'Close cover before striking."
These four words form what is considered the most frequently printed phrase in the English language.
They were printed billions of times on the covers of what was once a most ubiquitous object: the matchbook.
That piece of trivia brings a smile to 61-year-old Loren Moore, one of the foremost collectors of matchbook ephemera in Northern California.
Moore, who started collecting in the 1970s, owns roughly 250,000 matchbook covers that he keeps in a spotless and well-lit office tucked behind a strip mall in Roseville, where he also runs a design business.
Matchbook collectors are known as a phillumenists. Most collectors carefully remove the matches from the covers for ease of storage in boxes or albums.
Unlike so many other collectibles, a rare matchbook can still be had for an affordable price. Most prized specimens sell for under $10. The majority of matchbooks are worthless.
Locally, the highlight of the matchbook collecting season is the annual Associated Matchbook Covers of California League convention, which this year will be Thursday through Saturday in Roseville, at the Heritage Inn.
Moore, president of the Sierra-Diablo collecting club, characterizes the convention as a low- wattage event. At most 60 people attend. But those few are quite fanatical about matchbook covers.
"You can leave the convention at, say, 9:30 in the morning where there will be one guy flipping through matchbook collections, and if you return at 3:30 that same guy will still be there flipping," Moore said.
Collecting the items is mainly an old man's game, said Moore. Participation is dwindling. The decline had two major events: once with the appearance of the disposable cigarette lighter in the 1970s and later with the evolution of smoking bans in U.S. public places. Today there are only four domestic matchbook-makers left.
Matchbook collectors tend to focus on a single aspect of the genre. Moore's specialty is collecting "numericals" – matchbook covers that offer a sequence of phone numbers. But not just any numbers. Moore collects matchbooks that reveal the earliest telephone numbers assigned by a telephone company in a given area. Phone companies added lines in ascending order as populations grew. A plum find for Moore is a matchbook cover with a one-digit phone number. The holy grail is the numeral "1."
"I have a friend that catalogs 7UP matchbooks," said Moore. Another collects match covers devoted to taxicabs, and another collects Fred Harvey matchbooks."
Matchbook collecting dates from the 1800s. The golden era of the matchbook was the 1940s and 1950s, when they were used as advertising and given out free. Billions were printed each year.
Moore likens the match cover to a website home page.
"You needed to get people's attention quickly and tell them what you're about in a very small space," he said.
Moore grew up in Fair Oaks and is an ex-smoker, but he says smoking had nothing to do with his love of matchbooks. His passion for them started in the 1970s during a visit to Roseville's Denio's Farmers Market. He unexpectedly found himself at a table staring at a collection of matchbooks.
"I found this album that had 20 pages in it," he said. "It was $2, and the covers had great artwork on them. There was a lot of different subject matter in there."
Moore was hooked. He values matchbooks for the way they convey a sense of history.
"When businesses placed their matchbook orders, the information they put on the covers was what was happening at the time, like chicken dinners for 50 cents rooms $1-$1.50 Support Our Troops."
The historical aspect of matchbooks also appeals to big-time collector Michael Prero, a history teacher at E.V. Cain Charter Middle School in Auburn. Prero's matchbook count stands at 322,040.
"Match covers chronicle the history of the U.S. for the last 100 years," Prero said.
A scan of a matchbook collection from a particular area can reveal detailed geographic, political and business information, as well as social mores and causes endemic to that area.
Prero's most prized matchbook? That would be a cover from 1928 advertising Scientific American magazine.
One of the more niche areas of matchbook collecting is casino matchbooks. One of the more intense such collectors is Jim Rauzy, 71, who lives in Sierra Oaks. He has 700 casino matchbook covers.
Rauzy prizes the matchbook covers that have the match striker on the front, not the back. Those date from before 1971.
Rauzy started collecting matchbook covers at age 59.
"I had never collected a thing until I retired from 28 years working at Xerox."
A nonsmoker who does not like to gamble, Rauzy also collects casino ashtrays, casino chips and casino china. He contends that he has one of the largest china collections relating to Nevada casinos in the United States – with his home a host to 10 floor-to-ceiling display cases stocked with 400 pieces of such china.
Like Moore, Rauzy is drawn to matchbook collecting because of the sense of history they impart and reveal.
"I love Nevada history, and gaming is such a huge part of that history," Rauzy said.
In the world of matchbook collecting, casino matchbooks often fetch the highest prices, Rauzy said. To prove his point, Rauzy said that for $16 he recently bought three matchbook covers on eBay that depict a small tavern in Ely, Nev., that offered slot machines. Several weeks ago he put in a bid for a matchbook advertising a tavern casino at Mount Rose in Lake Tahoe. He bid $59, and lost.
"Those of us that are into the casinos are used to paying quite a bit," said Rauzy. "People in the matchbook hobby, they think we're a little bit nuts."
MATCHBOOK COLLECTORS CONVENTION
What: The 58th annual gathering of the Associated Matchcover Clubs of California
Where: Heritage Inn, 204 Harding Blvd., Roseville
Cost: Free entry
Slideshow: Matchbook memories
Call The Bee'sEdward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..