Monday, June 2, 2008

Viva La Vida or Death and All Its Friends

The title of this essay comes from the title of the upcoming Coldplay album, but thinking about it, I thought it applied to what once was the lifeblood of this hobby.  I'm talking about the Hobby Shops.  Card Stores.  Whatever you call them, once they were the heartbeat of the collector.  Hobby stores offered that personal touch.  There was camaraderie and often more emotions were shown in a hobby store than in a Hollywood movie.  If you had a great pull from a pack, the owner and whoever else was present, would be excited with you and the reverse was true.   If you had a pack or box that had crap in it, the owner sympathized with you and sometimes would even throw in a freebie just to make sure you got your money's worth.  However, today these occurrences are rare if they happen at all.  So what happened?  It can be summed up in one word: Technology.

Driving home from the store today, my path takes me by a card store located on a major road that I had been in a few times.  For the past few weeks, I had noticed that there had been no lights on and there were no cars in front of the section of the strip mall where the storefront is located.  Today, my fears were confirmed.  A body art shop, hawking piercing and tattoos instead of game-used patches and autographs, had taken the place of the card shop.  The lone remnant that allowed you to have any idea that a card store was once there was the sign that had not yet been taken down that was among all the other proprietors of the strip mall.  Hanging as if it was left by a criminal trying to flee town, knowing he was being chased, the sign gives one look at the fate of the hobby shop.  Why did it close?  What did the owner go and do after he closed?  I don't know.  I do know that when I went in there, there weren't many people coming in and out.  He also didn't have much new product.  But the exact reason for closure remains a mystery.

By contrast, the card shop I frequent now is located just off a main road, obscured by a building.  If you didn't know where the store was, you might not see it.  However, their business is thriving.  They are always full of new product as well as old product.  The owners are cheerful and talkative and I have never left there, even without a purchase, feeling disappointed.  They've also been in business for decades. How are they doing it?  While they do have higher prices on their boxes and packs, even within the first few days of release, they're making most of their money on the internet.  They have a website where you can search a database of millions of cards from previous years as well as see what new products in stock.  Every time I have visited the store, they have been busy stuffing bubble mailers and packages full of product to be shipped anywhere in the country.  Instead of fighting the beast that is the Internet, they have embraced it and seem to have done well for themselves for it.  The technology allows the product to get to the masses, but what happens when the masses don't want the product?

Technology has changed baseball cards in ways other than eBay sales and ordering cards online.  The technology of cards has changed the way companies market their cards.  It all started with gloss and foil and then came holograms, embossment, die-cuts, chrome, refractors, mirrors, plastic cards, phone cards, pop-ups, puzzles and the biggest change with game-used memorobilia.  Once these technological advances started hitting the shelves, many collectors quit caring about base sets and only cared about inserts.  No more ooh-ing and aah-ing over that base rookie card or superstar.  Only if it's a maroon refraXion die-cut chrome numbered to 10 is it worth anything.  Now that's not saying that all companies are doing is putting out bad product.  Topps' Allen and Ginter has been a hit with set collectors and insert chasers for a few years, although this might be the year that A&G jumps the shark.  Upper Deck puts out enough different sets that everyone should be able to find one set of theirs they enjoy for whatever reason.  

But that's not to say that everything the companies do is in the best interest of the hobby.  With the recent surge in gimmick cards being put out by both Topps and UD, it feels like they both take collectors for sheep being led to the slaughter to hand over their hard earned cash for cards that they'll likely never find in a pack.  In this economy, it's hard for any regular person to spend hundreds of dollars on cards looking for one card or trying to complete a set.  But it seems, at least online, that the collectors have taken off their blinders.  They see that the Emperor has no clothes on.

So where does that leave us now?  The card collecting community is closer than ever thanks to blogs, message boards and other useful tools of the internet.  However, I personally don't think posting a pull or box break on a blog is as exciting as making the big pull live in front of people you have a personal relationship with.  That being said, it's an exciting time to be a collector.  With so many blogs being in the spotlight and being read by people who run the industry, it feels like it might be time for another revolution in the card industry.  And this brings me back to Coldplay.  For the album cover, the band chose to use a painting by EugĂ©ne Delacroix titled Liberty Leading The People (La LibertĂ© guidant le peuple) which commemorates the July Revolution of 1830.  Viva La Vida.  It means "Live the Life" or "Live Long Life".  Viva La vida or death and all its friends.  The card industry will have a long life.  If it can get through the strike year in 1994, it can hold itself up now.  However for a revolution to occur, there will be deaths.  Hobby shops will close, brands and certain card imprints will go by the wayside.  But hopefully it won't all be for naught.  I hope that we see changes that are aimed at what the consumer wants and not what the manufactures THINK the consumer wants.  In this day and age of user-generated content it shouldn't be hard.  Viva la vida.  Viva la revolucion.

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