Stores clean up during trading card boom

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a renewed interest in collectible trading cards across the country. Now, stores are working feverishly to keep up with demand — at a profit.

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Sports

June 22, 2021 - 9:51 AM

1,000,000 Baseball Cards owner Wally Militzer lays his offer of $200 on top of a display case for a selection of cards a customer brought in to sell in Ballwin, Mo. During the pandemic, interest in collectable cards has increased and stores are trying to keep up. Photo by Daniel Shular / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / TNS

MANCHESTER, Mo. — Andrew House of Chesterfield is the third generation of trading-card collectors in his family. His grandpa filled shoeboxes with baseball legends. His dad packed albums with 1980s sluggers. And now Andrew, 14, has been buying Topps baseball packs, little by little, hoping to uncover his favorite Cardinals.

But he’s had a hard time this year. There just aren’t very many on the shelves.

1,000,000 Baseball Cards owner Wally Militzer, left, speaks with customer Arthur Cassidy about some old baseball cards Cassidy brought to the store to sell in Ballwin, Mo. During the pandemic, interest in collectable cards has increased and stores are trying to keep up.Photo by Daniel Shular / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / TNS

It’s a familiar narrative to Wally Militzer, owner of 1,000,000 Baseball Cards in Manchester.

“This is a nostalgia business,” Militzer said. “And the pandemic just put everything on steroids.”

Trading cards have been riding a hot streak for the past several years. Kids who grew up on bubble-gum wax packs introduced the pastime to their own children. The debut of relic cards, with game-used materials like snippets of jerseys and shards of baseball bats, and “unboxing” videos on social media heightened the thrill of the chase.

During the pandemic, there were fewer outlets for discretionary spending and more time to follow online auctions. Prices surged as flippers snapped up new releases. Long-standing sales records tumbled, almost monthly: A 1952 Mickey Mantle and a rookie LeBron James topped $5 million this year. Even accessories, like plastic holders and protective sleeves, have been at a premium. A hobby that once was funded by lawn-mowing jobs and weekly allowances has transformed into a serious investment.

Trading got so hot, melees broke out in Target and Walmart aisles and parking lots, leading the companies to temporarily suspend sales. Local shops, though, have managed to cater both to casual collectors and speculators angling for the next big payoff. Most card stores here have been around for decades, and owners say 2021 looks to break the sales records they shattered in 2020 — if they can get product on their shelves.

‘The next best thing’

At the Sports Card Dugout in Webster Groves, empty display boxes advertising “Major League Leaders” serve as placeholders until new packs of players arrive, whenever that will be.

Lifelong collector Neil Roden, 35, stopped by a couple of months ago but left empty-handed. Roden, who lives in south St. Louis, regularly invests in hobby boxes, which promise at least one signature or bit of memorabilia per package.

But so far this year, he’s bought none. They’ve been tough to find, and, more importantly, the price is prohibitive.

Roden enjoys the online community of collectors. He checks on how much his handheld heroes could earn him — a vintage Yadier Molina he bought for $38 recently attracted a $750 bid on eBay — and follows YouTube collector channels.

“They’re really exciting to watch,” he said. “If you’re not opening a box yourself, it’s the next best thing.”

The anticipatory rush of “case breaks” can be addictive, said Dugout owner Randy Fauth.

“You’re buying a product, but it’s also a form of gambling,” he said.

The popularity of trading cards has come in waves since Fauth opened the shop 30 years ago. The industry last surged in the late 1980s, he said, and crashed under the weight of overproduction and the 1994 baseball strike.

For the past few years, high-performing rookies — across all sports — have driven the pricing free-for-all. But any kind of hype can raise any player’s fortunes: Michael Jordan’s cards rebounded after the release of “The Last Dance” documentary last year.

Shelves stocked with new sets of sports cards line the walls at 1,000,000 Baseball Cards in Ballwin, Mo. Photo by Daniel Shular / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / TNS

‘A $75 price tag is worth it’

“If ESPN is talking about it, someone is buying it,” said Jim Miller, owner of Collector’s Corner in Belleville.

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