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Home / Miscellaneous  /
How 50-Year Old Magazines Can Still Keep (Foreign) Economies Going
Life magazine

When receiving can be more taxing than giving

I have had a fascination with Life magazine for over 20 years.   It first started when I was on my way out of Burma in 1994. An American I'd met there, Mike (whom I'm still in touch with now), returned to our Yangon hotel holding an issue from the 1960's that appeared like it had just been printed the week before, a Life Asia edition the original owner must never have read.  Inexplicably, these issues were being peddled on street corners along with Burmese bags and trinkets.  Mike had paid just a couple of bucks for his one souvenir issue. 

The power of Life after death. 30 years after these magazines were issued they were boosting Burmese GNP!

I was so impressed digesting Mike's blast-from-the-past that I beat the streets of the Burmese capital to start my very own Life magazine collection.  I picked up only 8 issues at that time.  I would have purchased more but I was in the middle of a longer trip and shipping things back to the USA in 1994 from Burma or Bangladesh, my next destination, wasn't a slam dunk.  I later amassed a sizeable collection living in Los Angeles which eventually went into storage in a remote town in Oregon for 7 years.   And I picked up another dozen issues in Australia. Ironically, the issues purchased Down Under, not the ones from Burma and Bangladesh, never made it back to the USA.

When I cleared out the Oregon storage unit in 2012, most items got left behind, including a dependable amplifier, classical guitar, 5 years of Playboys, a desktop, monitor, and a Toyota Corolla. A Yamaha keyboard, a Roland digital 18-track mixer, and over 100 Life magazines weighing 100 lbs (45 kg) rode along with me on a 20-hour Amtrak train to San Francisco and were stored at my brother's apartment in Oakland where they remained 'in storage' for another four years.

By the time I finally made it back to the USA for my second trip in eleven years, my brother's rent had since doubled, and he warned me that he was seeking to move to more cost effective accommodation. Those new digs might not have adequate storage capacity. If I didn't claim the keyboard, the digital mixer, and the magazines, they would be going into the scrap pile.

The keyboard and digital mixer were easy to haul out of there.  This trip to the USA was our first (and probably only) family vacation there. My wife and stepson were with me, and each was able to add musical equipment to their luggage allowances. But the Lifes?  Economy-class airplane luggage allowances at their most generous nowadays are two 23 kg (50 lbs) bags. 

Korean Air says that a third bag will be billed at $200 and that an overweight bag, between 32 kg and 45 kg is to be billed $150. Does one add those two figures together to get a third overweight bag? Was I looking at $350 for my Life magazines to ride cargo class on Korean Air?

I never bothered to inquire. Sending the magazines back to Thailand economically by airplane wasn't really an option because none of us were flying back directly. My wife stopped over in Korea for two nights before continuing onwards to Thailand.  My stepson remained behind in Korea for 7 more weeks.  I was to come two week later and stop over in Korea for 11 nights. Carting in the Life magazines as an additional parcel would mean claiming them in Korea, storing them at the airport, and then checking them in again for more fees on the Korea-Thailand leg. 

UPS wasn't a feasible option. The UPS Store where my brother keeps a post box quoted me almost $1,000 to ship them. The United States Postal Service, $450, but this was all academic; U.S. Post won't ship a parcel greater than 32 kg. 

Taking a $300-400 risk with Korean Air didn't look so outlandish about now.

The clerk at the Sausalito post office recommended surface mail as a less expensive option.  Prior to 2007, the American postal service offered this service. He suggested looking into freight companies. So I did just that the following day, trolling the Net for nearby operators.  Oakland happens to be a major U.S. port. A logistics company out of Pennsylvania gave me an online quotation of $184 to ship from Oakland to Thailand. You don't need to be good at math to appreciate that deal next to UPS' and USPS' quotes.

I didn't find out until I'd paid a 75% deposit that the company no longer shipped from Oakland. We had to make a 40 minute drive to South San Francisco to drop the magazines off.   I was told the package would arrive in Thailand in four to six weeks.

What did I care? I'd been without those magazines for eleven years. What did another month mean?

Five weeks later, back in Thailand, I received an email from a local shipping operator that the boat on which my magazines were sunbathing was due to arrive in Bangkok. 

Along with an invoice.

I'd been prepared to pay some fees on the receiving end.  Minor stuff. The magazines were declared as having a value of only $50. I thought I may have to pay a little bit of duty - 5% was listed on the Thailand customs and tariffs web site - and 7% VAT and perhaps a tiny storage fee at the port.

It must be illegal in Thailand to issue import invoices that low.  The invoice was for $105, about 60% of the price I'd paid to ship it. $35 was for a terminal handling charge. $40 was a delivery order fee.  Then there were container freight station and status charges of $11 apiece. 

No one outside the freight industry would know or care what these fees are.

I visited this logistics office to pay off this non-negotiable invoice, thinking my parcel would be stored in their back office and brought out to me after payment.  That would have been too easy.  I was only given an official form with a stamp on it and told to take this to the port. Or I could recruit this firm to be my shipping agent. They couldn't guarantee how expensive the final bill would be, but the bare minimum was $70. 

We were now talking at least $175 to receive a parcel I had already paid to ship.  And this didn't include duty and sales tax or transport to my residence. 

At the contorted expression on my face, this office told me the port was nearby and I could just pick up the parcel myself. Nearby was a broad term.  Part of the port was near this particular logistics office, but the port, as I later grasped, covers over 900 acres.  To get to the entrance, which was actually a 15 minute walk from where I lived, was several kilometers away.

I hitched a ride there and was shuttled around to various offices until I finally wound up in a large warehouse. There, standing in front of me a foot away was my relatively tiny box, so close I could actually touch it but not so close that I could take it. It was explained that there was A LOT more paperwork to be filled out. One androgynous-looking male instructed me to get on the back of his motorbike.  He brought me to another logistics company outside the port area.

To keep this long story short - and this story took six days from the time I paid the initial $105 invoice - I was ushered into a small office on the fifth floor of a ramshackle building I'd passed many times before and asked to put down a $120 deposit. I was assured I'd get money back on such a small parcel. The company just needed enough to cover administrative tasks, duty, taxes.

How prescient this little shipping operator outside Khlong Toei Port was.  The final tally turned out to be exactly $120!   A quarter of that was billed, they claimed, because of a name discrepancy. The parcel was shipped to me with just my first name and last name, whereas my passport also contains a middle name.   I wish I had the privilege to bill people $30 for having a middle name they rarely use.

Total damage on the Thailand side: $225. More than the cost to ship it from the USA.   Less than $10 of all this was duties and taxes and readily documentable charges. $215 had gone to pay paper pushers and form issuers and other people whose jobs existed just because I'd shipped something I already owned from point A to point B.  One tiny package generated $225 for the Thai economy and wasted a day of my own personal time and who knows how many hours of how many others.   Had I flown from the USA to Thailand without a stopover, it would have been less expensive and far, far quicker and infinitely more economically efficient to send the magazines on an airplane than ship them via more 'economical' surface mail.

I am inclined to think these high fees are more a symptom of undeveloped economies.   An American craft beer that sells for $1.50/bottle at the grocery store in the USA costs $4.50-5 in a grocery store in Thailand, if you could find it. But a $1.50 can of Thai beer sold in a grocery store in Thailand might actually wind up cheaper in the USA due to relatively high alcohol taxes in Thailand.

Somehow, I don't believe a 45 kg personal collection of 1960's Thai Fashion magazines shipped from Bangkok to the USA and declared as $50 in value would get assessed these kinds of fees at an American port.

Shipping, we know, can be costly, and shippers don't discriminate by what you ship.  If I had shipped a 45 kg collection of worthless shoes, Doc Martens, or these magazines, the Pennsylvania logistics company would still have charged me $184. In the arena of international commerce, multiples units of a new product are shipped by the container load from one country to another to the point where shipping becomes a negligible cost.  Shipping a vehicle from a port in the USA to Europe may only cost about $750, a fee that may be less than 5% the value of the car. [Presumably, you wouldn't ship an inexpensive or valueless car overseas]. Port fees in Europe run only about �150. Never would it cost more to receive a product than the product's declared value.  Well, never in a developed country.   Thailand had no issues whatsoever assessing me fees that were four times the parcel's declared value.

In a restaurant, you pay for your food, and then you pay a service charge of 15-20% to get this food delivered cordially from the kitchen to your table.  15-20%, not 400%.  And for something I'd already owned for years. In the restaurant example, it would be as if I had prepared the dish in advance in my own home and brought it to the restaurant to be re-heated, and now had to tip 400% to be able to eat it. Or a restaurant having a corkage fee that was four times the value of the wine being uncorked.

The truth is that the magazine collection is worth $1,000-1,700.  If we use the conservative eBay value of $1,000 and entertain that Thailand's customs office would only assess me 5% duty and 7% VAT, I'd still be out $120. But make no mistake.   I wouldn't be paying this $120 to Thailand's customs office instead of the shipping logistics people.  I would still have had to pay $105 for the port fees, $120 to the receiving shipping agents, and another $120 to Thailand customs. 

As it was, I paid 30-40% of the parcel's true value to ship and receive it.  If I'd declared it at full value, I would have likely paid 50-60% of its value to do so.

Gang rape fees for imports into developing countries are nothing new, especially for me.  Consumers adjust their purchasing behavior accordingly or just suck it up and pay the higher costs.  The heftily padded fees are always passed along by the importer to the final consumer.  But when you pay fees to continue to own something in one country that you already owned in another, you have no one down the chain you can pass the fees along to.

I'm out $400 for owning nothing more than what I owned before, and Thailand's GNP gets an ever so slight bump for generating more economic activity.  Let's hope it's a fair trade.  There is a certain poetic license to it.  The magazine collection I started in Southeast Asia almost 22 years ago got to escape the recycling bin to come back home and generate yet more value for another developing Asian economy.

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