One of the world’s biggest and oldest sports card shops is located in a city of barely 12,000 people. It’s not in the geographic middle of the country but you can almost see the center from there.
Located about 100 miles northeast of St. Louis, Baseball Card Connection calls Effingham, IL home, and has for over 30 years. The business owned by the husband and wife team of Jon and Lisa Schafer looks a bit like a big appliance store from the outside, but they need the space to house an inventory that includes millions of single cards, boxes of unopened product, other collectibles and fan gear.
While the shop does a brisk business from local and regional customers, they’re among eBay’s top sellers, too. In fact, the company brought in a production crew last year to shoot video segments, shutting the place down for a bit but expanding their exposure to a worldwide audience.
Last year, Baseball Card Connection was one of the finalists in the America’s Best Card Shop contest.
In our latest Card Shop Q&A, we chatted with Jon Schafer about how it all got started, their customer base, online business, a typical week and more.
SC Daily: You’ve been in business now for 31 years in a couple of different locations. Tell us a little about the history that led to your current shop.
JS: When I graduated from Illinois State University in 1992, my plan was to buy a building and start up a retail store. There were no buildings for sale in our downtown area, so I worked out of a garage in the back of my dad’s real estate agency. Believe or not, people did show up at that horrible first location. I pinched all the pennies I could for a year and then purchased my first building in downtown Effingham, IL. We stayed at the second location for about four years and then sold the building and purchased a larger one.
We then purchased the building right next to our store, thinking we would knock down walls and expand. Luckily, one of the largest buildings downtown went up for sale in 2006, so we sold both of our buildings and moved into our current 6,000-square-foot location at 313 West Jefferson Avenue.
SC Daily: Some collectors might be surprised to know that one of the hobby’s biggest shops is located in a relatively small community smack dab in the middle of the country. What’s unique about the area where you’re located and how it relates to your customer base, etc.?
JS: Effingham is a great community to call home. There are so many successful businesses here that are run by high energy entrepreneurs. It’s just a great place for businesses to thrive. Along with the locals, we are also well supported by the smaller communities within a 50-mile radius of Effingham.
We may only have a 10,000+ population, but Effingham, IL is known as the “Crossroads of America”. Like you said, we are very well centered in the middle of the U.S., where major Interstates 57 and 70 intersect. We have three interstate exits that give the general public a lot of opportunity to access our small town. We have local regulars, and many out of town regulars that travel from hours away to shop in our store. It’s so easy to zip in off the interstate and find our store. We are also grateful that so many collectors, while traveling or on vacation, include our store as one of their destination stops. That being said, we find it amazing how many once or twice a year “regulars” we have from all over the country.
What’s most impressive is that Lisa can remember everyone’s name and where they are from. Me, not so much.
SC Daily: You have a major online presence and ship a massive amount of packages each week—not all being traditional sports cards. Can you share some of the numbers and tell us how big that part of the business is? How do you decide what to sell via eBay or elsewhere and what to offer in the shop?
JS: Our eBay.com and Beckett.com stores hold this place together. We consider our walk-in customer retail sales the icing on the cake. It’s hard for our physical location to compete financially with our online sales. Our online sites are open 24 hours a day, every day, so people are always placing orders. The sites that store our inventory have millions of users, so there’s always eyeballs on our inventory. We usually have about 50-75 orders shipping out each day. The numbers can obviously go higher when a hot product hits or the trading card manufacturers release multiple products all at once. The time of year can also cause spikes in order volume.
We do have a few tricks we can use to control the order flow so we are not completely overwhelmed. Determining what inventory is placed where is just something that you learn over time. Our customers buying habits, online and in-store, determine how we process our incoming inventory.
SC Daily: What’s a typical week like for the two of you?
JS: We always joke that if we had about four more hours per day, we could actually get something done around here. Monday and Tuesday, our retail store is closed to walk-in traffic, but we are here early like any other day, filling and packing online orders. Weekend orders are always very strong, so Monday is a high-volume day and 100% of our time is devoted to online business. Tuesday we do the same, but we also begin to prep the retail storefront for the Wednesday – Saturday walk-in customers.
This business is so fast paced and there is so much going on, each week just seems like a blur. We have to force ourselves to take breaks and have a little bit of balance, but it’s not easy, as the next five jobs are typically staring you down and they are always time sensitive.
Saturday is our favorite work day. We enjoy interacting with all of the families that travel to our store, and love to see the excitement in their eyes when they look through our inventory. A lot of them may not understand the significance right now, but when they get older and look back at their lives, they will remember the road trips they took to the Baseball Card Connection, and how nice it was to have the entire family all together.
SC Daily: You have a large inventory of cards. How much buying do you do and how much is locally sourced?
JS: We passed the 10 million-card mark last year, but can you ever have too many? Like most stores, we are offered multiple collections or cards every single day, and we purchase inventory every day. We locally source most of it, but we also purchase many cards from online sites and card shows.
SC Daily: Tell us about a couple of the best (or most interesting) purchases you have made since you have opened the store.
JS: We recently purchased a Jackie Robinson rookie card from a walk-in. His neighbor gave him the card for free, even though he doesn’t collect cards. We had the card graded to protect our interest while also maximizing his sell price. I think he had a pretty good day, and we were also happy to add the card to our personal collection. Now we all just need to move into his neighborhood.
Another guy pulled up to our store with a small U-Haul truck packed full of cards. He was a flipper who was attending an estate auction and he said no one was bidding on the massive collection so he bought it. He and his partner don’t buy trading cards, so they just wanted a price a little bit higher than what they paid. We basically bought the collection blind, and cheap, and to this day, there are probably still boxes laying around our building that have not been sorted through. We could write a book about our buying experiences, but it would be easier if you just follow our shenanigans on Instagram and Facebook.
SC Daily: What are the card manufacturers doing right to help shops succeed and what needs to be fixed?
JS: Right now, we feel that everything is heading in the right direction. The manufacturers are paying close attention to allocations of new product and who should and shouldn’t receive them. Everyone wants to buy direct, but you have to step back and ask yourself if you are providing anything of value to your community and the hobby itself. We expect the average dealer will need to be adding value to the industry or doing something positive to get a factory direct account in the future.
The manufacturers are listening to collectors and dealers like never before, and addressing anything and everything that is perceived as a negative. As an example, let’s take a look at redemption cards. Everyone hates to pull them out of a pack and they are a nuisance to the hobby. It appears that the companies are stepping up and redemption cards will be gone sooner rather than later.
SC Daily: Any interesting or humorous moments you have encountered since you opened the store?
JS: In this business, we interact with so many kids, so humorous moments can be a daily occurrence. Recently, we had a little chuckle when a boy was making a purchase. He stated “This is my favorite store.” Lisa then replied, “Why is this your favorite store?” He responded, “because when I pay, I already know what I’m going to buy next time.”
SC Daily: Owning a hobby shop is a dream for a lot of collectors. If someone were to ask you about starting one, what advice would you offer?
JS: I would never tell someone not to do it, if that’s their dream. The store we have now was just something I dreamed up back in the 1980s, and we are still trying to make it better each and every day. I would suggest selling online first, and then just find an untapped market, work from there, and make it happen. We have been mentoring a couple of owners who have recently opened stores within an hour of here. We have had people tell us their stores are now our new competition. We don’t see it that way. This industry is growing and we need more stores that are operated by honest people who love this hobby. Every store owner that we personally know definitely qualifies.
SC Daily: What’s the best thing about running a hobby shop?
JS: Being your own boss and doing what you love. I never feel like I am working, I’m just enjoying myself and doing what I want to do every single day.
SC Daily: It’s a challenge to remain profitable and successful. Tell us a little about your business philosophy and some of the things you do that you feel any shop owner can and should do to acquire and retain customers.
JS: It’s very simple: Be nice and create a pleasant relationship with your customers. Too many people try to make big bucks on every deal. You don’t always need to win when buying or trading cards. If you build your house 1 brick at a time, it will remain solid forever. Make sure your store is a comfortable place for people to hang out. If mom is not happy with your setup, you might have a problem.
When you love what you do, there’s no way anyone can outwork you. We have always put forth the extra effort, every week, every day, every hour, for 31 years, and hopefully it will show when you come to visit us.
Own a hobby shop and want to be part of the next Q&A? Give us a shout and tell us about your business