There was a card show under the big top in Florida.
This was no circus. If you were a collector, it was a juggling act Sunday at the Tampa Sports Card & Memorabilia Show at the Big Top Flea Market. The show has been held monthly at the flea market for nearly two years.
With 16 dealers on Sunday there were plenty of choices and lots of variety, but for vintage card seekers, John Bucci was one of the go-to guys.
“You can’t beat having a job you love and collecting money at the same time,” said Bucci, whose sprawling setup dominated the northeast corner of one of the wings in Building N.
Bucci’s glass-topped cases loaded with vintage star cards were lined up in a long row on tables, while stacks of vintage baseball, football, basketball and hockey were available for browsing. Cardboard boxes lined against the back wall were labeled with cards from vintage sets dating to the 196os.
Non-sports vintage cards were there too, from Batman cards of the 1960s to 1956 Topps Flags of the World cards. Prices ranged from commons in the $4 dollar range to a 1933 Goudey card of Babe Ruth that commanded a much larger number. Mickey Mantle cards of all years were present, along with other Hall of Famers of the ’50s and ’60s.
“The key to this business is inventory,” said the 66-year-old Milwaukee native, who along with his wife Joyce runs J&J Timeout Sports Cards. “And buying right so you can sell right.”
Bucci does not own a card shop. He lives in Viera on Florida’s east coast and travels each weekend to several venues around the state: Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Sebastian. The Big Top has a card show the third weekend of every month.
It’s a far cry from the 1980s and ’90s, when card shows were held at Tampa Bay Center, with more than 100 tables of dealers stretching throughout the mall that has since been torn down; its location now serves as the practice headquarters of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I used to do them all,” said Terry Galper, who organizes the Big Top shows and now has his own table at the flea market shows. “Shows took a curve because of eBay and grading.
“Some say eBay killed the business, or that grading cards killed the business, but I don’t think so,” Galper said. “It brought the industry back to earth. It brought the industry back to reality.”
Bucci collected cards in the 1950s and ’60s as a kid “but got rid of them.” He rooted hard for the hometown Milwaukee Braves. Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn were some of his favorite players.
“I loved it when the Braves won the 1957 World Series against the Yankees,” he said. “And they should have beaten them in ’58, too, they were up 3-1.”
Card condition was not an issue when Bucci was a youth.
“I flipped cards with the other kids, and yeah, I put some of my cards in my bicycle spokes,” he said. “Who knew?”
Bucci worked as a printer from 1969 to 2005. In 1994, he began setting up tables at shows.
“I started with the new stuff,” he said, “but then every month a new Beckett magazine would come out and the prices would change.”
Vintage seemed like a better avenue. Cards were not as mass-produced as the ones in the late 1980s and early ’90s and held their value when the bottom fell out of the market.
“What really sells strong is pre-1969,” Bucci said. “Mantle cards are still hotter than heck.
“In 2008 when the recession hit, it never bothered me at all because of the vintage cards.”
Bucci has a list of 250 customers he emails regularly with news about deals, consignments and upcoming shows. The names and pertinent information are on typewritten pages; no Excel spreadsheets for Bucci.
“Nah,” he said with a dismissive wave. “I have a list and my wife has one in case one of us dies.”
Bucci also consigns cards for customers. Predictably, they are vintage cards.
“Topps 1950s and ’60s — that’s where it’s at,” he said.
Galper began running the Big Top shows in November 2014. The shows were the brainchild of the late John Lindgren, who died on October 29, 2014 at age 72. Lindgren had a small booth at the Big Top and sold cards there weekly, but nearly two years ago he cut a deal with the flea market owners to have a show once a month.
Dealers now pay $35 to rent a table, and that cash goes to Big Top. Promoters like Galper “don’t make a dime.” Neither did Lindgren.
“John started shows not to make money. He collected it all and gave it to the flea market,” Galper said. “In the old days the promoters got all the money.
“John was a great guy, everybody loved him.”
Back in the heyday of the 1990s card shows, dealers were forking out $125 to rent space in the mall.
Times have changed in the past 20 years. The Internet and the birth of online auction sites have altered the makeup of the hobby. Card shops, particularly in Florida, are expensive to maintain and don’t get the traffic they once did.
But Galper is optimistic that card shows like the one at the Big Top are gaining some traction with collectors.
“A lot of new people are coming to the shows,” said Galper, who publicizes the monthly shows through his website (http://tampacardshow.com/) and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. “We’re trying to get younger people.
“There are kids out there who buy baseball cards, dads who are bringing their kids to shows. There’s kids out there collecting vintage.’
Beckett Grading will set up shop at the next Tampa show (December 19-20) to slab cards for collectors.
“The big money is in the grading,” said Bucci, who concedes that his customers are “50-50” on the grading issue.
“Some like them graded, and some like them raw,” he said.
Bucci enjoys the atmosphere at card shows. While chatting Sunday, he’d yell over to another dealer and banter with him.
“I meet a lot of people. It’s an easygoing atmosphere,” he said.
The only negative is the loading and unloading. Since Bucci is a one-man show, it’s up to him to do the work.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting,” he chuckled.
I couldn’t resist. I had to plow through some of Bucci’s vintage singles. I wound up buying 11 cards from the 1951 Bowman set and one from the 1953 Topps set. Used a credit card to pay for them, too; you needed cash 20 years ago.
Bucci simply used a Square Register to process the payment. Smart dealers, it would seem, make it easier for today’s customers in hopes of earning return business.
“The iPhone, Apple Pay, PayPal — it’s technology,” Galper said.
Despite the new ways to obtain cards, there is something still exciting about going to a card show. To paraphrase Bucci, he sold right — and I bought right. It was fun to dig through the cards and find what I wanted.
“If you want to go to eBay, great. Have fun,” Galper said. “But there’s something about going to a show and seeing the card, holding the card right now, where on eBay you have to wait a week to get the card.
“It’s like being a kid in a candy shop.”
Or at a big top.