If you open a door to your childhood, you may find a favorite stuffed animal you couldn’t sleep without or a favorite shirt you would wear to school five days in a row. Or if you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s you may have a book or two or five, filled with sports trading cards.
At the time, anybody who would give kids trading cards would reveal a prophecy that made every kid dream of greatness: “Take good care of these cards. They will be worth a lot of money someday.”
That exhausted proverb went unfulfilled for every young collector from that time period.
“Value is all about scarcity and demand for a card,” said Michael Brown, owner of Kinems Sports Cards in Erie. “If something’s not rare, people aren’t going to want to collect it.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the top trading card companies Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck printed thousands of the same card because the demand for cards was so high. The same story of future fortunes had been repeated to millions of kids and collectors, so the companies were literally printing money with every sheet of cards that came off the press. Money for them immediately, but no money for the collector, long-term.
Brown, a third-generation collector, began his collection in the 1980s. While other kids were excited for the hot prospects like José Canseco, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly, Brown’s dad gave him a word of advice that millions wish they would have heard back then: “Trade your new cards for some older superstars. They will be worth more.”
So, Brown set out trading all of his Canseco cards and others for vintage cards like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and more. Millions of other collectors weren’t so lucky.
“I started collecting in 1985, and when it went into the ’90s… you’re getting 20 or 30 of each [card], so it’s not really rare,” said David Snippert, Brown’s “bitter enemy (tongue-in-cheek)” who owns Dave’s Sport Cards less than a mile down Peach Street from Kinem’s.
Young collectors were none the wiser until the new millennium. Once word spread that their dreams of mansions and Maseratis were dead, the passion for the hobby died with it. The books and boxes, filled with trading cards, were worthless and stowed away, forgotten. The trading card companies made their money, but the local card shop owners like Brown and Snippert had to find a way to get by.
“Thank God for eBay,” Snippert says, smiling through his Cleveland Browns neck gaiter. “I sold a lot of stuff on eBay that I couldn’t move here.”.
Brown said it was his vintage cards and strong customer base at Kinem’s that kept the lights on through the down years, but it wasn’t easy.
“It took a lot more extra effort and work during those times,” he said. “[Unlike] now. Now it seems so much easier, it’s almost effortless.”
Today, there are fewer trading card companies, and they have switched strategies. They don’t overproduce their cards. They only feature a couple specialty cards, or inserts as they’re known in the business, in every box instead of dozens. And, many of the special inserts have player autographs, pieces of the player’s jersey, or both.
So, if a collector opens a pack and finds an insert of one of today’s top young players, like Patrick Mahomes (NFL), Zion Williamson (NBA), Mookie Betts (MLB), or former Erie Otter Connor McDavid (NHL), he or she may already see excellent payouts (if the collector chooses to sell). And, according to both Brown and Snippert, an unopened box from the rookie season of one of these stars can be almost as valuable as some of these cards without “betting the farm” on the longevity and greatness of that star’s career. Why? Because there’s a very slim possibility that the star is in there, even if he isn’t. This has led to the growing popularity of buying specific cases for up to $1,200 or more at Dave’s and Kinem’s, and Online Live Breaks — people breaking open rare, expensive cases, and selling off cards of every team to gambling buyers.
“Anything that I get, like the hobby boxes and stuff like that, I usually have to re-stock within a week or less,” Brown said.
Brown and Snippert are very confident for the future, especially with the major boost in sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. People with nowhere to go and extra money to spend are reigniting their passion for the hobby. They believe if the card companies that create them continue to focus on scarcity to generate more interest instead of dollars for corporate pockets, then everybody will benefit. As long as there are sports, there will be sports fans, collecting memorabilia of their favorite players. And that means Erie’s two card shop owners will be there to help.