Inside a decades-old building in South Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a vast collection of baseball history and an even larger database of information and images that will help prove whether your sports memorabilia is the real deal.
With the move to its newly refurbished digs last year, the company more than doubled the space available for researching game-used jerseys, bats and other items and running its auctions.
"It's definitely my dream," company president Troy Kinunen told Sports Collectors Daily during a recent tour.
While still a work in progress, the facility is the latest step in MEARS' efforts to increase its presence in the marketplace. It's not all about taking authentication orders or buying and selling goods, though. The 15,000-square foot building functions as sort of a North Pole for the sports memorabilia industry.
"We were kind of cramped in our last space so we were really limited in our ability to see customers," Kinunen explained. "When we held our grand opening in April and Reggie was here, we had hundreds of people in and out. There were up to 200 at a time inside the building and it was never crowded. We had a place for people to relax and talk, to mingle with each other or see some of our displays. We have items in our auction available for bidders to look at."
The basement level includes numerous offices, research materials, a photography and authentication area and storage space for hundreds of thousands of sports collectibles, most of which are now organized by team or player. One short tour and it's obvious MEARS will never run short of inventory.
The company currently runs monthly online auctions of everything from rare, historic bats to graded baseball cards to other vintage items that can be won for as little as $10.
"We started MEARS Online Auctions in January of 2009," said Kinunen. "As an organization it was definitely the right move for us. The response has been tremendous. We're not where we want to be, but we're seeing growth in some way every day."
On the day of our visit, MEARS associate Dave Bushing was cataloging several boxes of items that had just arrived on consignment from the family of the late Milwaukee Braves pitcher Lew Burdette, including a gold, glove-shaped trophy given to Burdette by the Rawlings sporting goods company in honor of his 1960 no-hitter as well as a set of nine silver goblets, believed to be a gift from the Braves. Etched in each was the play-by-play result of innings one through nine.
Kinunen hopes to turn the featured consignments into drawing cards, where stories about the items can be told and the items viewed in a special setting. The Wisconsin native, along with fellow collector and authenticator Dave Grob and others built the business on its evaluation of game-used memorabilia. Much of the income from the first several years of business was put back into growing it. They have kept meticulous and detailed records, virtually all available to the collecting public online. The new building affords easier access to physical tools that are sometimes necessary to determine whether an item is genuine.
"In the research center, we have about one thousand feet of custom-built bookcases which hold our hard copies like books, old sporting goods catalogs, file cabinets that house our color plate collection," Kinunen said. "We actually take a jersey and make a full plate one-to-one scale scan of it so we can pull that out and see things like the stitching and the uniform patches when we need to."
Kinunen wants to offer the company's resources to others in hopes of sharing the mountain of research they've done over the years. The idea is to help both new and veteran collectors increase their knowledge. MEARS has over 150,000 images of game-used jerseys in its database, all searchable within seconds.
"I'm a collector and I always collect with a mindset focused on the evaluation side of things," Kinunen said. "Bats and jerseys, whether they're in our inventory, items in the auction or part of our permanent collection, are set up to where you can make an appointment to come in and compare yours to ours. So it's sort of a living authentication center. You can bring your bat in and compare it to an actual game used bat, check the manufacturer records, compare the center brand and the size of the handle. You can look through our online letters (of authenticity), you can use our research library, go through our photo library or compare your physical items to things we've authenticated."
Collectors have come to rely on MEARS' well respected authentication letters and they may have bid in the company's auctions or purchased an item from its inventory. They may not know, however, that there are even bigger plans in the offing.
Kinunen believes the hobby has lost much of its social nature because of the growth of the internet and other factors. The ultimate goal is to make MEARS a sort of sports collectors' paradise; part museum, part library and part shopping center while holding events that bring collectors and guests from the sports world together. He has a lot of stuff...but now has a little more space available.
"We have a special long term exhibit in the works," Kinunen said. "We also want to finish our multi-media and seminar center. It'll be a 50-seat theatre where we can do personal presentations, lectures, seminars maybe even webinars where we can bring in small groups and have a speaker."