As baseball card sales slump, Missouri memorabilia dealers adjust

Royals memorabilia, like this pennant sold at Columbia's Dugout sports cards and and collectibles store, has been a hot seller the last two falls. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook
Royals memorabilia, like this pennant sold at Columbia’s Dugout, has been a hot seller the last two years. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook

The Kansas City Royals memorabilia went quickly this fall for Jim Mears.

Mears, the owner of the Kansas-City area shop Action-Sports and Gaming, has seen firsthand how two consecutive World Series appearances, including a championship this year, boosted sales of baseball team’s items.

The T-shirts and locker room-themed merchandise tend to do the best. But pretty much anything that has the word “Royals” on it has sold well in the past two Octobers. Even the baseball cards, which are no longer the focal point of the shop like they used to be, attract customers.

“We’ve kind of transformed,” Mears said. “We used to do all sports cards, but now we do mainly sports memorabilia, and we do some gaming cards.”

The traditional sports card shop has been forced to undergo that transformation as the market has shrunk a bit. What was once a $1 billion industry in 1990 was valued at about a fifth of that just three years ago.

But card shop owners and collectors in Missouri are still adapting and finding ways to build an audience in the age of the Internet, social media and rapidly improving technology.

A boom, a bust, and another boom

It’s a quiet Monday morning in Dugout Sports Cards, and Chais Blakemore is the only person in the shop.

He’s owned Dugout, located on I-70 Drive in Columbia, for almost three years. The store, which has taken on different incarnations in flea markets and other spaces around town, holds shelves lined with boxes of cards and signed memorabilia. Some items are vintage. Some are brand new.

“It’s kind of cool,” Blakemore said, “because a lot of families and sons are coming in, and there’s a whole generation that hasn’t seen a hobby shop before.”

The 37-year-old Blakemore, whose shop is the last brick-and-mortar card store in Columbia, remembers when the sports card business was at its peak in the late 1980s.

Former MLB player Ken Griffey Jr. was a baseball icon, and everybody wanted to get a hand on a Griffey card, Blakemore said. In the mid to late 1990s, baseball sluggers such as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were sustaining card sales.

The cards themselves were also changing. Companies like Topps were placing autographs and relics — like pieces of jerseys — in card packs, Blakemore said.

And then came the Internet. Bidding websites like eBay became a threat to the brick-and-mortar card shops.

“I think with anything that gets that popular, it’s bound to implode on itself,” Mears said. “When (collectors) found out that they couldn’t turn their stuff into instant cash, they decided that they wanted to get out of it.”

Larry Chrisco, the owner of Central Missouri Sports Cards in Rolla, has seen how the collector base has shrunk. There are still avid collectors, but hobby shops are few and far between.

Baseball card sales have declined since the 1990s, but the game's young stars have sparked interest among some younger fans, card shop owners say. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook
Baseball card sales have declined significantly since the 1990s, but the game’s young stars have sparked interest among some younger fans, card shop owners say. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook

“There’s many competing interests trying to get young people into the hobby today that weren’t there 30 years ago or so,” said Chrisco, who’s 67. “It is a smaller community than what it was in the late 80s and early 90s.”

Even so, the emergence of social media and the Internet hasn’t completely crushed the business. In fact, it has forced the business owners to branch out and reach a new audience.

A new crop of customers

Look around at Blakemore’s Dugout shop in northwest Columbia: You’ll see the collection of vintage cards and sets of teams from the golden age of baseball cards in one section of the store.

But then you’ll see some of the card sets that sit behind his counter. They show images of baseball’s new stars, like the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant, or the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper.

“You’ve got a whole new generation of baseball, and they’re all young,” Blakemore said. “It’s actually a really good time to get back into collecting baseball (cards), because you can be ground floor with all these guys.”

The new wave of stars has brought in a younger audience to Blakemore’s shop. Customers recognize the players from other forms of media and are drawn to the card shops, even as the older customers are drawn to the store’s vintage cards.

The same goes for football cards, which Blakemore says sell better than baseball cards. Kids and teens that have online fantasy football teams come into his shop looking for cards of players they have on their fantasy rosters.

Like Mears has done at his shop, Chrisco has diversified the products at his Rolla store. He doesn’t just carry sports cards. He now sells Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering cards to maximize his pool of customers.

“Anime is on TV, and (kids) find out there’s cards for those anime characters, so they come into the shop,” Chrisco said.

Missouri-based owners aren’t limited to selling cards. With two NFL teams, two MLB teams and one NHL team in the state, both Blakemore and Chrisco sell other memorabilia like bobbleheads, helmets and autographs.

Regular postseason appearances by the St. Louis Cardinals have helped drive demand for the team's memorabilia at Columbia's Dugout sports collectibles store. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook
Regular postseason appearances by the St. Louis Cardinals have helped drive demand for the team’s memorabilia at Dugout in Columbia. | Courtesy of Dugout Sports Cards Collectibles and Memorabilia/Facebook

It’s a move to reach out to fan bases, not just card collectors. In Blakemore’s shop, the Cardinals material sells quickly because the team frequently makes postseason appearances. The Royals stuff, which used to never sell well in Columbia, has seen a recent resurgence with the 2014 American League pennant and 2015 World Series championship, just like it has with Mears’ Kansas City-area store.

Plus, with his shop being in a college town, Blakemore receives and sells memorabilia of teams from other markets, like the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.

“I get a lot more hockey from out-of-town students,” Blakemore added. “When I go into the outlying areas, that’s where a lot of the hometown team stuff usually goes.”

A hobby of community

Once a month, Chrisco will make a trip he’s made countless times before. He’ll travel about 100 miles to St. Louis to feature his shop in sports card and collector shows.

He’s hardly ever missed a show in the 18 years he’s traveled to St. Louis.

“I have a clientele that follows me to the shows,” Chrisco said. “They’ll meet me at the card show and pick up a product. I’ve developed a pretty good following.”

That following hasn’t just propelled Chrisco to make a bulk of his revenue from selling cards and memorabilia — it has set him up for the MLB All-Star Game’s FanFest, which he has done for the past 13 or 14 years, he said.

If anything, the shows indicate that there’s still an avid collector base out there. And even in the days of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, the collector community has become close-knit as collector niches change.

Some customers are there because the memorabilia — especially autographed helmets and bobbleheads — would make great additions to their “man caves.” Some are there to collect card sets of their favorite team’s players, a trend that Blakemore said is more popular than ever.

To many, the sports card is still a symbol of nostalgia.

“I remember sitting down with my dad and grandpa, watching the Cardinals,” Blakemore said. “I remember seeing (Nationals pitcher Max) Scherzer when he was in town.”

Even as fewer of them exist in Missouri, there’s one thing card shops are trying to sell: memories.

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