Feb. 16—When he was 10 years old, Dennis Kimball sold his first baseball card. He remembers the excitement he felt at the time, and still gets giddy nearly 30 years later when talking about, buying and selling collectibles.
"Don Mattingly 1984 Topps was the first baseball card I ever sold," Kimball said. "I was 10 at the time. I sold it to Scott Dyke on Colfax Street for $20. I rode my bike to Oasis (party store), and I bought $20 worth of packs, and I went home and had a field day opening them. I thought I was the king of the world! I've been wanting to buy and sell stuff ever since."
Buying and selling collectibles has long been big business, whether it's sports cards, comic books, Pokemon and Magic cards, vintage toys, coins, or stamps. But since COVID-19 hit a year ago, the collectibles industry has been on fire.
Todd Lange, who's been dealing comic books since he was 13 and has operated retail collectible stores across West Michigan since the late 1980s, says he has never seen anything like it.
"When you step back and look at a year ago, starting in March, from a retail standpoint, to be honest, we were scared to death," Lange said. "For a guy who's had a shop since 1988, when the government says you have to shut down, no customers ... sure, we have the internet, but that was kind of scary. Then the internet absolutely blew up.
"Last March and April, sales were up five, six, seven times what they were the year before that," he continued. "OK, so not only are we going to survive, but we're going to thrive. Shortly after that — June, July — we started noticing crazy prices on comic books, crazy prices on cards."
Lange attributes that to more people staying home so they have more time to check out collectibles online, coupled with a boost in disposable income thanks to stimulus checks.
"We've been through a lot, and this is easily the largest money-making opportunity ever in the collectible business," Lange said.
No longer child's play
Years ago, collecting was considered kids' play. Now, it's the adults who are most interested in the hobby, whether it's sports cards, comics or toys. One of the main reasons is nostalgia.
"Star Wars is king of toys, and it's not even close," Kimball said. "He-Man is great. Transformers are great. Thunder Cats are super rare. G.I. Joe is super hot. Any of that stuff, still in the package, is super tough to find, and that stuff is real pricey.
"All the people our age, they played with this stuff as a kid. It's 100 percent nostalgia," he added. "Most of the guys, they have money now. What they don't have is the stuff they had as a kid. They don't need to play with it — they want to look at it, have it in the case and have it look awesome. If they have an understanding wife, they get to do that. And, if they don't, then they look the stuff up on eBay and live through that."
Those same people — now in their 30s, 40s and 50s — recall the days of buying packs of baseball cards for about a quarter or so. Open up those packs and you would find 15 cards and a stick of stale gum.
Today, packs of sports cards are vastly more expensive. Instead of gum, they feature cards containing a piece of a jersey, or a player's signature, or a card individually numbered out of a very limited print — if you're lucky, that is.
"It used to cost us 30 cents for a pack," Kimball said. "Now people are paying $4,000 for a box of cards, and you get six cards. Well, I hope those are six good cards!"
To the kids out there who want to start collecting, Kimball provides this advice: "Buy what you want. Collect who you like. Buying packs these days seems ridiculous. The Prism Blaster Box at Meijer were $20, but now you can't find them for less than $120 the day they came out. They never make it to the store. All the people working at the vending company are buying them up themselves. So now you've got a $120 box, and the only card you can pull out of there to break even is the (San Diego Chargers quarterback) Justin Herbert. I say, go buy who you want."
Another change in the collectibles industry is the ease at which people can buy and sell online. Lange said the internet has been a blessing at times, and a curse at others.
"When the Pistons, the Bad Boys, won the championship, I remember driving to Detroit to buy T-shirts, and we sold hundreds of T-shirts, because nobody else really sold them," Lange said. "For us, there are different levels that changed our business, and that was the first one.
"Later, we used to do a tremendous amount of clothing — hockey jerseys, basketball jerseys — and the internet destroyed that," he continued. "For a time, people came in and wanted an (Steve) Yzerman jersey, the only other way they could get it was to order one and it would take two or three months to get it. Once the internet made it possible to ship it to you in a week, our retail clothing business was done. The internet is one of the greatest things ever to happen to us, and it's also killed a large portion of our business."
When Lange was running his collectibles store on Beacon Boulevard in Grand Haven, many of his customers were kids who came in to sort through comics or check out the latest sports cards. That's changed tremendously.
"If kids are involved these days, it's because their mom or dad are interested," Lange said. "I bought my first comics, my first packs of cards, not because my dad did it, but because I went to a flea market with my grandfather. He was buying tools and I bought some comics.
"Now, the interaction you see between kids and parents is different," he continued. "You see parents come in with kids today and enjoy the same stuff. I'm pretty sure I did not enjoy the same things my mom and dad did. I just wasn't that way. In the '70s, I'd go out in the morning, come home for dinner, and that's how it was. My dad and I never played a video game together."
Another massive shift in the collectibles industry is that — thanks in part to Disney purchasing Star Wars and Marvel — being a fan of such things is now considered cool.
"It's now acceptable to be a geek," Lange said. "My kids went to St. John's, and when the parents would get together at Christmas, they'd ask, 'Todd, what do you do?' and when I told them, they'd cringe, like, 'What the hell is that?' Then, all of a sudden, Marvel started making movies in 2008, and now at the Christmas party, you're the most popular guy in the room because everyone wants to know about Spiderman and Batman.
"Socially acceptable is too too strong of a word, but if you grew up in the 1970s and '80s, you didn't go to school and say, 'I collect comic books.' That just wasn't cool."
The introduction of Beanie Babies to the collectibles market led to another change — it brought girls and their moms into the mix.
"The hobby industry never made anything for the girls, and all of a sudden, girls and their mothers started buying Beanie Babies, and they learned they could make money off it," Lange said.
From time to time, people stumble across long-lost collections of cards, comics or other collectibles. Kimball relies on word-of-mouth to get in contact with those people. He recently quit his full-time job as a manager of several Menards stores and now strictly buys and sells collectibles.
He can list off the best cards from each year like a preacher quoting the Bible, and he'll go anywhere to find the right collections.
"Once I drove to Superior, Minnesota, and back — it took me 29 hours — to buy a collection of comic books," Kimball said. "I was so tired, when I got home, I slept for a long time. Then I went through it all, and it was so worth it. This is what I do for a living, and I love it.
"If people want to send me pictures of what they have, I can tell you what stuff is worth," he added. "If you want to sell stuff, call me — I'll tell you what it's worth and what I'll pay for it, and if you like that number, we'll make a deal. If you don't, at least I got to see some cool stuff and we got to talk about them."
You can contact Kimball through his Facebook page by searching "AverysShoebox." Lange can be found at his store in The Lakes Mall, Lange's Comics and Collectibles, or on Facebook by searching "Lange's Comics and Collectibles."