Collectors stores clean up during trading-card boom

Colleen Schrappen
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
1,000,000 Baseball Cards owner Wally Militzer lays his offer of $200 on top of a display case for a selection of cards that customer Arthur Cassidy from Florissant brought in to sell in Ballwin, Missouri. During the pandemic, interest in collectable cards has increased and stores are trying to keep up.

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. 

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

“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. 

‘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. 

Miller opened the shop with his wife in 1999, just as eBay was gaining a foothold among traders. He saw a couple of dozen collecting stores in the area fold soon after. But Collector’s Corner adapted, adding autograph shows and stocking vintage toys and gaming cards, like Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering — which are in the middle of their own resurgence. 

“When the pandemic hit, I thought we were toast,” Miller said. “What we sell is not a necessity.” 

But since the store reopened after last spring’s shutdown, he hasn’t been able to catch his breath. Prices are spiking, but customers keep coming. 

Collector’s Corner already has its orders in for next year. Manufacturers, their lesson learned from the market oversaturation of a generation ago, are keeping a tight grip on production. 

“We don’t tell Topps, Upper Deck and Panini how much we want to buy,” said Militzer, of 1,000,000 Baseball Cards. “They tell us how much we can have.” 

His sales almost doubled last year, even with two months lost to the mandated coronavirus closure. Sports fans weren’t shelling out for Blues and Cardinals tickets, he said, and they were looking for somewhere to plunk their money. 

“The classic collector story is a middle-aged man comes in. He never got the card he wanted as a kid,” said Militzer. “Now he has a good job, and a $75 price tag is worth it.” 

Today’s young sports fans, some worry, are being priced out of the hobby by investors and speculators. 

Ben Pezold welcomes kids at the Collector Store in St. Peters, but most of his customers are adults. Pezold himself began collecting cards at age 8 and was buying and selling online by the time he was 16. He opened the shop 20 years ago, after he graduated from college. 

Last year was his best year ever. He anticipates this year will be even better — as long as he can keep his cases full. 

The shop’s cards range from one dollar to five figures. Juiced-up prices will eventually correct, Pezold said, but he doesn’t think they’ll drop back to pre-pandemic levels. 

“The historic trends are just not holding true,” he said. “Right now, everything is so hot.”