By Billy Tuite
You may think the days of opening up a pack of Topps baseball cards and inhaling that new card scent are gone for good. However, the card-collecting hobby is still alive and well on Main Street of Menomonie in a small store called Card Sharks.
Card Sharks was founded in June 2013 by Menomonie native and long-time card collector Levi Nelson and his business partner Patrick Gale. The business has been a long time in the making, as Nelson recounts childhood memories of trading football, basketball, baseball and hockey cards with Gale and other school friends in middle school.
“It feels like you’re able to connect personally with a player,” Nelson explains. “It allows you to put your admiration of athletes into physical means.”
Their collecting days were put on hold after school, but a love for their hometown and a recently reinvigorated devotion to the hobby inspired them to turn their passion into a business.
“We both found the ‘new age’ of cards less than three years ago,” Nelson said. “We had such a passion for it back then and it came back to us immediately, so we decided to open a shop.”
Of course, Card Sharks’ inventory isn’t limited to just sports cards. Their more recent offerings of Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokémon cards have been a big hit among University of Wisconsin-Stout students.
“I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in that a lot of my trading card game customers are UW–Stout students, while my sports card collectors are usually locals from around town,” Nelson said.
To the untrained eye, Card Sharks may just seem like a small humble shop at first glance, but to the seasoned collector, it’s a paperboard paradise with shelves full of cards that cover a wide spectrum of sports, brands and value. A pack of Topps Chrome NFL cards costs just $3.99, while a single autographed card of baseball legend Ernie Banks, which is safely stored in a glass encasing, sports a sticker price of $500.
Nelson estimates the combined worth of every item in the store comes to $150,000. He’s not really interested in the monetary gain, though.
“I’m forced to play the market as a store owner, but I honestly don’t like it,” Nelson said. “I just enjoy the collectability factor, and that’s what I steer most of my customers toward.”
Regardless, Nelson is still keenly aware of trading card market trends. Because a player’s performance on the field determines the value of their cards, collectors tend to invest in prospective, up-and-coming rookies in a complex “buy low, sell high” system and try to gain a profit when that player makes it big. Nelson links it to horse betting.
“A lot of the value is dependent upon the live actions of the player,” Nelson explains. “Say if Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck tears his ACL in the first game of the season, his collectability value is going to go way down. The price of a card is never fixed.”
Sadly, most of Nelson’s newer patrons forget that such an in-depth industry in card collecting ever existed. Nelson attributes this lost interest in sports cards to the “overproduction era” of the early 1990s. At that time, card collecting was at the peak of its popularity, but supply exceeded demand. Manufacturers, according to Nelson, “almost killed the hobby.”
“Around 80 to 85 percent of card stores in the United States closed down, and most collectors left after realizing manufacturers printed too many cards for them to be a collectable item,” said Nelson. “It wasn’t unique and rare anymore.”
To rectify this problem, card manufacturers introduced cards around the late ‘90s that featured autographs and embedded jersey pieces from the players themselves. These “new age” cards, many of which are on display at Nelson’s shop, go beyond simple paperboard and give cards a much-needed boost in authenticity and value.
“Many collectors didn’t return and it was too little too late,” Nelson said, “but there are still folks out there who, once you show them this new style of cards, really get into it.”
That’s Nelson’s main goal: to get people back into the hobby. Despite the near death of the industry, Nelson remains optimistic that sports card collecting is growing.
“People need to be shown that it’s changed and it’s worth investing in again,” said Nelson.
One thing Nelson is doing to help the public regain interest is live online group breaks. Nelson records himself opening a new box of cards via webcam, and online participants can pay for a fraction of the box and get their own portion of the cards. It’s a good deal for collectors and it facilitates the sort of social interaction needed to keep the hobby thriving.
“A lot of people are into the excitement of the break and what cards actually come out of it,” Nelson said. “We get to see everything, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get some of the better cards.”
Another tactic, inherent to Card Sharks itself, is that Nelson decided to open a brick and mortar store rather than just sell cards on eBay. It seems trivial, but it offers customers a tangible experience they can’t get anywhere else.
“You’re still always going to have people who want cards now,” Nelson stated. “We’d rather have customers come in and be able to see these rare, unique cards for themselves. We think that offers the customer something special versus seeing the cards online.”
Indeed, Nelson is all for providing customers a unique service, especially if it gets more people to start collecting cards.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to make sure people enjoy collecting again,” Nelson proudly claimed. “This is our hobby, too. We all have a say in how it goes.”
What Determines the Value of a Card?
- Rarity: According to Nelson, this is perhaps the most important criterion. Taking lessons from the overproduction era, cards are now numbered to show that only so many of a particular card has been made.
“No matter the player or condition, if there’s only a certain number of a card made, it can only be worth so much,” explained Nelson.
- Player: Some players have a greater “want factor” depending on their newness and performance on the field. Rookies are often the most sought after because many collectors will try to get a rookie card at a low price and sell it at a higher price when the player starts doing well.
- Set: There’s a great deal of inherent value in, for example, a box of Panini National Treasures football cards, which can cost up to $700.
“It could have a card that’s worth more than the box, and even lower-end cards will have value because of the set it is in,” Levi said.
- Physical Condition: Cards can be sent to grading services such as Beckett and Professional Sports Authenticator, who will grade the card based on the condition of the corners, surface, edges and centering.