Into The World of the Dealer

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Years ago while walking hundreds of miles at sports shows hunting out new treasures, I’d often wonder what it was like to stand on the other side of the booth as a dealer.  Fellow collectors who had worked as dealers and even owned their own stores shared that while business was good, the real bonus was the pieces of memorabilia people offered for sale or trade.  This was a great way to enhance your own collection as a dealer getting the first right of refusal.  The business of collecting was very competitive so any step up on other collectors would only benefit me in finding new pieces to add to my collection and in particular the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It did make a lot of sense when I thought about it.  What better way to find out what an item was worth, then showing it to a dealer.  It also would give me an opportunity to gauge peoples’ expectations about their memorabilia.

During the summer of 1992, I was offered the chance to set up a booth at the CNE.  The sports memorabilia craze was still running on all cylinders and everyone was trying to grab a piece of the action. The CNE had success setting up a small area the year before in the Queen Elizabeth Building and decided to expand on it that summer by adding additional booths.

The designated area inside the building was large enough for twenty dealers to set up booths with tables, to sell their wares.  The “EX” ran for 21-days from mid-August until Labour Day weekend.

I sought out some advice on what items to offer besides some of the doubles I had acquired to sell at our booth.   One of the larger card dealers I’d become familiar with over the years guided us about which products, would or would not sell.  Both my brothers were onside to help along with a family friend.  The days would be long, from 9am-10pm for the 21 days the EX was open.  I’d take a few weeks vacation to work alongside them.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the toast of the town and attendance would surpass 4-million, as the Jays would become the first team outside of the USA to win the World Series that October.

The Leafs wouldn’t become relevant until the following year when the benefits of the Doug Gilmour trade really took hold.  But the Leafs still had that cache of hope, so they always figure in the minds of the Toronto collector.

Anything with a Blue Jay logo on it was in demand.  The hottest cards belonged to Robbie Alomar, Dave Winfield, Joe Carter and Juan Guzman.  So while we were loaded up with plenty of Blue Jays items including all of the above we needed additional product.   I spent the previous 5 months on weekends travelling the US scouring flea markets, swap-meets, card shows, memorabilia stores, antique stores, any place to find product, mostly the Jays.  I bought 100 Dave Winfield rookie cards I spotted in the bottom of a cabinet at a second hand furniture store, in South Carolina.  The American collector had little or no interest in Blue Jays cards or any kind of memorabilia associated with them, so I was able to accumulate a substantial inventory of Jay’s pieces.  I also managed to acquire most of the key players from the rest of baseball as well.  I bought anything I thought we could turnover and make money.  I’d spend hours leafing through binders of low-end cards looking for anything Blue Jay and Maple Leaf related.

Saturday mornings when not travelling to a show in Ontario or somewhere in the States, I’d head to Buffalo to the local flea market that had attracted numerous sports memorabilia dealers.  Leaving home before 7am I could make it to Buffalo, work the room and be home just after midday.

I made some strange purchases and met some real characters during that time.

A very bored, tired and depressed looking dealer one time sold me his whole table for $180.  I was after a couple Leaf and Jay’s items along with a few popular baseball players’ rookie cards and we were about $20 apart when he muttered something about hoping he could move these items so he could quit.  He was tired of the cutthroat aspect and didn’t have the cash to compete with all the new dealers that kept showing up week after week.   So I asked how much for the whole table?  He said $200 and I offered $180.  I figured there was $500 in value but I’d probably be stuck with a few of the items for a while.  We did the deal and I never saw him again.

Traveling back to Toronto one weekend, I was passing through Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when I noticed the Sheraton Hotel had an advertisement for a card show that day.  Quickly veering off the highway at the next exit I headed right to the show.  I knew exactly what I was looking for, so I thought I could work this room quickly and make aggressive bids for things I might find and be on my way.  I also knew Rocket Ismail came from the area.   Rocket who had starred at Notre Dame, passed on the NFL and signed an unheard of offer for $18.2 million over four years with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.  The Argos, were owned by the flamboyant Bruce McNall; Wayne Gretzky and John Candy were part owners of the team.  Rocket was an instant success in Toronto and I thought maybe I could find a few “Rocket” pieces to take home.  I actually ended up trading a Rocket Ismail CFL rookie card valued at $150-200 dollars for a package of baseball rookie cards, including 15 Mark McGuire first year cards.  Ironically I’d acquired the Rocket rookie the day before at a flea market in a trade for McDonalds baseball packs of cards.  These cards were the Canadian version so tougher to find in the USA; I’d bought 500 packs at a buck a piece from a McDonalds manager a few weeks earlier at a show in Pickering Ontario.  They were being very restrictive in the sale of these cards and a purchase of a McDonald product was necessary to buy a pack of these cards.  I had parlayed a 100 of these packs into a thousand dollars in trade value from the dealer at the flea market, so my cost on the Rocket was marginal and the product I acquired along with the Ismail rookie, I knew I’d at least triple my money at home.

Walking through the show I noticed there wasn’t a lot of Blue Jays items and when I questioned a dealer why that was, he pointed to a tall well-built, very familiar looking guy across the room.

“Who is that guy, I know him,” I said curiously.

“I’m not from around here but they said he played in the NHL or something,”

“Chris Kotsopoulos, he played here I think and now lives here,” said a guy behind me eavesdropping on our conversation.

I noticed Chris eyeballing me with a look of disdain.  He of course was from Toronto and had played for the Leafs.

“Your wasting your time looking for Jays stuff; I got all that was for sale in this room,” he said with a hint of arrogance as we introduced ourselves.  Without my asking he reached under the counter of his booth and showed me a stack of Guzman and Alomar rookies he’d picked up earlier.

“Want to turn them over, I’ll buy them all from you,” I said, thinking all he can say is no.

“What you think I’m stupid? I know what these are worth and I’ll be moving these in Toronto when I go home next weekend for a big profit.”

A crowd was now gathering around us and even though no prices had been discussed, I was on his turf and he was putting on a show for the locals.  Some yahoo from Toronto wasn’t going to waltz around the room and take advantage of us.  So I smiled, wished him luck and moved to the next booth.  I still questioned every dealer if they had any Jay’s cards particularly the Guzman, Alomar, Winfield or Carter rookies.

Life as a dealer while rewarding in the sports memorabilia world is also very time consuming and no stone can be left unturned.  I would be out for dinner with friends and if I spotted a card store or an antique store or anything that may uncover a treasure not only for my own collection (which was the whole point of this) but something unusual I could offer on my table for sale, I’d excuse myself and browse the store.  Everyone was very tolerant with my increasing need to discover the “find.”

The dealer who was going to supply us with product for our display table suggested a variety of cards to offer for sale.  All the other dealers would be offering the obvious sets, packs and boxes.  The idea was to distinguish yourself from the others so the collector would spend more time at your table.

“Harley Davidson cards, are you nuts?” I screamed at him. “Who in their right mind would buy those? And basketball cards, Hook, Disney, cartoon stickers, we are supposed to be sports orientated.”

“You will be, I’m just giving you ideas how to make money.” Said our supplier.

Well after some real convincing and arm twisting I reluctantly relented and went along with the plan.

Little did I know I would be in for the shock of my life that August of 1992.

Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll speak about some of the surprises I came across working the “EX” that summer.