Is there any more ground-shaking experience for a young collector than his first visit to the local sports card shop?

I mean, here you have in one place cases and walls and boxes and trunks and shelves just teeming with the baseball cards and sports memorabilia that have begun hogging all your waking thoughts.

It’s dizzying and intimidating and awe-inspiring and, if you’re lucky, memory-making.

And, while not everyone has access to a local sports card shop these days — and sometimes never did — and while your first sports card show is also undoubtedly a monumental hobby moment, those first-shop memories are hard to shake.

So, if you’ll indulge me, here are a few of my most vivid echoes (and lessons learned) from the local sports card shop(s) of my youth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Jim Spencer — $3

I can still remember Davey standing there behind the counter, tapping his big rings on the glass top of his display case while I gazed at the treasures inside.

There were the usual suspects — Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson.

All wore priced tags that made me want to study harder so I could one day buy them. Or at least afford them.

And mixed in among the legends were other cards, too. Mickey Rivers, Ken Griffey (The First), Bill Russell (The Dodger), Jim Spencer.

And those price tags?

Well …

“Is that Jim Spencer really worth $3?” It was a fuzzy-cornered, off-centered, dingy copy of Spencer in his Angels garb.

Davey held out his hands, shot his eyes around the room as if to say, “take it all in, kid,” and shrugged.

“Gotta pay the bills for this place, kid.”

It was my first lesson in overhead.

Steak Escape and Listerine

Davey’s was my local-local card shop, about 20 miles from home.

But my parents didn’t like to go there because a) Davey was expensive, b) Davey was on top of you the whole time you were there, trying to make a sale and to make sure you didn’t mess anything up, and c) the floors wobbled like a blottoed Weeble, introducing a decidedly non-zero chance that their clumsy kid would bust up some heirloom — or a room full of them.

As I got into my mid-teens, though, another card shop popped up.

This one was situated inside the big drugstore that lived in the mall about 50 miles from home.

I don’t think that “shop” had a name, and it certainly didn’t have its own walls or anything, but it took up a big hunk of real estate toward the center of the store — probably gave Davey a run for his money in regards to acreage.

And the guy who worked it — Mike, let’s call him; they were always Mike in the 80s and 90s, unless they were Davey — was friendly, young(ish), and wanted kids to touch the cards.

He wanted to talk about the hobby and sports, too.

Eventually, I’d make my first (and, so far, only) bulk purchase of Junk Wax stuff as he was trying to clear his shelves in preparation for 1991.

It was … invasive.

I’ve worked through a lot of that stuff at this point, giving away packs at Halloween, folding up rack packs to use as packing material when we move, “losing” some.

Every once in awhile, though, I still wake up to find a 1990 Fleer wax pack slipped under my pillow, the mixed bouquet of drugstore sundries and mall cheesesteak alerting me to its presence.

Lessons in Profit Margins

It’s a common fallacy in this hobby, and probably any arena where a business’s customers regularly trade (however you define that) in the same product or services that said business offers: we think the sticker price we see in the store applies to our version of the bauble being offered up, too.

It’s why I tried to get Davey to buy my 1971 Topps Reggie Jackson card for $10 after I spied the “same” card in his showcase.

Of course, Davey declined, but did offer me something like 50 cents.

“Overhead,” he said again, flashing his eyes around the shop — again. “And profit margin.”

Come again?

“Look, kid, if I’m asking $10 for a card, I’ll probably have to take less than that to actually sell it. And,” Davey went on. “I have to sell it for more than I paid for it. That means I have to pay you less than I can sell it for.”

That made sense. Sorta.

But 50 cents?

“And another thing,” Davey went on …

My MINT v. Your MINT

So, it turns out Davey wasn’t too impressed by my thoughts about how my Reggie was in really good shape “for its age.”

He was also making no concessions for the black borders.

No, Davey was very objective. Darn him.

He placed our two Reggies side by side anf pointed out how much blacker his borders were, how much sharper the corners, how much glossier the surface.

“What condition is your Reggie in?” he had asked me before Davey School was in session.

Mint. Duh.

And now, confronted with the cold, hard evidence staring me in the face, he asked the question in a different way …

“Since your card is in mint condition, what condition is my card in?”

Rhetorical point taken.


Now, while Davey wasn’t too keen to take a bath just to put some cash in a kid’s pocket, he was willing to keep the conversation going.

To help a fella out.

And so was my other local(ish) card shop dealer.

Both guys were pretty willing to swing trades with us, as long as there was some space in the deal for them to keep their lights on.

So I was able to trade my beat-up “mint” Reggie Jackson for a brand new 1984 Topps Steve Carlton, or something of that ilk.

I was happy to get a card I wanted, Davey was happy to get the Reggie, and we were both (I think) happy to have built a bit stronger hobby connection.

More Trading

Both of these sports card shops — but especially Davey’s — grew into places for collectors to gather.

And, even though you could tell the shopkeep was keeping an eye on you, he never once booted a loiterer, at least that I saw.

As a consequence, hobbyists would descend on the place in the evenings or on Saturday morning to talk shop and trade with each other. It was a great way to meet and cultivate collector friends, and it was also a great way to hone your negotiating skills while filling in holes in your collection.

I’m sure Davey (and Mike) got some windfall from all the camaraderie in the form of sales down the line (and sometimes in the moment), but mostly they just helped nurture our love for the hobby.

1001 Cut Sigs

One really fun aspect of visiting the local card shop, at least for me, was that the dealers were always coming up with stuff you’d never see anywhere else (OK, maybe at a show) as a single, solitary collector.

For example, one day when I visited Mike the Mall Meister, I spied a topless 800-count box on a shelf behind him, with what looked like hundreds of slips of paper in it.

Turns out, they were … well, they were hundreds of slips of paper.

Seems Mike had bought a big collection from an old guy, and one of the prizes was a box of “cut” signatures that the collector had accumulated over the course of 30 or 40 years.

I’ll tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve held a hunk of legal-pad paper with Hal Lanier’s autograph in one hand and a gumstick wrapper with Derrel Thomas’ sig in the other.

Those are just a smattering of my memories from afternoons at my friendly neighborhood (sorta) sports card shop in the 1980s and 1990s.

What sorts of local card shop nostalgia do you remember?

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