Collector peddles old papers

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


For The Patriot-News  via The Associated Press

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT - Like many youngsters, Timothy J. Hughes collected coins. But as he grew older, he became frustrated at the expense.

"I thought wouldn't it be neat to find a collectible, something that's old, that hadn't been exploited yet," Hughes said. "Kind of by accident at a flea market I found an 1846 Philadelphia newspaper [The Public Ledger] for $3. Four pages is all it was. I took it home. I spent about an hour reading through it."

The Williamsport man started thinking: "You know, three bucks. I spent an hour reading this newspaper. I could have spent $15 for a little penny that is a hunk of copper with Lincoln on it, a date and that's about it. This could be a neat hobby."

Hughes, 51, started collecting old newspapers 29 years ago, and he turned it into a business that last year had sales of more than $750,000. He quit his job as vice president of operations for Little League Baseball Inc. in 1988 to devote himself full time to the business.

Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers deals only in rare and early newspapers, he said.

The business started in the basement of his home and now occupies a nearly 10,000-square-foot building in South Williamsport.

The sales goal for this year is $1 million, said Guy Heilenman, president and general manager of the company. With four other investors from the Lancaster area, Heilenman bought 85 percent of the business in December 2002.

"Newspapers had not been perceived as a collectible up until recently," Heilenman said. "If you look at the train-collector markets, 100 years ago they [trains] were throwaway toys. Once it catches on it changes everything."

The business started slowly. Hughes was paying $3 each for newspapers that were being sold by a man in Philadelphia. But then the man offered to cut the price to $1 if Hughes bought 100 papers at a time. Hughes, who was just out of college, sent $100 -- about half his life savings at the time.

"I started doing the same thing that guy was doing -- putting little classified ads in the back of collector-related magazines. It kind of snowballed from there," Hughes said.

Hughes ran everything out of his house until 1990, when he bought the building in South Williamsport to use as a warehouse. In 2000, he enlarged the building and moved the office there.

Today, the business has more than 1 million copies of old newspapers and five full-time and three part-time employees.

The customers include other dealers and collectors, history buffs who are interested in certain events, teachers and college professors who are doing research, and institutions that want to fill archives.

"It's really a broad cross-section of the people," Hughes said.

Hughes has become well known after 29 years. He no longer has to go to book shows or knock on doors to let people know he buys old newspapers.

Many of the newspapers have come from libraries that didn't want hard copies after they switched to microfilm, he said.

Hughes' oldest publication is a 1532 German language news book he said was a predecessor to the newspaper. His oldest American paper is a Boston newsletter published in 1718.

Hughes and Heilenman have a private collection they intend to take on tour to libraries nationwide.

The business counts on the Internet for many sales.

"We do quite a bit on eBay," Hughes said. "We've sold to 35 countries now."

The company also has a Web site:

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