Its kind of trite to begin a baseball card related blog post with the observation that during the late 80s/early 90s bubble era a lot of people opened sports card shops that ultimately ended up closing within a few years when the bubble burst. I nonetheless open with such a hackneyed observation because that is what this post is actually about - a sports card store that opened (and closed) during the peak of the bubble years.
The store in question was called the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium and it operated in a strip mall in the suburbs of Kingston, Ontario from April of 1991 to June of 1993. The name is a mouthful and there is a small story behind it which I`ll elaborate on below. First though I`d like to back up a bit and describe how this card shop came into existence in the first place. Its basically the story of this awkward kid here:
...and his dad discovering a shared interest in baseball cards. Then that awkward kid becoming a surly teenager and the whole thing coming crashing down, but not before giving the kid and his dad some great memories which I`ll try not to dwell on too much in this post since sentimentality can really kill an otherwise decent story.
1. In the beginning....
The earliest roots of the store date back to 1985 when my dad, an officer in the Canadian army, was posted to an American base in Ramstein West Germany. Until that point in my life I had been raised in a purely Canadian environment in which baseball cards were almost non-existent. On the playgrounds of Ramstein Elementary School, however, I was introduced by my American classmates to my first baseball cards, which were treated as a form of currency among my fellow 4th graders.
West Germany wasn`t an ideal place to begin a baseball card collection since there were no stores that sold them, so during the four years that I spent there I mainly bought or bartered them from friends. When we returned to Canada in the summer of 1989 I had only accumulated about 40 cards, but almost as soon as my feet returned to North American soil my collection exploded. There were two catalysts for this occurrence. One of these was my very first visit to a baseball card store - Cosmic Comics and Baseball Cards. Cosmic Comics was THE store that every boy in the city of Kingston Ontario knew about since it catered to our two main obsessions (comics and baseball cards). It was an eye opening experience for me to suddenly have every pack imaginable available, along with monster boxes full of cards for sale - my mind almost exploded. Within a couple of months I had amassed a pretty good size pile.
The second event was a discovery I made in our garage while going through a box of stuff that had been in storage while we were in Germany. There was a paper bag full of old baseball and hockey cards that had been my dad`s when he was a child. There were over 100 cards, the baseball cards being Topps ones from the 1952, 53 and 54 sets while the hockey ones were Parkhurst cards from the same years. The 1952 Topps cards were all common ones, but the 1953 and 1954 ones included some big name hall of famers like Roy Campanella and Ted Williams:
Finding these cards was not only a big deal to me, but also to my dad, who caught a clear case of childhood nostalgia from them. A glance at the Beckett values of these cards also got both our attentions and my dad started accompanying me on trips to Cosmic Comics and browsing the selection himself. Soon we were also taking in sports card shows which seemed to crop up once every couple of months in the area.
Our mutual venture into the hobby was thus born.
2. From Collectors to Dealers
Within a few months we had amassed a pretty sizeable collection, mostly putting together sets from the late 80s pack by pack. With my own meager allowance this would not have progressed very far, but with my dad on board our purchasing power was pretty decent. We also began accumulating doubles in large quantities which I am guessing was the genesis of most baseball card businesses back then. In the spring of 1990 our neighborhood garage sale gave our father-son joint venture its first market test. We laid out a door that for some reason we had lying around on two saw-horses and voila - instant card shop!
Business was pretty good that day. I have no idea how much we sold, but I do remember saying bye to the rookie cards of Vince Coleman and Matt Williams, which were kind of hot at the time. The only thing that really hurt us was a lack of hockey cards (Canada being Canada).
Over the course of 1990 there was a slow transition as our collecting hobby gradually morphed into a business. We started buying cards from other sports, particularly hockey, not so much because we wanted to collect them but because a sports card business in Canada couldn`t survive on selling baseball cards alone. We also graduated from garage sales to setting up booths at card shows. This is me with our stuff at one in Smiths Falls in early 1991:
My dad built the shelves which the wax boxes are perched on, and had bought a couple of portable glass cases (originally intended for displaying jewellery) to put our more valuable star cards in. Our operation was gradually getting more and more sophisticated. Over the winter of 1990-1991 we did quite a few shows in Kingston and neighboring cities, each time making enough money to make it worth our while, our selection of cards slowly expanding as we went. The business model was pretty simple and helped along by the illogical economics of collecting at the time - the Beckett value of the cards you found in a wax box of almost any set would invariably be higher than what you paid for the box, so busting open boxes to sell singles was a viable strategy. We also started getting boxes from a wholesaler rather than through retail outlets, which allowed us to sell wax packs for a profit.
3. The Store Opens
By the spring of 1991 we were ready for the big time. Opening a fully autonomous store was a bit beyond our means - my dad still had his day job in the army and I was a student so neither one of us could man a shop during the daytime. And while our stock was enough to fill up a table at a card show it really wasn`t enough to fill up an entire store. But my dad came up with an idea that would allow us to get around that.
PVR was the name of a video rental store at a strip mall just up the block from our place. It was a well known landmark for local kids and teenagers since in addition to renting videos and video games it also had a small arcade in it and stocked comics and junk food. It was basically the only store that kids in the Grenadier village subdivision could walk to that sold stuff that they wanted.
It also had a bit of extra space.
My dad negotiated a contract with the manager of PVR. For 300$ a month we would set up shop in a corner of their store. Our little shop would basically be a booth which had two modes. During the day when my dad and I were at work/school we would be in `closed` mode, which involved pushing the glass showcase we had (something my dad got from a department store liquidation sale) against the wall and hiding all the single cards. Only wax packs would be visible to customers during those hours and these could be purchased at PVR`s cashier, with the proceeds of any sales being passed on to us at the end of each month.
The second mode was `open` mode, in which we would push the showcase away from the wall to make a little space for someone to stand behind it, adding a little plank on one end that would be covered in merchandise to fully enclose it. The store would be in `open` mode from 4PM until PVR`s closing time at 9PM on weekdays, and all day on the weekends. In April of 1991 we moved in and officially opened business, this is a picture of us setting up for opening day (my dad is on the left, I`m the guy behind the counter in the middle wearing the black jacket, my sister is on the right. The person in the red T-shirt must have been one of our first customers).
As I mentioned earlier, the store was called the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium and my dad had a huge sign made with that emblazened in huge letters (visible in the above photo, it was placed in the window of PVR after that day). At the time I despised it and was acutely concerned about the ways in which my peers would use such a klunky sounding title that incorporated my last name to mock me. My dad was firmly committed to it though and no amount of complaining on my part would change his mind. `The Great McGinty` is the title of a 1940 movie about a fictional depression era politician starring Brian Donlevy as the title character. It has nothing to do with sports cards, but my dad thought it was a very witty reference. As he was to discover though the average customer in an early 90s sports card store in a suburban Ontario strip mall was a Philistine with very limited knowledge of obscure early 20th century film history. Nobody ever caught the reference. In hindsight though I have developed an affection for it - if nothing else it was certainly unique.
Anyway, any problems I may have had with the name were easily offset by the fact that at the age of 14 I had the ideal job: baseball card store clerk! After coming home from school each day I would head over to PVR and turn the shop into `open` mode and take my place behind the counter. I usually had a three hour shift, with my dad coming in to take over at around 7PM.
Regulars: mostly middle aged to older men who would come in to chat and buy packs of whatever they were collecting. We would hold a monthly raffle for prizes like packs of cards or small boxed sets, usually three prizes were up for grabs each month and the policy being that you could put your name into the raffle with each purchase. I feel enough time has passed to admit the scandalous fact that we often rigged these raffles so that our regulars would at least get one of these prizes each month.
My high school classmates: Some of my classmates were into cards and on any given day at least one of them would invariably come by, though usually they were just there to buy candy or rent videos at PVR. Some of these were my friends, who were always welcome though they seldom bought anything. Some of them were bullies who I had to watch like a hawk because they would steal stuff whenever the opportunity presented itself. Some of them were girls that I liked, which would send me into spiraling depths of self-loathing and insecurity because of a lack of knowledge on my part as to whether they a) though baseball cards weren`t cool, or b) had seen the sign with the store name on it.
Moms buying stuff for their kids: Pretty self explanatory I guess, these could be pretty lucrative customers.
People trying to low-ball you: There was this one customer whose name we didn`t know but we called him low-Beckett guy because whenever he wanted a card we had he would ignore the price tag and just say `the low Beckett on that is 2$, I`ll take it for that`. Being a Canadian store we were in the practice (as were pretty much all Canadian ones) of pricing things a bit higher than Beckett because the Canadian dollar was worth less than the American one, so this was particularly annoying. We almost never acquiesced to these requests unless it was a card we wanted to get rid of (which rarely happened) and the predictability of the exchange meant that we genuinely began to hate seeing that guy and would say stuff like `Oh crap, low-Beckett guy is in the parking lot` whenever he approached.
4. The Store Expands
Business the first year went well and our stock continued to increase. Pretty much every family trip we took in that time period would involve stops at places where we might find baseball cards, which was massively fun for me (my personal collection flourished as well). In the summers of 1991 and 1992 we went down to Cooperstown to scourge the multiple card shops there for vintage stuff that wasn`t available in Kingston, coming back with the family van stuffed with cards and memorabilia. This ultimately created a need for us to expand the business in two ways. To begin with, the business hired its first (and ultimately only) non-family member employee: my best friend Mike. Mike was a classmate of mine who lived in a house right behind the strip mall in which PVR was located. We were both baseball fans and a lot of my high school life was spent sitting in the basement of his house watching games on TV or doing other high-school-kids-without-girlfriends type of stuff.
Balancing the needs of the store with work/school/family commitments had proven too much for my dad and I alone so when he casually inquired if any of my friends might want a job, Mike was an easy choice.
The second way the store expanded was physically. The little booth we had was nowhere near big enough to house stock that we were building up, so dad renegotiated the agreement with PVR and came away with a pretty good deal. For an extra 100$ a month they cleared away a much larger space that roughly tripled the size of the shop. Dad picked up a couple of additional glass showcases (I think from a Zellers that was selling off excess equipment, he was pretty good at tracking stuff like that down) and the store took the form seen in the above photo (of me and Mike) sometime in early 1992.
These changes served to greatly enhance what was already an ideal job for me - now we had a lot more space to work with and I was working with my best friend. Things were great, though admittedly discipline waned somewhat as Mike and I tended to treat the store more as a hangout spot rather than a place where we actually did work. When I saw the film Clerks a few years later the approach to customer service taken by the character Randall seemed like a (somewhat exaggerated) version of our own. Customers just felt kind of like an annoying distraction when you were trying to have a discussion about Don Mattingly or some girl in your grade that you both liked. This led to a certain amount of tension with my dad and was part of a general rebellious trend that my fifteen year old self was starting to exhibit.
Our expanded store continued to do pretty well despite these disciplinary issues. It never turned a major profit but it didn`t lose money either. Labor costs were kept low by the fact that my dad didn`t pay himself and what he paid me I mostly spent on cards anyway (in retrospect I would have been better advised to have invested it in something a bit sounder than packs of 1992 Donruss...). Mike and I also set up shop together at a few shows under our own names separate from the Great McGinty store (a conflict of interest that my dad was kind enough to turn a blind eye to).
All told, in a few short years we had gone from buying our first price guide to running one of the biggest sports card shops in town (quite a bit smaller than Cosmic Comics but still pretty big). It was also, by far, the biggest thing I would ever do with my dad, which alone made it a pretty wonderful thing to have been a part of.
5. The End Cometh
The stories of the end of most bubble era baseball card shops generally surround the collapse of the bubble itself in the mid to late 1990s, but the end of the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium played out quite a bit different than that. My dad was still in the army throughout the store`s existence and in early 1993 he was informed that he would be transferred to Ottawa that summer for his next posting.
The news was pretty devastating for me. Uprooting a teenager from his friends and school is tough enough, but uprooting a teenager with a dream job that he did with his best friend is a level up from that. Mike was pretty bummed about it too. The staff at PVR, who were mostly teenagers themselves, had also become our friends and we were pretty sad to say goodbye to them too.
But there was no way around it - in June of 1993 the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium would sell its last card. We made the announcement publicly a couple of months before the end came, using that time to have some sales to try to get rid of as much stock as we could. The regulars we had come to know came in a lot during those last days. My main memory of that time is basically just stewing in melancholy and depression while awaiting the inevitable. The last day we packed everything up into a van and the space that played such an important role in my life for more than two years reverted to its old role as shelf space for videos at PVR.
We brought all of the remaining stock and even some of the equipment (shelfs, etc) with us when we moved to Ottawa a month later, but the business was more or less over at that point. I was 16 years old at that time and my interests quickly moved away from baseball cards, probably because I was so disappointed (and in typical teenage fashion, angry at my parents) about having to move and leave my friends and the happy little niche I had carved out for myself behind that I just wanted to forget about it. My dad tried setting up the shop at a regular flea market that was held on Sundays using the old stock and even the Great McGinty sign, but I didn`t want to have anything to do with it anymore and after a couple of years of middling sales (the bubble was bursting by that point) he packed that up and the family business was truly gone for good.
6. Postscipt September 2015
22 years after the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium closed I found myself, 38 years old and with a son of my own, standing in a garage behind a house in Victoria, BC. After the completion of his posting in Ottawa dad had retired in 1997 and the family moved out to the west coast. I didn`t join them, instead staying in Ottawa to finish my university studies and then moving to Japan a couple of years later, where I started my own family and find myself today.
Before doing so my life had given me one last look at PVR. In 1995 I joined the army reserves (had to pay for university somehow!) and was sent of all places to Canadian Forces Base Kingston to do my General Military Training (boot camp), just up the road from our old store. Somehow towards the end of the course I got a precious day off and was able to meet Mike, who was still living next to the strip mall, and we walked over to PVR to see Teri, one of the staff who had worked there with us. We chatted a bit about the old days (which were only 2 years behind us at that point) and I got my last glimpse of the place. A few years later PVR itself went bankrupt, Mike left Kingston and I lost all connections to the place. I`m not sure what business occupies that storefront now.
Anyway, as I stood in that garage last September I was looking through old boxes of stuff that survived through the years and I stumbled upon this:
It is the baseball stars box in which the Great McGinty Sportscard Emporium sold cards of the stars. My dad actually made this, the player`s names are written in his handwriting, before the store even opened and reflects the names of players who were considered stars in 1990. If you look in the photo of me at that card show in Smiths Falls above you can see this same box in the middle of the table. Its a weird thing to find, almost like a time capsule frozen in that moment. We updated it a bit during the store`s lifetime but even in 1993 it had a lot of guys who were no longer stars in it. Looking through easily half the players are guys who never made it big or did so only briefly - Kevin Maas, Ben McDonald, Eric Anthony, Glenn Davis, Chris Sabo and Mark Langston to name a few. I pulled out cards of the 1989 Rookie of the Year award winners, Jerome Walton
And in the American League Gregg Olson
Each still had the handwritten price tag my dad put on them a quarter century earlier.
Seeing it frozen like that for the first time since I was a teenager brought the memories flooding back. I wanted to keep it, this felt like something really important whose survival in this form for so many years almost warrants its preservation. But alas my task as I sorted through those boxes was to get rid of stuff - my parents, now in their 70s, need more storage space, and devoting space to what is essentially a box full of worthless baseball cards isn`t particularly rational. So I grabbed a few cards of hall of famers and put the rest, box and all, into a pile to be disposed of. Before doing so I took the above photos for the sake of posterity.
All is not lost though, the big sign for the store my dad had made back then is flat enough that it can be stored in a sliver of space against a wall without obstructing anything, so it lives on as the last physical remnant of our little store. Perhaps when my son is a teenager I will take it out and open a store just for the sake of embarrassing him with its ludicrously klunky name, being sure to quiz his friends to see if they get the movie reference when I do so.