In our mass-produced, all-bulk-everything world, things created specifically for you by another human being's hands inherently have more value. For the same reason a handwritten note resonates more deeply than a new email in your inbox: it takes time, so it feels more tangible somehow.
J.C. Casey, owner of Casey's Stamps, avoids getting sentimental about his craft. His shop is wonderfully unfussy. The shelves are haphazardly lined with stamps of every imaginable variety; his desk is obscured with loose papers and old coffee cups. Just beside his computer a book with the title "Cultivating Male Sexual Energy" is perched. I ask him about it, and it he laughs, saying a friend gave it to him. "Stay away from that stuff," he warns.
His accent is warm, thick, and Irish. Being in his shop recalls the feeling I had as elementary school kid obsessed with garage sales. There was always this idea that, rifling through piles of other people's stuff, there was an opportunity for real discovery. It was the same reason I loved rock hunting, exploring new friends' rooms, and crawling through the attic in my mother's house: it was a modern version of treasure hunting, an experience both tactile and poetic.
Living in a version of Manhattan that cabbies love to describe as having "lost its magic," Casey's creations retain that lost spark because his craft is relatively unaltered by time. He recalls collecting coins as a boy and seeing the shiny object being made into a stamp on a printing press. Years later, when he arrived in New York at 16, he searched for the machinery he noticed back then. He's been creating stamps by way of a nearly identical process for nearly 40 years now.
We spent some time with Casey and his apprentice, Keith (and even more time sifting through his shop). Here's what Casey had to say about New York's changing landscape, the importance of real artisans (not the kind with beards making your coffee in Brooklyn), and cultivating sexual energy. Actually, he has no insights into the former. Sorry, folks.
So, how long you been at this, Casey?
I've been on and off since ’79. I had my 17th birthday in NY.
I take it you weren't born here?
No. With an accent like mine? It’s funny. I was just in contact with the museum in my hometown and they saw my website and NPR interviewed me for an article. My voice is so old-fashioned, they couldn’t believe there was somebody alive that still talked like this.
As a foreigner arriving in NYC, what about the city did you most identify with?
It's full of misfits. The day I got off the plane I knew I fit in.
How do you end up in a business like this?
I started off as a kid very into coins. And, my dad used to go to a print shop get postals made for dance hall and they had a printing block of a coin and made a stamp of it. The idea really appealed to me. So when I came to New York at 16, I looked for the machinery. Unfortunately, the only company in the yellow pages was the most expensive company out there. So, that was that. So, 12 years later. I found the machinery. And I've been making stamps on and off ever since.
Was there a thought that I'm going to make stamps and make it big?
Oh no. I'm only doing this until my real plans come about. [laughs]
When you first started here in NYC, was there a lot more competition in the stamp business?
There was actually a small boom in the business in the early '80s. Most of the companies are gone because they’ve been taken over by bigger companies. I’m one of the old timers that still does it because I like it. What can I tell you?
Tell me about the process. How do you create a stamp from start to finish?
You start on the left, get the images, then go into a negative. The negative goes onto this plate which has a sensitive coating. It gets exposed to high-intensity UV light, it gets hard, the rest gets washed away. And when it gets hard and dried we make a mold. And then the the rubber goes under heat and pressure right here.
Do you have a lot of regulars?
Thank god for regulars. They keep me in business.
Do you feel like people have come to appreciate handmade things more?
New York, being full of misfits, is a self-selecting people. People that come to NY are not big consumers at Walmart. There’s always people that like handmade stuff, but you have to have both. You can't have it all mass-produced. You need esoteric stuff as well.
What kind of advice would you give to young kids starting out who have just moved here?
Marry well. I give love advice all the time; it's usually wrong. I’ve made all my sexual mistakes. It’s too late to start making new ones.
What’s the strangest stamp you’ve made?
A drawing of dried out mice on mouse traps. Dead mice on mouse traps and I made stencils to make wallpaper out of them.
That’s interesting. [Laughs] Is there any stamp you wouldn’t make?
We don’t make drug stamps. Did you see my sign over there? Someone brought in a heroin bag, and said, 'Can you make a stamp?' I said no way. I would legalize every drug known to man as such, but I don’t want the street sellers in here.
Have you ever done tattoo designs?
We get a lot of tattoo people that want their own designs made into stamps. I love some of the art from tattoos, but I would never get one myself. I want to be buried in sacred ground. The Rabbi says we can’t have tattoos.
You’re a Jewish-Irishman? I don’t believe it.
[Laughs.] No, but I do like some of the imagery. I have a friend of mine that’s all tattooed and she’s very ambitious.
Did you hear about Grey’s Papaya closing?
I was sad about that; I used to live over there. When I was broke, that was my default place to eat. Back in the '80s, I went there quite a lot. $30,000 a month they were paying and they now want $70,000. The guys from Liqueteria are taking over.
Does it upset you when people in the same trade start going out of business?
Oh yes, it does. It’s getting harder and harder for me to get supplies. Some of my wholesalers have gone. I send people to this shop on the West side all the time. She makes great stuff. She's actually bought stamps from me. It’s good to have another person. Do you ever see a bar on a street on its own, and another bar with 15 bars on the same street? It will do far more business. It's good to have other people doing it.
Any plans of retiring?
I have gone mentally incompetent, so I kind of reckon that I better stick to what keeps me on the straight and narrow.
What made you stick to it for this long? What do you attribute your success to? Skill...luck?
I have a good eye. I have no luck. I’ve made far too many mistakes. I just love them [stamps]. I should have done other things, but I chose not to. Even if I were doing other things, I would still be doing this.
Keith, how long have you been working here?
Three years. I was out of college and unemployed and I started working here.
Did you fall in love with it?
Yes, it’s definitely a good trade. At first you have no idea, I thought it was going to be temporary.
What made you stick with it?
I’m still dabbling in other things. It’s definitely by chance. Seeing all the different kinds of people coming in getting stamps made, you get to interact with all these different trades of people, entrepreneurs starting a new business, coffee people.
Do you ever see yourself opening your own shop one day?
Yea, I can see it. I know the whole process in and out. You definitely have to have a good amount of money to get the equipment. Even second hand, this machine over here would cost at least $5,000, not including shipping.
What’s your favorite stamp you’ve made since you started?
It’s hard to say. It’s kind of like asking what’s my favorite meal in the past year. Definitely this humming bird. They’re all kind of weird in their own way. There’s a little fist with five people on it.
What does it mean?
I have no idea. They’re all just from old encyclopedia books. I think it has something to do with some kind of Buddhist thing.
Do you think you learn a lot about another person based on what kind of stamps they order?
One aspect of the person. There’s a lot of inside jokes and personal stuff. People get really specific quotes with specific imagery that only they know. It makes a good gift.