Matchbook-Cover Collectors Feel Increasing Burn Of Smoking Bans

It's certainly not the first fallout that might flicker to mind.

But amid the war on cigarettes - with ever-more-rigid smoking restrictions, dire warnings about second-hand smoke, and protests over Joe Camel's corrupting influence on children - an accessory, though largely innocent bystander, quietly contemplates its fate:

The matchbook.

Oh yes, those little souvenirs of a moment, marking a special occasion, a fond memory, a long-lost dining hideaway, find themselves quietly replaced on hostess stands by bowls of peppermints or toothpicks - if anything at all.

America's pursuit of health is endangering the business of making souvenir matchbooks, and the hobby of collecting them, says Mike Godwin, national sales manager for Atlas Match Corp., headquartered in Euless, Texas.

He says the industry has been feeling the burn for at least a decade. American matchmakers produce about 2.5 billion covers a year, far fewer than a decade ago. The industry has downsized considerably, leaving only about three major U.S. companies producing the mini-memory books.

"No-smoking campaigns continue to have effects," says Godwin. "And California is a very volatile area. So is Austin, Texas. We find it just crops up sporadically across the U.S."

Who is most upset by this sign of changing times? It isn't smokers. They, Godwin says, are often more twinned with lighters.

It is, of course, the matchbook collectors.

With 44 clubs throughout the world, two trade shows (one in California and one national convention hosted annually by the Rathkamp Matchcover Society in Newark, N.J.) and about 10,000 hobbyists, matchbook collecting, some insiders worry, is moving into the big-league realm of stamps and baseball cards.

For Ed Brassard, a member of the American Match Cover Association from Del Mar, Calif., it all started as a ruse, shielding a habit that - well - became a different habit.

When Brassard was 15 and flirting with smoking, his mother found some matchbooks scattered on top of his bureau and demanded an explanation. He thought fast and told her they were - a collection. "She shined off the smoking," Brassard, now 31 recalls, "and then brought some more home from work."

Sixteen years and more than 2 million matchbooks later, Brassard has long kicked the smoking habit. The matches? Another story. He started combing hotels, zoos, mortuaries, brothels and national-park gift shops to build his world-record-worthy collection.

Brassard specializes in national parks and books emblazoned with images of bears. The oldest - an 1892 advertisement for J.H. Styles Leaf Tobacco - he obtained 10 years ago for $27 and recently sold for $100.

But matchbook, or matchcover collectors, if you will (since many remove the matches from the book), prefer not to put a price on their goods. Far removed from the high-stakes baseball-card collecting, Brassard says, there is instead an emphasis on trading or giving a cover to someone who has a hole in his or her collection.

But this isn't to say that there isn't money in the passion.

A 1927 match cover celebrating Charles Lindbergh's flight went for $4,000, Brassard says.