For a brief second, the old man's response pushed me back onto my heels. Rarely am I at a loss for words. This turned out to be one of those times.
"I, uh, hear that they're making a comeback, though." I said.
"Don't go holdin' your breath, young man." He replied.
I grinned sheepishly and turned to make my way around the rest of the store. I felt defeated as I halfheartedly flipped through vintage coins and dusty old records and considered his words. Is he right? Who really collects anymore? Could I really be the only person that has walked into his store in the last couple of years curious about the jumble of cards on display?
I had found this place by accident in a part of town that I had never been to. The buildings and streets were so dilapidated that most businesses had been closed for years. The only storefronts with active tenants were second hand shops, liquor stores, and the usual Cash Advance scam artists. Traffic had been rerouted from this area decades ago when the Interstate replaced the Highway. The “Route 66 Effect” had all but condemned the small “Guns, Jewelry, Coins, and Pawn” that I now stood in.
Halfway around the room, I found a metal locker packed full of old binders. I received a few glances as I laughed out loud, opening and shutting the Velcro flap on the Trapper Keeper full of cards. I don't even remember now what cards were in that binder. The binder's nostalgia had me completely enveloped in the moment.
I carefully removed each of them, one by one, and flipped through the pages, envisioning the kid that had touched them for the last time when they were sold to the shop. I quickly realized the collecting patterns of the person that had owned these cards. Random star cards up front, chronologically sorted commons in the middle andTerry Pendleton, Deion Sanders football cards, and a severely damaged Glavine Rated Rookie at the back.
Then I smiled, realizing that I only recognized this because in the early '90's, I was a Brave's Fan, too.
I grimaced as I picked up a “sealed” wax box of 1988 Fleer. Once again I envisioned a collector, only this time it was a greasy mullet-headed buffoon in a Def Leppard shirt, ironing the packs to reseal them, giggling to his buddy about the sweet Barry Bond's Rookie that he just found. I quickly placed the box back on the shelf.
For the next few minutes I perused the inventory of what most collector's would call junk. I found some old Hoops Basketball that I had entirely forgotten about, tons of gloriously red Donruss, and finally a binder full of 1990 Topps that I need to complete my sets.
“.20 cents a card?” I thought. Ouch.
I sauntered lazily around the last half of the small room and along the way came I across some old 1989 Classic Card Games still sealed in their original packs.
“$12.50 apiece?” I thought again, this time audibly. “These must just be old prices.”
I made my way back to the cards held securely in the locked glass cabinets. They were stacked in neat piles and most were encased in overly thick screw down holders. The rest of them had been placed in top loaders and then shoved as tightly as possible into open shoe box bottoms. I made every attempt to view the cards, switching from one angle to another to see if I could determine anything underneath those sitting on the top of the stacks. A couple of Bo Jackson Rookies, some graded Canseco's, and one DiMaggio Bat card with a $150 sticker on it. I wasn't familiar with the year or the style of the card (until now) and I had no intentions of becoming more familiar with it after I saw the asking price.
After 15 minutes of browsing the merchandise offered, I decided to try to speak to the store owner one last time. I waited patiently on the outskirts, arms folded, listening to the dealer haggle with an irate potential seller about an item that he had brought in to unload for some quick cash.
“I mean, come on, man! It's nicer 'an anthin' you got in this case!” the customer exclaimed.
“I know it's held on 'er with fishin' wire but look here. Do you know who that is on tha' metal thang? Come on, man, it's Jesus Christ! On...HIS Cross!” he bellowed.
I wish that I had embellished on this dialogue in order to make you laugh. Unfortunately, most uneducated people in the South speak this way. This is, literally, word for word, what the customer said. The stereotype wouldn't even exist if someone hadn't created it through their words and deeds.
It made me want to move to Michigan or California or Europe. Instead, I shook my head and left the store.
I drove away considering the words of the clerk. “That market's dead” and “don't hold your breath” played over in my mind like the countless Barry Manilow records he had for sale. I discounted this mentality as being derived from the fact that most of his clients aren't interested in $150 pieces of cardboard, embedded bat pieces or not. I'm sure they pay his electricity bill each month by buying the speakerboxes, cubic zirconia, and huntin' rifles and for that, I think he's right. That market, his market, is dead for sports collectibles.
I considered the .20 cent Topps commons, the $12.50 Classic Game sets, and the $150 DiMaggio Bat Card. Only one of them made sense. I concluded that this individual simply had no concept of pricing for these products and had wisely based these prices on a margin of profit that he considered worthy of the cost.
And then, as I was driving away, it hit me.
“I know that base design.” I said as I sat at one of the many red lights I still had left to go before I got “back across the tracks.”
I rifled through the virtual sports card image database in my head and kept coming up blank. I immediately knew that it was vintage. This was furthered by the fact that he had a badly centered '59 Koufax perched atop one of the stacks. I had only got a glimpse of the corner but I know it's in my head somewhere.
“It's not '52, I would know that anywhere.” I pondered.
1960, 1948, 1971. Everything in between. And that's when I realized what it was. I had only seen a small piece of the cap's brim on the player's head.
“It's the '58 Mantle.” I exclaimed, at roughly the same time that the cars behind me began to exclaim that I should move through the green light.
I made a daring U-turn, wildly glancing around, hoping that blue lights would not be in my immediate future. I had only driven a few miles from the store but 5:30 pm was fast approaching and I wanted to insure that I got back before they left for the day.
I sped into the parking lot and ran back inside, all the while, hoping that “Clem” wasn't still haggling for a better price on his “Jesus Chain”.
For just a moment, let's step outside the story for a brief commercial break:
Have you ever found a rare item in the most unsuspecting of places? Have you ever realized this after the fact only to reenter the establishment in what is widely considered to be a mad dash? If so, was this item of your affection located at a pawn shop in the ghetto?
If you answered yes to all of the questions above, please stop what you're doing and contact your loved ones, appreciative that you are still alive.
This is not a smart thing to do. People in the ghetto, especially people at a pawn shop in the ghetto, do not take kindly to you running through their front door for any reason, '58 Mantles included. In the unlikely event that you are still breathing or that you do not have shards of metal embedded in your body, inflicted by the gunshot wound, consider yourself a walking miracle.
“Now we know! And knowing is half the battle.”
(editor's note: best use of MOJO to date...sweeeet...)
“Can I look at the rest of the cards?” I belted out, all too eagerly.
After the clerk stepped away from the gun rack, he reluctantly obliged. Once again, I moved towards the small display case and pointed to the stack that I wanted to see. Sure enough, it was a '58 Mickey Mantle. I was in shock. I have rarely held a Mantle Card that the number on the back wasn't 7 or that didn't begin with an MHR of some sort. He took the card out of the case and handed it to me.
Remember the stories from your parents/grandparents/great-grandparents about how cards were put into the spokes of the kid's bikes to make the clicking sound? Well, this particular card must have been used in the spokes of a Cadillac to produce the same effect. I have seen British teeth in better condition.
For me, it was still amazing. The stains and creases only made the card more magical. Where had this card been? At what point did someone say, “I don't need this anymore.” Who in their right mind would want to ever part ways with this card?
I am not a rich man and have to wisely spend money on my collection when I can. I realized that this would be as close to owning a Mickey Mantle card from that era as I would ever be. I was ecstatic that the card was so badly damaged.
“I'm walking out of here with this thing for $10 bucks.” I thought to myself.
Logically, my next question was, “how much.”
After about a 10 second pause, the clerk stated, “I don't know.”
“I'm sorry, I said how much.” I replied, certain that he had misunderstood my question, that he thought I had inquired about the year or the set or possibly even the player on the card.
You don't know? This is your store! How can you have anything here that you don't have some kind of price tag for? That's what I wanted to say.
I considered that maybe he thought I was about to try to swindle him out of something valuable. Me running through the front door like a child escaping the summer heat didn't help matters much either, I suppose.
“Well, since I haven't looked at anything else that you have in those stacks, how much would you want for the entire collection?” I asked. I felt that this was the most honest way of purchasing these cards without feeling guilty if there were other valuable items entailed. My question posed an ethical 50/50 chance for both parties involved.
But, once again, my inquiry received the same reply, “I don't know.”
And then, as I attempted to gain some sort of semblance from the situation at hand, he said what each of you have been expecting him to say the entire time. Only, he said it in a way that I feel confident NONE of us has ever heard before. As before, I'm quoting the clerk word for word.
As he pointed to a shelf behind the counter, he stated, “Well, I'd have to go lookin' through that book they send ever' month in the mail and I don't know how long that would take to do. Why don'cha come back in here some day and pick out a handful yer intrested in and we'll have a look see.”
And, just like that I realized that I had probably come as close to that Mantle card as I ever will. I'm sure I can find a better deal on a PSA graded 7 somewhere on the internet for roughly the price that Beckett will tell him to sell his ungraded “1” to me. But, the fact of the matter is, it's not a 1958 Mickey Mantle that I want. It's that particular 1958 Mickey Mantle that I want.
I shook his hand and then thanked him for his time. I told him that I would be back one day to look at the rest of the cards. I intend to, only next time with my son in tow.
Until then I'll ponder the dead market that he spoke of. As of right now, I have to say that I am starting to partially agree with his sentiment. As I drove away from the pawn shop, I couldn't help but wonder that if he's right and this is a dead (or soon to die) market, then who is truly to blame for killing it?