PARIS — There is a rundown shop in my neighborhood near the Rue des Martyrs that never seems to close. When I peer through the window late at night, I usually see a small group of older men bent over a long table, picking up and moving around thousands of tiny bits of colored paper with their tiny tweezers.
At first, I wondered whether the place might be a front for a bookie joint or a money-laundering operation. Not at all. It is very respectable.
It goes by the name Action Philatélie — Action Philately — and has been in business for as long as anyone can remember. It is dedicated to the buying, selling, researching, sorting, evaluating and classifying of postage stamps.
Since 1986, Raphaël Stern, a former teacher of history and English, has owned and managed the shop. Organized chaos reigns. The front windows display cellophane-wrapped packets of stamps organized according to subject, none considered too trivial. (The mushroom and prehistoric animal stamp collections are my favorites.)
Boxes of stamps line shelves along the shop’s back wall. Loose stamps sit in envelopes and plastic bags. A desk is piled high with dozens of albums of stamps that once belonged to collectors who either lost interest or died. A long, narrow table covered in green baize that serves as the shop’s work space is arrayed with several thousand loose stamps, waiting to be sorted.
Mr. Stern knows where to find any stamp you want. I asked if he had any stamps showing the Seine River. He whipped out a few folders and produced three large-format, engraved images from the 1940s. He pushed toward me a 100-franc French stamp in a color called red carmine. It showed the Belle Époque Alexandre III bridge over the Seine, the Grand Palais museum in the background. “Two euros!” he said.
“Sold!” I replied. I could see how this stamp thing could become addictive, particularly in a place like Paris.
Paris is still a city of stamp lovers. An estimated two million people in France have private postage stamp collections, according to the French Association of Dealers and Experts in Philately. For four days in November, Paris will host its 71st annual Philatelic Salon that will bring vendors and collectors together from France and around the world.
The neighborhood where I live in the Right Bank’s Ninth Arrondissement is the city’s stamp district. About 30 stamp shops line the Rue Drouot near the Hôtel Drouot, one of the world’s oldest auction houses.
The French Association of Dealers and Experts in Philately, a private association with 180 members, has its headquarters here. Several more stamp shops are in the Passage des Panoramas, one of Paris’s turn-of-the-19th-century covered arcades, in the Second Arrondissement.
Then there is the open-air stamp market at the Carré Marigny in the Eighth Arrondissement off the Avenue Gabriel. Since the 1860s, when a rich stamp collector gave the space to the city of Paris for the express purpose of buying and selling stamps, merchants have done just that.
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn made the stamp market famous for American audiences in Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic thriller, “Charade.” It has to be the best postage stamp movie ever made.
Back then, the market was a beehive of activity, with dozens of dealers and wall-to-wall stamp enthusiasts. These days, only a dozen or so merchants continue to set up their small portable stalls for the thrice-weekly market, selling postcards and old letters as well as stamps.
For Michèle Peiny, a retired accountant who opened her stall 12 years ago, the stamp market is less a way to make money than to see friends. “I open when the weather is nice, and when I know my friends will be here,” she said.
She showed me some of her stamps, categorized according to subject, including 18th-century balloons, the Paris Métro, tennis, Napoleon Bonaparte, Christmas, Freemasonry and the Statue of Liberty. “I have the world before me,” she said. “I can travel the whole world in my stamps.”
Pascal Millot, a mechanic, electrician and stamp merchant who is president of the Marigny market, showed me an image of his most expensive stamp: a one-franc, vermillion-colored 1849 stamp of the ancient Roman goddess Ceres that sells for more than $23,000. (The Ceres series was the first postage stamp series of France.)
In the 15 years he has run a stall here, he has witnessed the market’s steep decline. “Some merchants have retired, some have died,” he said. “Few of us are left. The problem is that young people have no patience, no passion for an old-fashioned hobby like stamp collecting.”
The internet has cut into the business of retail stamp merchants, but not destroyed it. “You can see something very beautiful on your computer screen, but you can’t turn it over to see if there’s a defect on the other side,” said François Farcigny, president of the French Association.
Shops up and down the Rue Drouot are open again after closing for vacation. Some businesses are family-run operations that go back four generations. Some sell stamp guides and histories; instruments for stamp analysis; antique stamp boxes; and, of course, stamps. Some offer free estimates. One shop put an enormous zippered clothing storage bag full of tens of thousands of stamps in the window. The price: 1,500 euros ($1,760).
I asked Jean-Pierre Lallemand, the manager of Théodore Champion S.A.down the street, whether I should invest in it in the hopes of finding hidden treasure.
He laughed at my naïveté. “You won’t find a rare pearl here,” he said. “You can be sure that mountain of stamps has already been sorted through. But if you want to pay €1,500 for hours and hours of fun? Why not.”
You still can find stamps for sale in everyday places in Paris. The front windows of the newspaper shop on the street where I live display not only magazines, best-selling books and small toys, but also cellophane-wrapped packages of assorted stamps for about $8 apiece.
I learned why one morning when I found Jean-Marc Lépine, the owner, bent over a large album on the counter, oblivious to my presence.
“What in the world are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m sorting,” he said. “I’m finding so many wonderful stamps.” He said it as if it were the most natural thing for a newspaper seller to be doing.
It turns out that Lépine has been collecting stamps since he was a boy and has a room full of them at home. He had recently bought a giant “lot” of loose stamps, which he keeps in plastic boxes behind the counter. When business is slow, he sorts and files them into albums according to origin and subject.
“I prefer to relax with stamps than sit at a cafe or gamble at a casino,” he said. “I’d rather collect stamps than Camembert boxes or cigar bands. I could spend the rest of my life — whatever is left of it — with my stamps.”