WEATHER ALERT

Paper chase Newspaper enthusiast stockpiles a personal archive

EAST ST. PAUL — Over time, this writer has penned in the neighbourhood of 200 stories primarily focused on what individuals collect and why. That includes a gent in Italy who had amassed close to 5,000 hotel do-not-disturb signs, a grandmother in Boissevain who lovingly stored hundreds of antique salt-and-pepper sets in a large, wooden hutch, and a fellow in Southdale in possession of a few thousand casino poker chips, every last one of which remained uncashed.

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EAST ST. PAUL — Over time, this writer has penned in the neighbourhood of 200 stories primarily focused on what individuals collect and why. That includes a gent in Italy who had amassed close to 5,000 hotel do-not-disturb signs, a grandmother in Boissevain who lovingly stored hundreds of antique salt-and-pepper sets in a large, wooden hutch, and a fellow in Southdale in possession of a few thousand casino poker chips, every last one of which remained uncashed.

To say that nothing stops us in our tracks any longer when it comes to collectibles isn’t an exaggeration. (OK, that’s not entirely true; we’ll never forget arriving at a home in St. James, to view a mechanic’s display of antique pencil sharpeners, only to be led through a space where dozens of vintage cuckoo clocks were tick-tick-ticking away. Yeah, he had meant to warn us about those, the homeowner said, when we remarked we were no longer interested in discussing his pencil sharpeners.)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Craig Steffano’s fascination for all things ink-stained began as a young boy reading the comics.

Still, imagine how pleasantly surprised we were to hook up with Craig Steffano, a provincial government employee whose collecting area of expertise — Winnipeg newspapers from days gone by — is timely indeed, given the daily you’re currently perusing will toast its sesquicentennial birthday, later this month.

“I’ve always been a voracious reader, right back to when I was a kid,” says the married father of eight, seated in the living room of his and his wife Heidi’s spacious East St. Paul abode. “I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I still enjoy the tactile feel of having something in my hands, whether it’s a magazine or newspaper. Often when I’m on the bus, I’ll look around and notice I’m the only one holding a book, instead of a phone.”

Steffano, 47, was seven years old when he developed a crush on Aileen Quinn, the 11-year-old actor who played the title character in Annie, a popular movie-musical that hit theatres in 1982. Because the Free Press ran the Little Orphan Annie comic strip, which the flick was based upon, he began anxiously waiting until his parents were finished with that section of the paper, so he could read about Annie and her dog Sandy’s exploits.

“I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I still enjoy the tactile feel of having something in my hands, whether it’s a magazine or newspaper.”–Craig Steffano

His affection for the printed page was reinforced a few years later, by a Grade 5 teacher, Bonnie Krystik, who encouraged him and his James Nisbet Community School classmates to comb through provided copies of the Free Press. Their assignment: search for articles they found interesting, then read them aloud to their fellow students, explaining why such-and-such a story grabbed their attention.

Skip ahead 25 years. One afternoon, Steffano was killing time at a flea market when he spotted a lone, colour comic book that would have originally been part of a weekend edition of the Winnipeg Tribune, which ceased operations in August 1980. That’s interesting, he murmured to himself, recalling how, as a kid, he enjoyed listening to disc jockeys Bob Washington and Tom Ashmore — Wash and Ash, as they were known — mimicking characters such as Archie Andrews and Dennis the Menace while reading the Free Press’s Saturday comic section on the radio.

He paid the asking price, 50 cents or so. A few weeks later, he found a similar tome at a secondhand store. You can probably guess what happened next. Faster than you can say Hägar the Horrible, he was actively searching out every Saturday comic book the Tribune published between September 1977, when the initial one came out, and August 1980, when the paper folded.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

For Craig Steffano, it’s the thrill of the hunt, as he never knows what he’s going to trip over next.

As soon as he had them all (twice over) he began collecting intact newspapers — inserts, flyers and all; first the Trib, then old copies of the Free Press and Sun. What was he seeking? Mostly ones with a front page commemorating a major event — the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 1969 lunar landing, the 1986 space shuttle disaster… those types of things.

“People have given papers to me for free, I’ve found others at garage sales for what I thought was reasonably cheap… it’s not like I’m going to break the bank over this nerdy hobby, but if I see an interesting one I don’t have already, I can usually talk myself into buying it, so long as they’re not charging an arm and a leg,” he says, showing off his oldest specimen, a Free Press from May 1945 signalling the end of the Second World War. (“Nazis quit,” blares the headline, over a black-and-white illustration of a German soldier with his hands above his head.)

Now, if you’re like this scribe, and are wondering what his sweat and blood, long used to wrap fish or house-train Fido, might fetch on the secondary market, a recent article, headlined Peddling the past: the value of vintage newspapers, has the answer.

“Old newspapers are valuable because of what they offer to collectors: a window into a moment of history,” the story began. “Collectors can hold a paper in their hand and imagine what it may have felt like to first hear news about WW1, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and other world-stopping announcements.”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Craig Steffano’s started his collection with a used colour comic book that was originally in a weekend edition of the Winnipeg Tribune,

The same as with stamps or coins, condition plays a major part in determining value, the article stated. Rarity is also key. For example, a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune dated Nov. 3, 1948 — the one that mistakenly announced, “Dewey defeats Truman” — recently sold for US$1,392 when it came up for auction. Furthermore, a pristine copy of the inaugural New York Times has fetched as much as $175,000, not too shabby for a piece of ephemera that cost a single penny, in 1851.

Interestingly, the most Steffano has ever dropped on his pastime was for the fully functional, metal Tribune newspaper dispenser that houses his treasures. Never mind that the canary-yellow street box sports a few bumps and bruises, presumably from being subjected to the elements for years; it was love at first sight when he stumbled across it, at a sale in St. Vital.

Naturally, the first thing his wife wanted to know when he brought it home was where he intended to put it. Their bedroom, he responded, explaining that if he was up late at night, trying to remember what team won a certain hockey game decades ago, all he’d have to do was reach over for an old sports section.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Craig Steffano collects Winnipeg newspapers from days gone by.

“Yeah… no,” she replied, which is how the receptacle, which is also stuffed with newspaper-related paraphernalia such as cloth delivery bags and Free Press holiday greeting cards, found its way downstairs, to the rec room.

Steffano, leafing through a paper dated Jan. 2, 2000, proof that the world didn’t cease to exist owing to the hubbub surrounding Y2K, shakes his head when asked if he has a hit-list of sorts. After considering the question more carefully, he submits it would probably be nice to have a newspaper for each of their kids’ birthdays, as well as one from the day he and Heidi tied the knot. For the most part, though, it’s the thrill of the hunt, as he never knows what he’s going to trip over next.

So far, he hasn’t come across anybody else who shares his hobby, at least from a Winnipeg standpoint, but judging from the positive comments he’s privy to on Facebook, where he occasionally posts pics of fresh finds, he’s certain he isn’t the only person with a deep-seated affection for the local newspaper. (Exhibit A: after showing off Free Press TV-listing books from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, responses lit up, ranging from “I always looked forward to getting those” to “I used to read those first.”)

“These days, I mainly read (the Free Press) online, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the hard copy,” he says, mentioning how his father wouldn’t dream of starting his day without a steaming pot of coffee, and that morning’s Free Press spread out on the table in front of him. “I guess it’s kind of like how if you move away from the town where you grew up, and hear anecdotally that the library back home is closing. There’s a good chance you were never going to visit it again, but at the same time, you like knowing it’s there.”

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Craig Steffano began collecting intact newspapers — inserts, flyers and all; first the Trib, then old copies of the Free Press and Sun.

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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