Kevin Savage has been selling cards since he was a Reagan-era college kid, with a Ripken-esque streak of weekly auction ads that remain the bulk of his business.
It’s a two-page spread, offering everything from 1930s Goudey and Diamond Stars to lots of 2001 Fleer basketball. “Soup to nuts,” according to Maumee, Ohio-based Kevin Savage. His eclectic auction ads have appeared in nearly every issue of Sports Collectors Digest since the mid-1980s and continue to draw a few hundred bidders every week with almost 10,000 registered.
Savage was fresh out of college in 1983, thinking that turning his hobby into a full-time job sounded like fun. He opened a store in Northern Ohio but eventually the business became large enough to where his auctions, shows and eventually, eBay, became the focus.
Savage’s longevity is rare in an industry where few dealers are able to sell enough material to survive longer than a few years. “My Dad was in business and he told me the secret was simply ‘to last’, and that it pays to be nice to people and fair because if you stick around long enough, it’ll come back to you.”
Major auction houses handling exceedingly rare and historic pieces or cards have become the rage with JC Penney-sized catalogs and millions of dollars in sales several times per year. While he does handle some higher priced pieces, Savage’s customers are often collectors who aren’t blessed with deep pockets. “My peers make fun of me,” he said. “But it works for us. A good bulk of our business is not high end. In a perfect world, we’d deal in nothing but vintage cards but our niche has always been that we buy everything.”
Buying everything means having to sell almost everything and the business known simply as Kevin Savage Cards typically does sell about 80-90% of what it buys. Thus, the 23 million cards sitting on pallets in the company warehouse represent “the 10-20% of every collection we’ve ever bought that haven’t sold.” He’ll travel to Niagara Falls, NY this week to visit a collector ready to sell cards ranging from the 1950s through the ’80s. “He wouldn’t have any trouble finding a buyer for his 1950s sets but we’ll buy it all if we can,” said Savage. “Not many dealers are willing to do that.” The success of the weekly auctions has proven that if you can stick around long enough to establish a reputation, you can sometimes sell anything.
Savage’s ads have run in nearly every issue of SCD and his customers have come to count on them. “If you miss a week, they call and check on you,” he said. “They think something happened to you.” Piecing them together requires about 20-25 hours of effort per week. Sometimes Savage Cards runs back-to-back auctions on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The company has four full-time employees and some part-time help as well. “Nobody sits around the office reading novels,” he jokes. “It’s a lot of work.”
Running an $800 per page ad in SCD, Savage hopes to sell at least $8000 in cards. He charges no buyer’s premium and while he does accept consignments, most of what’s sold have been cards the company has purchased outright. Most items sell for between $20 and $50. “We have some very good customers who bid on a regular basis. With some, I know who they are just by hearing the voice on the phone. Many of them we’ve never met in person.” Most weeks, 75-125 different bidders will win lots, many of whom don’t have internet access but who will purchase multiple lots.
“We do handle better stuff,” Savage said. “We recently sold three of the rare cards from the 1951 Topps Current All Stars set which we put on eBay.”
Situated near Toledo puts Savage in the heart of collecting country. “We’re about four hours from nine Major League cities. There are a lot of collectors and a lot of old baseball items in those places,” he explained. “We’re willing to travel. If a call comes in and we think it’s something we’d like to see, we’ll jump in a van and go.”
Savage has been to every National Sports Collectors Convention since the early 1980s and will trek toward Anaheim later this month. “We’re driving. It’s some sort of sick punishment I guess.” Actually, there’s a method to the 2500 mile madness. He’ll make two stops along the way. “Two more collections to look at. One in Iowa and one in Arizona.”
And maybe the opportunity to bring back enough material for at least one more auction.