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Between the Coronavirus, the internet and some people willing to spend some money on their hobbies, the sports cards and memorabilia industry may be at its biggest boom ever, and local business owner Robert Collins is happy to see that trend continue.
Collins is the owner and operator of Ultimate Sports Cards located on Cassells Street in North Bay and says the reason he wanted to open his own cards and collectibles store was by helping with a trade show over 25 years ago.
“I got out of college when I was about 20 years old, and that’s when I decided to venture some kind of business,” says the North Bay native Collins.
“I took business, but I just wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. Obviously, I had a love for sports, but I helped out a gentleman run a card show about 24 years ago and I just realized how fun it was.”
Collins says he’s always been a people person and the interactions with people who had a love for card collecting and memorabilia was what really fueled that passion.
“It was meeting the people; I think that really helped everything. You have to know your clients, you have to know what they like and what they are looking for. And to get into an industry that is sports orientated, for me it was just the right industry to get in. Looking back, I have no regrets about making that choice, although the first few years it was a struggle. But you pull through and you get to the next level,” says Collins.
For the first five years, he says it was a grind just to stay afloat.
“The only way to get your name out back in the day was to go to trade shows and run your own trade shows,” he says.
“I ran trades shows in North Bay at three different locations; West Ferris Arena, Inn on the Bay, and the old Centre des Compagnons building. We ran shows once a month, every month for 10 years, and it is a tremendous amount of work. But that’s how you got your name out there back then, that’s how you got to know people, and you got to have face-to-face interactions with people. I did a ton of shows here, but then also went to shows in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Really, anywhere in southern Ontario. In those first five years, I was gone either every weekend, or every second weekend to be at those shows and while it was a great experience, I would never do that again today, nor do you have to.”
Collins says everything right now happens around having an online presence, but he says getting those initial clients were all from those early trade shows.
"People always ask me, ‘how do you have so much clientele in such a small area?’ and even the distributors, companies like Upper Deck, they ask ‘how can you be so busy with such a small population?’ Well, it's due to the fact that it has never ended for me. You can never put anything to rest, you always have to move forward, and so pushing myself to go to these shows and keep putting myself out there is how I got all my clients,” he says.
“Every time you meet someone and have a conversation it just becomes a referral and that’s how you have to approach it. I always say, ‘I don’t care how much money you spend the first time you come in, I just want you to come in for the rest of your life.’ And that’s what this is, this is a hobby. You’re not just walking into some store and buy something and leaving. This is the place where we want you to come in and enjoy the interaction and you want to come back again.”
Collins has been able to build a reputable business and carry the top brands of the trading card industry.
“We are certified diamond dealers. You can’t just go and open and store and expect to get the Topps (Baseball) or Upper Deck (Hockey) or Panini America cards (Football and Basketball) which basically run our industry,” he says.
“They do more than just those sports including NASCAR or The Walking Dead trading cards or things like that. But to get a store opened up now it would be very difficult to become another certified diamond dealer in North Bay because we just don’t have the population for it.”
The industry has also changed in the last few decades as they realized the demand for cards would be greater if they weren’t producing as many as they used to.
“There isn’t a lot of product out there anymore, you are given only so much product and then that’s it,” says Collins.
“It’s not like the 1990s where they produced a lot of product and that’s why the demand is so high now and that’s why everything becomes more of an investment. It’s a hard business to get into now. Ten years ago, anybody could have opened up a store.”
That also means there are a lot of cards floating around in the market that just don’t have the value people might hope it has.
“The number one phone call we get every day is from someone saying, ‘I have hockey or baseball cards for sale’ and the first thing we tell them is that if it’s from the 1990s, there isn’t going to be a ton of value in the cards,” says Collins.
“It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is, we had mass production in the 90s and we have less production in 2021. But that’s great for our industry because everything has a higher value.”
He says there are lots of options to trade and buy and sell those cards online, but he adds, “That generally doesn’t really affect us. That’s a whole different world from what we do. That isn’t always the same clientele that is coming into our specialty store, you’re more just looking for the ‘deal of the century’ in a sense and generally speaking, you’re probably going to pay a little bit more through those sites because you get caught up in those bidding wars. So that’s not an avenue for us, but we do use EBay for sure, and we generate good revenue now through our website.”
Collins says the rookie cards are really what drives the industry.
“We pray in our industry that these hotshot young guys are the real deal and not a flash in the pan essentially,” says Collins.
“These athletes get promoted so much before they ever even play a single professional game and so it’s a very daring risk to make those investments in those players’ cards. If those players don’t make an immediate impact, people start to panic, and then they want to dump those cards. It is such an investment and it's not just about collecting anymore, it's tangible items that people want now and it has really exploded into more of an investment market.”
Collins says that means their store needs to have items that not only are people going to want but items that are authentic.
“What we have tried to do throughout the decades is become a store that is reputable. So, when you’re buying, let’s say a Wayne Gretzky item, well he has his own authentic approval company, so you know that it's actually from him. It’s way more expensive to get those items, but you know with 100 percent certainty that it's his autograph. So, all our merchandise comes from those types of companies,” he says.
“People do come in with their own personal autographed items and it's very difficult to resell because then I would have to go through the process of getting it authenticated and there’s a lot of work in getting that done. And then when you’re trying to sell it, the person on the other end wants to have that guarantee and so that’s why we get a lot of stuff from the athletes’ personal websites. We do look at a lot of the auctions as well on MLB.com or NHL.com but sometimes that’s really geared toward the people with the big deep pockets, but it's really fun to look. And it’s an advantage for us to know what certain items cost.”
Collins has been able to start his business from ground zero and not only have sustainable success for himself but also, he has been able to provide a job for others.
“We have two full-time employees right now, and I’ll be looking to hire a third part-time employee as soon as we’ve done our renovation. It’s a great feeling to be able to provide that opportunity for people,” he says.
“On the flip side of things, it does put some more pressure on you because the more money you are paying out, the more work you have to do. But that’s just the way business is, and it has been great having employees. We’ve probably had employees now for at least 20 years. It has always been local people, one of my employees that works in the store full-time has been with me for close to eight years now.”
The store is currently undergoing a renovation which Collins is very excited about.
“We are opened during the next two months out of the back of the store, but we are very excited to be able to have more space, and that way we can finally showcase some of that stuff that has been sitting in the basement for the last 20 years,” he says.
Collins says of all the items he has ever come across, the one that might be his favourite is something he just recently acquired.
“I’m a big fan of collecting unopened boxes from the 1970s all the way up to now. One of my favourite items is an unopened pack of 1951 Parkhurst. That is Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, and Terry Sawchuck’s rookie year. I’ve had this for a couple of months now and I really haven’t shown it to anybody. I’ve let a couple of customers take a look and eventually I will post it online so everyone can see it, but that’s probably my most prized possession, and its nowhere near the value of some of the other stuff I have put away, but it’s just the idea that, well when was the last time you saw a pack from that era that was unopened?”