Is it renaissance time? Topps is making money and new stores are opening….well, at least one is. In the first of a series, we follow Dan Fox of Marion, Illinois and friends as they attempt to turn a century-old empty downtown storefront into the Midwestern Macy’s of the sports memorabilia business.
Marion, Illinois is a confident little city. Any place that boasts a population of under 20,000 but calls itself “The Hub of the Universe” has either an overwhelmingly positive sense of itself or a wry sense of humor.
It is in this comfortable burg at the crosshairs of I-57 and Illinois Route 13 in the southern part of the Land of Lincoln that Dan Fox lives. A card collector in his younger days, he rediscovered his old hobby a couple of years ago thanks to a gaze upon a 1968 Topps Donny Anderson football card he once loved.
Together with fellow collector Chris Ahart and Dan’s 12 year-old son, they often went in search of cards. Trouble was, it was usually a long ride. Shows and shops within an hour’s drive were rare and small. It frustrated the hunter in them and they found dozens of like-minded individuals in Marion and surrounding towns who felt the same; dedicated to the hobby but tired of having to buy everything on-line or on vacation.
“I knew what collectors wanted but were unable to find anywhere near us,” Fox says. “It was causing the hobby to contract and wither in this area.”
Something had to be done. Not just another hole-in-the wall, strip mall shop with overpriced boxes and a vintage inventory of 1990 Fleer cards. A real card shop. Well stocked. A place they’d be proud of.
Downtown. It had to be downtown. Like other small cities, Marion’s old business center had gone through some rough times. But the ever-optimistic and growing town had just spent $30 million on a new city hall. And right next door sat an old storefront that had been vacant for nine years. It was perfect. It was for sale. The stars were aligned. If he were ever going to make it happen instead of just talk about it, now was the time. Fox took out a loan and bought the 25×100, three-story building for $65,000. He knew that was the easy part.
“It required someone with not only enough money to pour into a large money pit but somebody with enough drive to finish the large undertaking of remodeling a vintage building. We knew in our hearts if it wasn’t us, no one would, and we would end up losing this beautiful 100 year-old structure.”
The building was sturdy but aging and neglected. It needed a new roof, major tuck pointing and water proofing, a replacement of rotted windows, a complete gutting of the store level and full basement underneath– demolition back to the bare walls and floors. The suspended eight-foot acoustic tile ceiling needed to come down, all the old fluorescent light fixtures and air conditioning vents had to to come off the ceiling as well. Fox, his wife Gina and brother Kevin, together with Ahart and his girlfriend Jessica, would spend several weeks on a project they knew would be all-consuming but one they felt drawn to through a sense of personal and civic pride.
“If it were allowed to fall down, it would not have been rebuilt and a parking lot would have replaced it,” Fox explains. “No town deserves to have a large parking garage as a part of their downtown landscape.”
The ceiling was cleared, primed and painted, painted and painted some more (after some patching). The existing radiators and pipes that fed them? Gone. They had been run through the floors and ceilings, etc. and all of those holes now needed mending. New air conditioning and heat needed to be installed. Existing electric lines had to be pulled out and new runs put in.
“The upstairs level was left fairly much as was, except for the removal of several window air conditioners and the closure of some windows that had been broken out. We hated making the pigeons leave their home, but they weren’t paying rent.”
The demolition alone resulted in 28 tons of waste having to be hauled off from the premises, all carried out by hand.
There were bonuses, though. The disgusting orange carpet from the last renovation in 1972 came up to reveal a lovely hardwood maple floor. Scraping, sanding, hole repair and a couple of coats of polyurethane later, a beautiful floor came back to life. When the contractors and painters he’d hired found out what Fox was doing with the building, they took an ownership stake too.
“Everyone involved in this project came to think of it as so much more than a job. My wife and I picked some of the most ‘expensive’ subcontractors that our town has to offer, but did so because of their expertise in dealing with 100 year-old structures. They all turned out to be bargains because they did much more than what the job described and didn’t charge us for the extra effort, time and material. We had tuck pointers drop everything and help us carry fifty 4×12 sheets of drywall into the building simply because they saw that we could use the help. Our contractor added days to the job, with no additional charge to us. The electrician provided us with some quite unique wiring bonuses. One of my brothers donated a ton of free work time to this project as well as scaffolding and tools, as did several friends. We had to bring this old girl back to where she deserved to be: fine, dry and loved.”
The city, seeing an eyesore turning into an asset, offered the kind of neighborly support small towns are famous for. “They offered us the use of their bathrooms, when we had no water or plumbing. They offered us the use of electrical outlets at no charge when we had no electricity. They have also been quite forgiving about having a dumpster in front of our building for three weeks, having workers on their roof, tuck pointing debris everywhere, and just general chaos for several weeks.”
“The police department allowed our tuck pointer to use their hose and spigot. The Office of Economic Development sent over a representative who stood next to me for over an hour as I sawed and sledge-hammered away, explaining how I could apply for Tax Increment Financing from the city and state to help cover my expenses of remodeling.”
By December, Fox had spent three weeks of 16-hour days at hard labor. Ahart had given up nearly two full weeks of vacation time to help. Each night, they retreated to a bar across the alley for a well-earned libation. But things were taking shape.
They began to contact with vendors to purchase some of the inventory they’d need and found the wholesalers pleasantly surprised to find a new account in what had been a vast wasteland. “One wholesaler said the shop was the first new account he’d gotten since his employment,” says Ahart. Showcases had been brought in, years of rot tossed out and product began arriving. The journey from collector to shop owner was about to end when the dumpster left, the paint dried and the advertising had been prepared.
“I couldn’t do it again if my life depended on it,” Fox says, even though organization and time management had also played critical roles in opening the sports card store. “The greatest challenge was probably scheduling all the subcontractors and deliveries of supplies and such so that everything ran as quickly as possible with no down time,” Fox explained. “We had to accomplish this task in three to four weeks.” The first installment on a six-figure loan was coming due in mid-December. A sense of accomplishment had been replaced by cold, hard financial reality. Fox Sports Cards needed to be open before the Christmas shopping season.
Coming next week: Fox Sports Cards opens the doors for the first time.