard Club, told me that it was common between 1900 and 1920 to exchange at least three postcards a week with a friend. And the mail was so fast then that a Chicago woman received a postcard, sent that morning by her son from Milwaukee, at noon. The message–‘I’ll be home at 6 PM today’–showed considerable confidence in the mails.

Clearly some people make their livings selling postcards. But even the ones who claim they’re only it for the money can’t resist keeping a few for themselves. One dealer, who said he thought it was a good idea to buy something for ten cents and sell it for a dollar, ended up keeping 200 postcards that he liked best. “If there are five weeks in a month,” he said, “you have to be at a different show in a different state every week, which actually means more dedication than a 40-hour-a-week job.” That dedication seems to come easy to most. Postcards have a hypnotic effect; even the most contrived and blatantly commercial offerings have a surreal, otherworldly feeling that’s hard to resist. Others are more subtle; I overheard a man holding up a card, which showed two boys standing on a path in Washington Park in the 1920s, say, “I feel like I want to walk right into this one.”

“Cowboy Punching Cattle on a Jack Rabbit” was one of my personal favorites, along with one that said “You Will Be Amazed at Jamaica.” Amazed indeed. The picture showed a jumbo jet landing on top of a runway that was also the beehive hairdo of a trio of smiling, oblivious, dark-skinned women.

Towards the end of the show I met and talked at length with Diane Allmen, publisher of the magazine Postcard Collector. She got into the business when she found by chance, while she was out looking for antique furniture, a postcard of the little town in Switzerland in which her father had been born. She liked collecting, she told me, because it was a hobby that anyone could afford and because postcards were historically significant. A postcard could show a photograph of a place long gone, or a photograph of something that actually happened, like a hanging. Or it could show an artist’s fantasy from a certain period, like the postcards of Santa Claus dressed in an Uncle Sam suit. (These Santa Claus cards, she said, among others are so rare that people will pay hundreds of dollars for them.) In general, however, she said museums have not shown much interest in displaying cards, as they have, for example, posters. But this may change.

As we spoke, an eccentric-looking man in a dark jacket and button-down cap who introduced himself as Grant came up and said, “The thing that postcard collectors like to do most is come up to each other and say, ‘I have one that you don’t.'” After he walked away Diane said, “That guy is my Nelson Algren. I’ve never seen Algren, but Grant so typifies Chicago that I can just imagine him standing in the cold at an el stop waiting for the train.”

When I asked Diane to define what a postcard is, she said that it’s a message from far away. “It could be the Corn Palace in South Dakota, or Hollywood, or a tiny place in South America.”

The message can be distanced by time, too. Leafing through the Postcard Collector, I came across a card advertising outhouses in the woods as “air-conditioned cabins for rent.” On the back was a small note dated December 18, 1939: “Hello Kids, A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest of men. –Dad.”