Sometimes Facebook lets us reconnect with family, friends or hobby acquaintances from the past. Recently, thanks to a post on the Sports Collectors Daily Facebook page, we were able to catch up with long-time store owner Warren Wolk. I have known Warren for almost 20 years now as he was one of the first dealers to be an active poster on hobby news groups which was one of the many ways we at Beckett could keep up with the hobby.
You will see a mention of an old online newsgroup titled rec.collecting.cards.discuss. Those early, very primitive message boards were how we communicated with others who had similar interests back in the 1990s and at the time were one of the most effective ways to monitor the market. Warren was one of the first dealers on the board and on one trip to a Philadelphia area show when I worked for Beckett, we stopped and visited him for the first time.
He opened All-Stars Collectibles in Langhorne, PA in 1991. Located between Philadelphia and Trenton, NJ, his store is still very impressive to this very day, stocking everything from huge quantities of vintage cards to modern hobby boxes to autographs and memorabilia. He’s also a bass fishing junkie and local tournament angler and might be the nation’s only sports card dealer who has “high end bass fishing tackle” in his shop. He also hosts Magic The Gathering tournaments and has gaming supplies for that crowd.
Warren graciously consented to us asking him some questions about his business.
How did you get started in the sports collecting hobby?
I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and bought my first baseball cards from the neighborhood ice cream truck in 1973. I was 8. It just blossomed into a lifelong hobby/career from there.
You’ve had a store for a long time, what have been some reasons for your continued success. When did you open?
24 years now. I started peddling cards out of a booth in my father’s bookstore in 1991. In 1995, I opened the store that I’m still in today, All-Stars Collectibles. As for success, I’m blessed that I got to work with my childhood hobby as a career for a quarter century. I define success as the joy one gets from his experiences, and in that sense I’m a rich man. I now have customers in their 30’s that bring their 10-year olds in, just like they came in with their fathers 20 years ago. To me, that’s full-circle. Financially, well, let’s just say I’m still waiting for my Honus Wagner to walk in.
When we first met in the late 1990’s you were one of the very first dealers to be very active on message boards and the internet. In many ways you were a pioneer doing that.
I guess I did jump online early, probably around ’95 or ’96. Message boards like rec.collecting.cards.discuss were about the only ways to connect with other collectors, but that sure didn’t stop us! I made thousands of online sales & trades for years before I ever heard the term “eBay”. And despite the lack of any type of “contract” or “buyer protection plan”, or fees or that matter, I had very few problems; Far fewer than in today’s environment.
Personally, I think one of the reasons Warren (and almost everyone) had so little problems on those boards was they were fairly close-knit as on-line communities. So few people were on those boards compared to today so if you messed up, the word got out in that world really quickly.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the sports collectibles business over the past 15 or so years?
In my mind, the most significant change is that the investor-types are all but gone from the hobby (with no disrespect meant to today’s “prospectors” of course, but they are a dying breed as well). Today’s collectors seem to have a true devotion to the hobby because they truly enjoy it. They don’t hope to get rich on their next purchase, they just want what they’re buying. They get joy from it.
How about sharing some of your favorite hobby stories or funny things which have occurred over the years.
I do have one fresh in my mind, and in the end it might be a testament to why I’m still in business. About two years ago a gentleman walked in and plopped two cards onto my counter, and asked me what they were worth. Usually when this happens it’s a few 80’s and 90’s cards, and I end up being the bearer of not-so-good news, lol. Well this case a bit different, because the cards were 1952 and 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle cards – both in very nice condition & both naked as the day they were pulled out of wax wrappers.
This is where honesty and straightforwardness rules almost every time.
“What are they worth?” he asked.
My answer: “A lot.”
The first thing I did was get those beauties screwed-down tight, as apparently they’ed never been contained in anything other than a shoebox. I told him the cases were on me and that I could get him a minimum of five figures for these two cards, if he’d be willing to work with me. I told him that I’d find him the guys willing to pay the highest prices in the world for the cards and I explained professional grading. I offered to handle everything for him for a consignment fee that we’d both agree on. He thanked me and said he’d consider it, took his cards and left.
Now let me tell you, as a shop owner, it’s a little hard to describe the way your stomach feels when great stuff walks in, and then out of your store. It hurts, but some deals just aren’t meant to be. Well, this one was.
About three days later the man came back, this time with a stack of about 40 loose cards, all late 1940’s and early to mid 1950’s Hall-of-Famers, and all naked once again. Jackies, Hanks, Mantles…most in EXMT or better. No ’52 or ’53 Topps Mantles this time, but just about every other 50’s Mick including his ’51 Bowman rookie card.
Long story short, I ended up selling virtually one of every card in baseball, basketball, football and non-sports, from 1946 through 1957 for this guy. Seems his recently deceased grandfather had a freakish habit of building sets of cards back in the day, then putting them away and never handling them again. It was a great experience, and I credit how I conducted myself upon his initial visit for the whole thing. His ’52 Mantle earned a 4.5 from PSA, and I sold it for $17,000.
Tell me about your family.
I have a great 14-year old daughter named Sierra, and a sweet girlfriend named Tracy. I consider Tracy my soul mate and therefore, my family.
Anything else you’d care to share with us about your life in the hobby?
Like you Rich, I could ramble for hours. I’d just like to add that I think the current card manufacturers hold the hobby’s future in a very fragile glass right now. It’s always had its ups and downs, but I’m sure most dealers would agree that today’s environment needs to change if the hobby is to remain a viable business for store owners.
If you know a shop owner who’d like to participate in our Q&A (or if that someone is you), please drop me a note.