1990 doesn’t sound like ancient history if you were a working adult back then but I guess it’s time to face facts and admit that it was 25 years ago. I was recently asked to compare what card shows were like in 1990, compared to today.
The hobby itself has gone through a huge transformation since then but has continued to move forward. While it’s not likely we’ll see sports collecting as the overwhelming fad it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the niche is still strong. While the money is being spent in many different ways today, I might even wager there is more being spent on the totality of sports cards and memorabilia today than in 1990, even with the decrease in new card sales. After all, game-used memorabilia back then was a shadow of its current self. But the economics are for a different day.
When I moved to Dallas to work for Beckett in 1990, there was usually a show every weekend. Most of them were on Saturday because the promoters realized Sundays usually meant a lot of people going to church and during the fall, Cowboys games—home or away– took a lot of collectors out of the mix. College football was a big deal 25 years ago, of course, but there is still a more diffused audience than for everyone gathering to watch the Cowboys (or their favorite NFL team). And back in 1990, most college games started later than the NFL does today, meaning fans could still go to the card show and get home in time to watch the ABC or CBS games. Saturday just seemed to be the best day to have a show.
At the smaller local shows there seemed to be fewer people chasing vintage cards with their lists and more people looking for their local hero cards. Remember this was before the days of the internet so to get cards of players from the local team, you either had to do mail order or have good contacts around the country. In the 1980s into the early 1990s there was still the concept of a “local premium” where dealers asked—and often got—a significantly higher price for cards of players that were popular in that city or area.
Smaller shows today have some really good material for sale. That may well be because in those days there were shows every week. Today, with fewer shows, there is more of an opportunity for those show dealers to restock their inventories which leads to better items available.
Most of those shows featured a small admission fee (except those held in shopping malls). Most of the dealers had the newest cards and because of the more limited brand selection, were more attuned to putting out cards for sale of only the hottest players in all sports. And, whenever new products arrived on the market place, several dealers were sure to have unopened boxes or complete sets of those cards. I personally think, even at the smaller shows today, more people are chasing older cards than they were back around 1990 when the focus (and the profit) was geared toward the hobby newcomers who were buying up sets, boxes and bulk lots of the new stuff.
What I don’t recall is the proliferation of the discount boxes we see today at shows. I’m not sure why that is. Fewer products were considered “junk”, partly because so much of it was selling and partly because the product explosion was in its infancy and there simply wasn’t a lot of unopened material to buy.
There is no doubt the pricing was ruled by Beckett in those days. Everyone had their price guides available and all prices were based off what was listed in the magazines. In fact, as a Beckett employee, those of us who collected were on our honor to follow some strict guidelines to avoid what could be seen as “insider trading”. Since we had some ideas of the prices in upcoming magazines, we were prohibited by buying cards in specific sports over specific times. Since Beckett Baseball shipped on the first Monday of each month, we were under strict orders not to purchase anything during certain time periods.
And yes, people knew when the new Beckett was coming out and anxiously awaited their copies in 1990. Some Texas dealers had an advantage because they would receive the magazine on Wednesday while people in New Jersey may not receive their magazines until the following Monday. And yes, just about every dealer selling cards from the post-War years to present, used Beckett. There were no grading companies providing their own price guides and no eBay or online sales data yet either.
Information traveled a little more slowly then. While a player’s performance might impact sales of his cards at a show, pricing was a guessing game until the next month’s guide came out with prices based on sales from the previous month.
We also saw more “walk ins” as the news media had picked up on the increasing interest in baseball and other sports cards as a hobby/investment. People combed their attics and closets and brought collections of older cards to shows, offering them to dealers. Sometimes they got a fair price. Other times, they took the first, often low ball offer and left. Some remarkable collections entered the hobby and while it still happens today, those moments aren’t quite as frequent.
Regionally issued card sets were a bigger deal 25 years ago. Without a massive number of current products being churned out by the card companies quite yet (that was coming in a few years), collectors and dealers turned their attention to some of those sets issued with food products, handed out by local fire and police agencies or given away at big league parks. If you had a “source” and could buy them at a low-cost, there was money to be made at shows or through ads in trade publications. Dealers who traveled would get items locally and bring them with them to the bigger shows. That would facilitate trading between many dealers from different states as they sought to diversify their inventory.
Of course, the other major difference was the sheer number of stores. Today there are about 5-6 in the DFW area but back in 1990, there were enough stores where there was actually a small trade publication focused around existing shops in the DFW area. It included owners’ opinions on various topics and, of course, ads. Yes, there were actually enough dealers around where one could create enough content to distribute a monthly publication about the hobby in one geographic area!
The store closest to where I lived was run by a nice game named Wendell Bell. Now his store was fairly typical of most stores of the time, dealing mainly in new cards and boxes and sometimes waiting to change prices after the new Beckett came out. There were very few “market makers” among the stores but the ones which survived were usually the ones with the best business sense. But in those days, when we would invite dealers over to Beckett for occasional lunches with the price guide staff, there was never a shortage of people we could go to. Today, I don’t think any meeting like that makes sense on a local level. You could probably get some collectors or weekend dealers but not many full timers.
Now think about this, if you were a visitor and had a few weeks to spend in Dallas in 1990 or so, you could probably spend your weekend going to a shows and stores and still not go to every decent venue. Today, one of the most common threads on message boards is something akin to “I’m going to Ft Lauderdale for a week. Are there any cards shows or stores I can go to?” Well back in 1990, the possibilities were limitless. And today, we’re able to be active in this hobby at any time or any place thanks to technology but there isn’t nearly as much interpersonal communication as back in 1990. I don’t know about you, but I miss those days.