In the early 1990s, all you had to do was open that big yellow phone book (before the internet, remember?) and no matter where you were, there was at least one sports card shop within a short drive. If you were in a larger metropolitan area, you probably had your choice of several. Many of the cards from that era are still sitting in those shops more than two decades later—if they’re lucky enough to still be in business. “Dead inventory” is what some call 1980s and 90s material. Sometimes, though, it’s all about your attitude, your effort and your marketing skills.
Don Joss opened DJ’s Sportscards in Renton, Washington in 1988, just as the hobby was entering what would become a giant boom that didn’t last. He’s one of those who is still in business today, though, and many of the kids who were his best customers back then are now coming back, with their own children in tow.
“They’re amazed we’re still open,” he laughed. “They are buying lots of single cards, supplies, and oddball items but they are not buying $200 packs. I need more products geared towards family budgets, set building, and true card collectors, not pack gamblers.”
He carries a variety of new products from the card makers but he’s also hoping to lead a charge back toward the hobby’s roots. Having a well stocked store is great, but firing up collectors who aren’t into pricey packs is what he loves most. To that end, he’s a man on a mission. A website that’s updated regularly. Facebook. YouTube. In store signing sessions. All aimed at keeping customers happy and winning over new ones.
Joss has a lot of late 80s and early 90s wax box and single stock in his large shop near Seattle. To him, it’s not dead inventory. It’s an opportunity.
“That generation is coming back and starting to buy Bo Jackson and Will Clark rookie cards again,” he told an audience of fellow store owners in Las Vegas recently. “They’re also buying some of the cards and sets they couldn’t afford as kids.”
Joss was telling his assembled colleagues how to become successful buyers in their own shops by turning collections into profits. Part of his message was not to always turn away those callers who offer collections of “worthless” cards. He’d rather buy a shoe box of 1950s cards than a monster box of ‘90s material, but he’s staked his niche is buying collections and unless it is something he simply can’t sell at any price, he is usually willing to have the caller come in, while warning that they won’t leave with a lot of cash. He rarely says no because he likes to have a reputation for buying. Sometimes, a small, relatively unexciting purchase can lead to something better.
“You obviously can’t pay much for some of this stuff, “ he said. “But when you have that reputation as an active buyer, you’ll start to get vintage cards as word spreads. Some are happy to get them out of their house and they’ll gladly take $50 or $100. Always be willing to look at anything.”
He’s often found gems inside those modern era shoe boxes, albums and monster boxes, too. There’s a small, but very active niche of collectors who relentlessly chase the obscure variations and error cards that were part of some of those once-forgotten issues.
“I’ll pay around a quarter for some of those popular star cards. I’ll take the time to put it out and sell it for 50 cents because what usually happens is that the person will hang around my shop and buy more cards. He doesn’t want to just spend 50 cents and leave.”
Of course, if you buy it all, you have to move it all. To do that, Joss utilizes every logical space in his store. He has albums of cards lined up along walls, full of cheap singles. He fills boxes with recent purchases, many of which he hasn’t even priced when they hit the floor.
He puts items on a table outside the doors to his shop, hoping to draw in the curious. A factory set he bought for a buck or two might sell for $5. The customer walks in and buys something else and suddenly, that dead inventory has become something else; the catalyst for new customers.
“When people see you’ve gotten new stuff in, they’ll call within 15 minutes after I post it. It draws them into the shop to see what’s new. They all want to start digging through my new purchases, hoping to spot a bargain. I often double my money on those collections in one day. It’s like a treasure hunt in your store and sometimes they will find a card that actually has gained a following like 1990s basketball inserts and be really happy. Don’t be afraid of selling a $3 card for a quarter because the guy who bought it probably is buying some other cards while he’s there.”
The best calls for Joss come from those who simply want to unload what they have and often it’s older material. When they know he’s an active buyer, they’re often ready to deal.
“Sometimes we get sellers who are in their 60s or 70s. They don’t want to die with their cards but no one in the family is really interested. I tell them when I make my offer that I have collectors who will want them and that they’re going to good homes. It makes them feel good because you’re not just selling trading cards. You’re selling memories and history.”