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No more gold in the cards, just the love of the game

Investors back off, but hobbyists stay true

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2009
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Lester Goverman sees something very different these days in the people who come to his Framingham trading card shop. Investors have all but disappeared.

"There's no investors in this," said Goverman, 65, the owner of Framingham Sports Cards on Edgell Road. "I sell everything as a hobby. I will never tell anyone something's going to go up in value."

Trading card collecting has had a roller coaster history.

Youngsters in previous generations used to put Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams cards in the spokes of their bicycles and pitch them against cement walls. Those kids grew up to be adults who kicked themselves and cringed when rare vintage cards skyrocketed in value, often worth thousands of dollars.

Trading cards, especially baseball cards, enjoyed a heyday in the 1980s and '90s, when the hobby became a billion-dollar business, and rookie cards of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens were all the rage. Even the rookie card of Jose Canseco - author of the book "Juiced" - was once worth $100. That was before overproduction and, later, player scandals burst the card bubble, leaving stores out of business and a hobby teetering on the edge of survival.

Today, shop owners and others in the industry say the investors have all but gone, but the hobbyists and collectors - people who buy trading cards purely for fun and enjoyment - have been making a comeback.

"It's been good. It's been the best its been in a couple years," said Neil Churchill, 39, the owner of Heather's Sports Cards in Wayland. Churchill has bought and sold cards for about 20 years and recently took over the storefront of the former Premiere Sports Cards.

"I think it's on the upswing," he said. "There are so many difference varieties of cards and options like jersey cards" - which include a small piece of the pictured player's uniform - "and autographed cards, stuff the kids really like."

Of course, the dismal economy has hit the trading card business too, and some store owners have seen their operations suffer.

But even though Phil Lung, owner of Baseball Etc. in Newton, said his business is slower than usual, he sees bright spots.

"Baseball cards are doing pretty good right now," said Lung. "The Red Sox are doing well and the Celtics and Pats. A lot of the kids want the local teams."

And people in the business say the pastime has a rich history that will buttress its fortunes as it heads into the future.

"It's a hobby that many people enjoy and one that fathers share with their sons, so by and large there are still consumers for our products," said Chris Carlin, hobby marketing manager for the Upper Deck Co. LLC, a leading trading card producer.

Waltham resident Kathy Raymond recently visited Goverman's Framingham shop with her grandson Jack, who is just beginning to get into the hobby enjoyed by his father and grandfather before him.

"My husband used to [collect cards] and my boys used to do it, and they have tons of albums filled with all these baseball cards they have at home," Raymond said.

Raymond said that 7-year-old Jack is the nephew of a former Red Sox pitcher, Jim Corsi. Jack, holding several dollar bills in his hand, browsed the display cases looking for his favorite players: David "Big Papi" Ortiz and anyone else on the Red Sox.

Churchill, who owns the Wayland store, said the fact that all four of Boston's major sports teams have been doing well makes his job easier, especially with new stars like Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and Bruins left wing Milan Lucic emerging.

"That's a huge factor," said Churchill. "I sold this week tons of Rondo and Lucic autographs. These are players that would never sell before."

Trading cards started in the late 1800s as marketing gimmicks included in packages of tobacco, gum, and candy. The Topps Chewing Gum Co. was created in 1938, at a time when its product was still a novelty. Paper cards with photos and information about popular ballplayers were included to help sell the gum. Around the time of World War II, the cards started to become popular on their own.

Tracy Hackler, spokesman for Beckett Publishing, which releases trading-card price guides each month, said that while the hobby is strong and has deep roots, there is work to be done to keep future generations collecting.

"The hobby has some hurdles to clear, no doubt about it. And the landscape a year from now likely will look dramatically different than it does now," said Hackler. "But the industry has survived down economies and crossroads moments before - and it will again. As long as people love sports and the players who play them, people will love collecting sports cards."

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.

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