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Guest Commentary: Times change but the memories last for years

Editor’s note: Houston-based card shop owner Todd Nelkin has decided to close the doors to his shop, HLT&T Sports, and offered his thoughts as the closing time comes.

By Todd Nelkin | Commentary & Opinion

Everyone who has ever set up at a show knows the feeling. It gets to 5 p.m. Sunday, the final day of the show you had circled on the calendar for months, and people around you start to re-assemble boxes and put unsold goods into trucks or luggage.

It’s closing time. Time to go home.

What do you do when you’re closing your retail store after 30 years of business? It is the ultimate show teardown. First comes the realization that comes one day soon, you will no longer have the key to your place. Something else will be in your area where you called the shots. Something else will be in the area where you set up displays, staged pack wars games and sold Beanie Babies, pogs and all the other fads that came and went.

The Internet/eBay/Target stores with more current inventory than you can shake a stick on all play a factor. So does a neighborhood that just plain grew up. The kids are gone. The parents have fond memories of bringing them to your store, but that’s all in the past. The phone still rings — nine out of 10 are calls from people trying to sell cards that you are certain that they did not buy from you in the first place. They often all think that their Michael Jordan or Roger Clemens is really worth so much. You get tired of having to break the news that Cal Ripken Jr. was on a lot of cards during his career and that interest in his 1991 Donruss might grow someday, but that day is not today.

You get calls offering to sell autographs. I always thought how trite it is to take advantage of a player’s good nature to sit over a dugout and try to get not just a memory but a product for sale. Oh, wait. Who am I kidding? The players know what’s going on here — and that’s the reason fewer and fewer people have personal experiences with players in their area.

How long has it been since someone came into the store asking for card No. 110 of a Topps set? Does anyone still collect sets? At one time we had a menu board of sets, and people would come up and say “I would like a 1984 Topps and a 1983 Donruss set” and would buy two or three of them and you would make a profit and the customer would be happy. (Yes, those sets are worth more then they paid for them; we sold 1983 Topps for $8.50 a box.)

What about all the product brands that you look at and say, hey, that sold? Why did Topps do away with Stadium Club or Topps Total? You think about all the brands — from SSPC to the memories of overnighting your Pro Set Platinum application for your two cases and having that one customer that always asked for more boxes then he ever would need. You wonder if someone, somewhere, still has 1,000 Flipper Anderson cards for me if I send in my Wild Card 1,000-stripe card? Years ago, Upper Deck was at our store giving away the Wally Joyner and DeWayne Buice promo cards, asking people if they would pay $1 for a pack of cards. Today, companies would have to be in our store asking “Would you pay $200 for a pack of cards?”

Then there were the pattern customers that would buy, buy, buy. The spent so much that just the sight of them walking in your door made you happy. Then they fell off the map. Maybe they got their credit card bill or maybe they did not like what they were pulling out of the boxes. There used to be steady customers who would get a stand at a flea market and then their own store and then go bust and then come to you to buy their inventory. But these people went away a long time ago. It makes you wonder: What do people get hooked on today if it’s not baseball cards?

While it’s natural, I believe, to reminisce about the good old days, it’s also depressing to think about the future that will not include your store. One has to think things will get better. But will children raised on computers and iPhones ever really care about two-dimensional images of people that they see less as heroes and role models and more as tools to brag on in their fantasy sports games that they play with their real friends? Do children still practice swinging like Sammy Sosa or standing like Jeff Bagwell, or are they more concerned if Clayton Kershaw is throwing too many pitches per inning?

With companies upping the amount a store has to spend to take part in the promotional material, it also makes you wonder would I even qualify for such programs? Is the tide ever going to turn against eBay? (Probably not.) Is the gambling aspect of the issues that I call a glorified pack — you know the type: five cards for $200 — ever going to burn people out at an even quicker pace then maxing out your credit card and walking away with a Paul Molitor signed card and a Eddie Murray bat card for your $200?

I believe the card market is still there for the fans who look at the base card photos, collect team sets or hold true the idea that a Rookie Card should be issued in a player’s first year with a team.

Well, that’s it. As we gear up for our final week and ponder the last team set to be sold, will people remember that we were here? Will people think that it was me who failed the business or was it the business who failed me? Did the recent passing of my dad have anything to do with that?

I think not. Time passes. Things change. Children grow. Buying habits change. But I will always remember all the days, from the days we had a line leading up to the cash register to the days that led to weeks without the door opening with anyone but friends coming by to say “Hello.” Maybe someday I will do retail again, but it will be different. The memories, though, won’t be packed up. They won’t go to a warehouse. I will pass the shopping center where our store was and want to walk in and check in on things, but that is gone forever except in my head. I am proud we were a part of so many birthdays, anniversaries, graduation presents and other special moments between fathers and sons and daughters, brothers and every combination you can think of.

So thank you for all these years. It’s teardown time. Hand me that box. It’s 5 p.m. Sunday.

Time to go home.

21 Comments

Cory Furlong

Great article. I completely agree with. “You get calls offering to sell autographs. I always thought how trite it is to take advantage of a player’s good nature to sit over a dugout and try to get not just a memory but a product for sale.”

Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink
Brian Blankenburg

This commentary brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. I had a very small shop in the mid 90’s. There was another shop in the city right east of where I live that I also would stop by at. We both are not in business any more. But I have plenty of good memories; the good customers who would come in to chat, to buy (a few would spend 3 figures). I remember the guy who helped me out big time when I was sick for 2 weeks. I remember going down to the other shop and trade and bust packs; or he would come out to see me. When we were busting packs, if we pulled a checklist we would hold it up in the air and yell “Checklist, I pulled a checklist.” I remember the fun (and hard work) of doing card shows; we had a real nice one in a city south of me, it got to be we each had the same space every time. But I also remember the one show that I hardly had any sales; and of course that was the day a guy came in with a show box full of Topps and Bowman from the 50’s and 60’s. I still kick myself for not hitting the magic money machine and buying him out.

I also remember the bad memories. The people who would come in, who had bought their cards at Shopko, Target etc. and then want to use my Beckett price guide. I finally made them all go away by saying no, use the one at the store where you bought the cards. Or they would want to trade their commons for my $20 Jordan, or my early Mantle. I told them no, go trade where you bought the cards.

The good memories outweigh the bad. The only thing I wish is we could make people today understand the joys of trading. I have 2 people I trade with still today; one likes the Cardinals, the other likes the Twins. I will never get rid of my Yankee cards, so we will trade handfuls of cards to each other. Good ones, bad ones, expensive ones and commons. Oh, Chris Olds, I have a stack of A’s cards I’m going to send to you, no conditions. It strikes a chord with me watching your videos when you have your A’s cap on, I’m writing this with my Yankees cap on. :-)

Well, I’ve probably wrote too much, but oh well.

Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
Jay

Awesome article….although quite sad. Too commonplace and my local card stores have really become my places to hang out, always talk passionately about sports and feel welcome all the time. Please take care and don’t give up on everyone…as you said, things will change and habits will change. We can only hope that more joy comes back to the hobby and not as much about money

Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
Joe Cecil

Absolutely touching story and I hate to hear your closing down or any store has to close down for that matter and I dont even know you. But the fact remains the prices of everything have skyrocketed and the money in our pocket has not. Sucks!

Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
David Brewer

When I started buying cards again 3 years ago I would get them at wal mart because there is no shops around here. But if you do your homework, they seem to have mostly crap selection and if something is good, it doesnt hit like hobby packs. So I wised up and bought from shops on ebay. I haven’t bought a pack from them for 2 years.
My local hobby shop is an hour and 15 minutes away.

Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

Beautiful article, Todd. I have collected cards for 46 years- ever since my Aunt Muffie bought me a pack of Philadelphia NFL cards in 1967, where I got Alex Hawkins and Junior Coffee for the “new” Atlanta Falcons. One million cards later, I still collect- never trade- never sell- but thoroughly enjoy opening each pack I buy.
I know, that I am a dying bred of collectors, so I-as a teacher-use trading cards in my classroom. I have given them away as “rewards” for great work for the past thirty-five years with the hope that other kids will enjoy the hobby- as I have.
Thank you for being that person who offered those memories to us throughout the years!

Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

Sorry to hear you had to close your store before you were ready to retire. I am sure your store provided many great memories to hundreds of people. Thirty years in any business has to be classified as a success.

The hobby has changed. Whether it has changed for the good or bad, depends on your perspective. I started collecting in 1957 when I was nine years old. I stopped collecting in 1963 when I had to start saving my money for cars, college and girls. But I always loved sports and continued to follow my favorite teams. In 1982, my ten year old son developed and interest in sports cards and renewed my desire to collect again. Soon, I started setting up at shows and in 1992 I opened Sports Cards Plus of San Antonio. The hobby has changed and I think that’s great. Sports cards and memorabilia have exceeded anything I could have imagined thirty years ago, or even ten years ago.

Things change. Each generation has different needs, different tastes, different priorities different ways to communicate, different forms of entertainment. In order for any business to succeed, it must meet the expectations of its target clientele. In order for any business to succeed it can not be what it was in 1983 or 1993 or even what it was in 2003. And for that matter, it must somewhat adjust for each customer who walks through our doors. We must evolve towards what our customer base wants/needs.

This hobby is competing for entertainment dollars. Card shop owners must make their clientele feel like they are getting their money’s worth of entertainment. The value of cards that come out of a purchased product is a major part of that; however, in order to compete with internet prices, card shops must provide more than just packs, boxes and singles. Card shop owners have to get to know their customers, meet their expectations and give them a “want to come back” experience.

It is not easy. There is no one formula that will make a card shop successful, because it changes with your clientele. And even if you are successful, you will never get rich being a card shop owner. However, if you love what you are doing and you have enough money to do what you need to do, this is a great business.

Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
David Campos

Is the pic the couple that sold that passing the torch dual auto that was a BGS 9.5 so that they could try to start a family?

As a ex employee of a couple of card shops in California (never an owner), card shops are a dying breed. Todd mentions beanie babies, pogs, and other fads. If it wasn’t for yugioh, magic and other type games and comics, more and more shops would be out of business. Shops that are closing up are usually ones that do not adapt to change and diversify. If you are a shop owner and not using ebay, good luck.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 1:34 am | Permalink
Nathan Crandell

This was an article after my own heart, not meaning I am a store owner, but my collecting heart. These are the moments in life, when you look back on something great, pine for it, and it isn’t there anymore. It’s like pogs, Tostito Golds (the best dipping flavored corn chip ever), or the day before steroids. I miss buying cards from a store, it was personal, it made me want to come back. I don’t have a shop within 2-hours, so I am left to the dribble at the chain stores or ebay. No personalization there at all. I miss being able to walk into a store hearing someone talking about a big pull and buying a box just to see if I could be that guy. Now all I do is open, waiting for the day I can share the pulls with my son. No longer is there a store full of collecting nerds to feed my nerdiery talk.
I live nowhere near Houston and I will miss your store.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

Well said….it’s a shame really, about the Hobby going away like it has. I to started out helping a Dealer friend with two stores, then I went out on my own to flea markets, swap meets, and at my home as well, but it has just kinda fallen away. I have a fb site that I have started to get people to get together with cards, and even that is a struggle. Yesterday I found myself calling a dealer across town, one of few, to check on a card $ for one of my site members…I could go on forever about this, but to no avail, good luck with yourself and all your left over product, seems no one wants to read yesterdays news….Lester D. Self

Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink
EP

Thanks for sharing your memories about your shop and a hobby we all love. 30 years for any business especially one as specialized as this hobby is a feat. However, I have to say I visited your shop about a year ago when I traveled on business and I can say the shop was a disaster, block cases and shelves, extremely old inventory, stuff that had been faded from the sun/lights, stuff not priced with dust everywhere. It was hard to find something to buy. When you came out front to greet me I felt like I was an inconvenience. I travel for work a lot and like to visit shops all over the country usually pick up some singles maybe a box and honestly this was the worst shop I have ever been in. I am not trying to kick you when your down and I am certainly sorry for the loss of your father but sometimes the best lessons learned are the ones where you look in the mirror for the problems. Many a card shop owner has had to face the same reality you had and they had to adapt with embracing eBay, card grading, auction companies and COMC.

I think dozens of card shop owners will read this and take these points to heart if you want to survive:
Embrace the internet, sell your singles collecting dust online especially your hard to find older cards, rotate your inventory, clean your shop, price everything, let the buyers find deals (who cares if a card you have in the case for $10 just went up in the book to $15), its probably going for $7 online, sponsor a little league team, embrace your local cub scouts, create a birthday package, create an email list and use it, offer discounts, provide great customer service, create trade nights, try case/box breaks, clean your shop, clean your shop, clean your shop. Provide customer service be willing to go the extra mile, I was once in a shop in Boston and wanted to buy a $300 signed poster and the owner would not ship it to me, flat our didn’t care for the sale I guess. Was told I don’t have a box and I don’t want to deal with UPS.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink
Bill at Primetime Sportscards

This story truly hits home with me. As I read each paragraph, I could sense the parallels. I have owned and operated my business for 23 years.

I am currently on a handshake lease. The property that I rent is slated for destruction. I know the day is coming. I do not know if I have the courage to box up my inventory and start in a new location.

I love the business and the daily interactions with customers. I cannot fathom doing anything else.
Best wishes Brother Todd!

Posted July 26, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink
Jason

I am currently taking a course in entrepreneurial skills so I can open my own sports cards and memorabilia store. Stories like this and many others I have read really make me second guess my decision. People always say if there was a store near by they would buy there. I wonder if this is true since most stores need to charge more for inventory than it can be bought on the internet. There are many successful stores out there. I’m not sure yet what makes them successful but I will hopefully find this out before I open my store. The one store we did have here in Victoria BC Canada just closed. I can think of many reason it closed to justify opening another one. But it just might be my love for collecting that’s convincing me its a good idea. Wish me luck as I’m starting to get very discouraged. Maybe I should just use my money to open a franchise.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink
EP

Jason do not open a card shop unless you are extremely wealthy and you want it as a hobby to keep you busy.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink
Ron

Wow, what an awesome piece, one of the best written about the current state of the hobby. I been collecting for 54 years and it is not as fun as it used to be. Why, maybe because I set some goals to acquire certain autos, game used and cards and I have done that. Or maybe it is because that box that used to cost $35, went to $75 on up to $100 and now $200. You pull out an autograph and my three year grandkid could sign her name better than this two bit player or the game used swatch is now a small piece of fabric that the player had on for two seconds at a photo shoot. It truly may be time to go home but then I am hooked! Enjoy your memories, in the end that may be all that we have.

Posted July 26, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink
michael runyon

I have watched many stores close in my area over the past 20 years. Some I knew the reason some I could probably guess. The only remaining store from my beginning is my cousins. What has kept him in business when so many others have closed can only be one thing. It is his hobby. He had a full time job for many many years He neve allowed the shop to be his only income. That way he could survive the slim months and enjoy the fruitfull ones. He knows his cusotmers and speaks to everyone that comes in [not all do].

I have walked into racing shops where I knew more about the sport and hobby than the person running the store. I have never been shocked when one of these fail. If you do not know your own business customers will go to someone that does.

Local shops must engage in the internet to survive. Not only on ebay but beckett and other message boards.

Local shops also need to invest, Take a clase in web page design invest in a domain name. If for nothing else than to get a free ad online advertising your shop. When I travel I always try to find where the local shops are. prior to internet and wireless I used the phone book. Now I use my iphone. Or set up my laptop in the hotel. I do not want to find your store name and phone number in the phonebook. If you are not open I get zero information. I want to find you online so i can see your store find directions know your hours and maybe see a picture of what you carry. Its not that hard your customers are online you better be also.

Be willing to help your customer find what they are looking for. I have gone into diecast shops knowing what i want exists just to be told know they do not make that one. Then they go to someone elsea and start talking. Be willing to say I do not have it but I will try and find it.

a ipad or something similar should be in every shop in america.

I love going into card shops. Even ones that do not carry racing. I almost always buy something if I am treated with respect. I enjoy seeing what others collect and what the owner keeps in his personal collection.

Change your store every so often. Re arrange shake up the displays, make it so when a regular comes in they say hey its changed around so they take a second look at everything.

Make sure your store is clean, No one wants to see dust.

The local shops are great but you have to adjust to the new collector..

Do not only cater to the case buyers. The five dollar sells add up. Every dollar you make is important not one above the other

Posted July 26, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
Dan

Oh the irony! You don’t even realize how much part of the problem you are, do you?

Posted July 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
Todd Nelkin

Hello there- thank you for the kind words- and yes – it was my wife and I who sold the PSA 10 Payton Sanders and we took that money and paid in full for a open adoption- our names are now in the system and we must wait for some mom out there to say that she wants us to be the parents of her boy or girl- does not matter- you can play basketball with either ;-) but the card was sold and it will be the reason one day we get to be parents- hopefully— they say it takes a year to get through the system…

Posted July 26, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
James

Jeez….Someone can’t even write a heartfelt and emotional article about closing his beloved store of 30 years without someone putting there 2 cents worth of vitriol into the mix by telling him that the customer service at his store sucked and his product was outdated and the store was dusty and dirty the time you were there and that the reason he has to shut down is because he hasn’t embraced ebay and that he is “part of the problem”. Don’t you think this whole thing is difficult enough for him already without that? Anyway…I’ll get off my soap box now.

I really liked the memories this article brought back to me. As I read it, I could remember all the time my friends and I spent at the local card shop growing up. Buying packs and opening them looking for our favorite players. Its really a shame that so many cards stores are going by the wayside. Its an experience that all card collectors should have in my opinion. Always sad to hear of another card shop that is closing its doors. Best of luck to you in the future :)

Posted July 27, 2013 at 2:59 am | Permalink
David

So the guy couldn’t hack it and didn’t have business skills. Too bad. Boo hoo.

You need to find your niche and keep it quiet so others don’t steal your ideas.

Posted July 29, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink
George Hibbs

Great stories n the best of luck. While 90% hit home u have ur 10% cancer, N when it spreads u infect others with ur negative remarks , these people had a few bad experiences n want to bring down the party, ur not hear to promote or be apart of Bonvoyoage, this is what tears down , if u don’t have something nice to say , PLEASE QUIETLY WALK AWAY

Posted July 30, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

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