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Sports card retailers eat dust as eBay hits HR with traders

Behind the counter of the sports cards store Hoopla, Cameron Purdy carefully extracts a Babe Ruth card, encased in acetate, from the 2002 Topps Tribute series.

Far from an ordinary card, it contains a wafer-thin piece of the Bambino's bat. It's valued at $200. The gamble that a pack will contain one of the prized cards, though, is high, and so is the price: A pack of Topps Tribute cards costs $60.

'Regular cards aren't enough anymore: People want pieces of the player themselves,' says Purdy, whose store sits at 4210 N.E. 122nd Ave. 'Uniform swatches, pieces of pants, shoes, even dirt from a pitcher's mound.'

He grins, and deadpans, 'Baseball cards aren't what they used to be.'

Neither is the sports trading card market. Despite the rise in quality and creativity in the cards, Portland's storefront trading card dealers Ñ once a strong Rose City retailing force Ñ have seen their fortunes sink.

Part of the change relates to Oregon's dismal economy. Much of it, though, is because of eBay, the online trading conglomerate that has grown popular with traders of sports collectibles worldwide.

The card shop landscape is littered with casualties, including the Portland Sports Card Co., which served as a collector's Mecca in Irvington for years.

Other longtime shops, such as Home Field Inc. in the city's Gateway district and the venerable Dugout on Southeast Division Street, also closed this year. Shuttered card shops, many of which opened during sports cards' heyday in the late 1980s, litter the suburbs as well.

'About 10 years ago, the phone books listed about 80 card shops around town,' said Randy Archer, owner of Baseball Cards & More, 11937 S.E. Stark St. 'Now there are fewer than 20.'

Adds Purdy: 'There aren't many opening up. And those that are don't have the capital to keep it going.'

Archer and Purdy are lucky. As a result of steps such as diversifying their merchandise Ñ Purdy is making a killing on the Yu-Gi-Oh game card craze Ñ both of their stores are profitable and continually adding product lines.

Where's the money?

Trading cards, part of the 'collectibles' investment realm, arguably provide a glimpse of how consumers are spending their disposable income.

Between September and October this year, Americans saw their per capita disposable income decrease by $50 per household, according to recent economic statistics released by the White House. What's more, median household income dropped 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2001.

And, while card retailers used to require a storefront and a business plan, now they need only an Internet connection; eBay hosts about 200,000 online card auctions at any time.

Tags on the Topps Tribute carry premium prices, even though the proliferation of dealers in the market has softened card prices.

'People in the boondocks can buy or sell singles now; they don't have to travel to stores like ours,' Archer says.

Purdy has accepted the development. He even hired a full-time employee, James Wolcott, to monitor the auction Web site.

And he's had many eBay selling successes. He recently moved one rare card, of Seattle Mariners sensation Ichiro Suzuki, for $600 to a Japanese bidder. It is an autographed 2001 Upper Deck Ultimate Collection card, of which only 50 were made.

Just like Wall Street

Much of his store's business these days comes from game cards, used by customers who compete in strategic fantasy contests. Purdy, who made a small mint from Pokemon, now milks the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card trend for all it's worth, hosting regular Saturday game sessions.

'Sometimes, it's like the pit of the New York Stock Exchange in here,' he says.

Which relates somewhat to collectibles serving as an economic indicator, says John Mitchell, Western region economist for U.S. Bank.

'At a time when there's been problems in financial markets, general distrust and fraud,' he says, collecting 'is kind of interesting. But after that, it's better to look at some real stuff.'

Then again, it's more fun to look at items such as an 1893 Old Judge tobacco ad. Such ads are popular because they were a precursor to trading cards. Purdy will sell the Old Judge item on eBay for $300 to $500.

The item seems innocuous until one notices that it contains an illustration of a diaper-clad tot smoking a pipe.

'Yep, they don't make 'em like they used to,' Purdy says with a laughs.

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..