Jim Miller has been buying and selling sports memorabilia since the 1980s, but his trip to Chicago last week was just the second time he'd set up at the National Sports Collectors Convention. Last year's event in Baltimore was his first.
“The overhead is absolutely staggering, especially for someone like me who drives from the east coast," said the Trenton, New Jersey resident who operates The Classic Corner. " I had to rent a cargo van to haul all of the stuff here. The gasoline, hotel room, meals, tolls all add up and that doesn’t even count the booth space and the added amenities we rent like showcases. They’re not cheap. The whole idea, though, is that when you tabulate all of the numbers at the end, you’ll be on the plus end of things."
The Classic Corner specializes in buying and selling older items and he's now running online auctions about every other month. Having worked full-time at his business for nearly 20 years now, Miller knows the realm inside and out. If you've been around for awhile, you probably remember his ads back in the day when the telephone, printed publications and 'snail mail' were the only way buyers and sellers could communicate and conduct business.
His booth space at the Stephens Convention Center was small compared to other auction companies so the quality of his material had to be strong to attract interest on the massive show floor. His customers know he'll have items that even the auction companies may not and he couldn't pass up a chance to come to what is usually one of the hobby's best markets.
"The National is where all of the advanced collectors come," he said. "If you've got vintage memorabilia, this is where you want to be."
His booth included numerous turn of the century pieces from pro baseball's early days. Cy Young autographs, rare baseball publications, vintage pennants and equipment that he says his 'very hot" right now were all displayed inside his showcases.
Miller said the fact that previous National shows had attracted big crowds helped lure him back to the hobby's 32nd annual event. "It’s reputation precedes itself. I’ve heard many great things about it through the years. It’s had a great history attached to it and I’m just really happy to be here.”
Miller was hoping to spend part of his time taking in a White Sox-Yankees game during the weekend.
For Brian Van Zant, it was part business and part pleasure. The owner of Full Count Collections in Panama City Beach, Fla. spent five days behind his booth while his wife took in the sights of Chicago. He was planning to hang around to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field Monday and then head east for sightseeing at Niagara Falls and Cooperstown. For a retired military man, the baseball card business is something that doesn't mean the expectation of an enormous profit.
In fact, there might not be any profit at all.
"There's a lot of expense," he said Saturday while waiting on customers. "Travel. Table fees. Lodging. Food. It all adds up to a big price tag."
Van Zant sells a mix of vintage cards from the turn of the century on up. Specializing in vintage Hall of Famers, some of Van Zant's cards sell for hundreds of dollars.
"Graded Hall of Famers are always a consistent seller for me. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, the list goes on. People just love the old cards. They’re still looking for the higher grade. They want investment grade cards, something they know they can put away for the future and know there’s a good chance they’ll get something more out of it later but the lower grade cards sell pretty well too.
So why drive from the southern coast to the Upper Midwest if there wasn't an immediate profit to be made?
"We get to pass along a lot of business cards, so we get a lot of residual purchases," he said. "A lot of new customers who come to our website after the show is over. It works out well. I get a lot of follow-up business so it's worth the trip."
To see all of our stories from the National Sports Collectors Convention, click here.