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Illinois Card Shop Going Strong After 30 Years

Jim n Steve's Sportscard Shop is celebrating 30 years in the business in 2011, now sports an inventory in the tens of millions and now looking to get more into the memorabilia market.

A lot of dealers get asked how they got started as a business in the hobby. Many of the answers involve collecting as a youth and just expanding from there. For Steve Wilson, that’s part of the story. The other part involves an entrepreneurial dad, a lack of space and being a pioneer in the Waukegan, Ill., area.

When your dad is on the road buying gold and silver, you tend to pick up some things along the way, both material and conceptual. It was that driven, entrepreneurial spirit that brought Jim n Steve’s Sportscard Shop to life in 1981 (ph: 847-244-1981) and has kept the business thriving for the past 30 years. All it took was a trip to the 7 Mile Fair, a few ads and the business was off and running.

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In 1978-79 Steve’s dad, Jim, took his son to the famous 7 Mile Fair between Milwaukee and Chicago. It was a nice experience and all, but Steve said there was nothing there he didn’t already have. What he wanted was cards, and his dad ran with it, using the same business practices he used buying silver and gold.

Steve’s dad placed ads, stating “Buying old baseball cards,” and they started coming in by the shoebox loads.

“My dad would come home late on Sunday, and I would wait up,” Steve said.

“He’d come in with Banks rookies, Clemente rookies. Eventually, it got to the point where my mom said, ‘Enough is enough, the basement is cluttered, the living room is cluttered.’ ”

At the time, gold and silver were starting to decline, so Steve’s dad said they could find a little spot to work out of and go from there. Soon, they were the first sportscard shop between Milwaukee and Chicago.

“We opened up in the size of a one-car garage at first,” Steve said. The store’s size was just a couple hundred square feet. Three months later, they moved to 600 sq. ft. It would later grow to 900 sq. ft., 1,800 sq. ft. and then in 2001, the 6,000-sq.-ft. store/warehouse that currently houses Jim n Steve’s Sportscard Shop.

But how do you go from buying from your house to housing a 20-million card inventory? “My dad said, ‘We always make an offer on everything.’ It’s how we built our inventory,” Steve said. “As time went on, we started buying collections, and we already had most of them. That’s how we started, selling off our doubles.”

Steve said he still has a personal collection of cards, as he and his dad never sold any cards they already didn’t have.

“If we bought a ’52 Mantle, and it was the first one we ever bought, we’d keep it,” Steve said. “Many a days, my dad would say, ‘How am I supposed to make any money? You keep everything.’ ”

Jim passed away in 2007, but you can tell in talking to Steve what an influence Jim had on him. Stories of his father constantly roll off Steve’s tongue, from sayings to business practices to the beliefs his dad passed down. It was always father and son when it came to this business.
When Jim was driving to order a sign for the store with an idea already in mind, – Jim’s Sportscard Shop – Steve said, “What about me?” Well, you know how that turned out.

In 1987, when Steve graduated high school, he went to college for a week, then quit – for good reason.

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“I was sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing going to school to learn business when my dad could teach me as much as anybody?’ ” Steve said. “He had run several businesses before he even got into the card business. I’ve never worked for anybody else. I don’t know what I’d be doing today if I didn’t have the shop.”

Steve started buying the business from his dad from 1987-’91, but the influence is always present.

“My dad would say, ‘We always try to have whatever somebody was looking for,’ ” Steve recalled. “Obviously, it was impossible to have everything, but if somebody had a list of 10-15 cards, we’d ideally like to have all of them, but we’d like to have 7 of the 10 cards. You always wanted someone to say at least they had some of them. You never wanted them to say, ‘There is no use going back, they don’t have anything.’ ”
With that philosophy, you become the source of one of the biggest card inventories in the country. When it comes to size, Steve ranks only Burbank Sportscards (Calif.) run by Rob Veres among his peers.

“Rob and I have the two largest single-card inventories in the country,” he said. “We joke around here we’re Burbank East and he’s Burbank West. I say we have 20 million cards, give or take a million.”

Changes over the years
These days, Steve and his wife Kathy run the store full-time with help from store manager Robert Makino. Being in business for 30 years, Steve has seen his fair share of changes and has some blunt comments when it comes to today’s customers.

“Back in the day, it was bigger in filling out sets. We used to have guys that would fill five-to-six sets of the same thing,” Steve said. “It definitely has turned into more of a gambling, casino feel where people come in and want to get something (in a pack or box). I don’t particularly like that. I try to tell people when they are buying a $200 box – or pack even in today’s age – why don’t you look down at the old case and pick out a Mantle or a Mays?

“Everyone likes to gamble today. I still like to buy one nice piece and bring it home and put it on my shelf vs. buying a $200 box and you don’t get what you want and you’re disappointed. I don’t know where the longevity of that is in the hobby.”

Steve has also realized he must change how he does business. Starting out as the only shop between Milwaukee and Chicago obviously had advantages, but it also meant the business didn’t have to go out beyond its borders and try to reach new customers outside of the region. And, Steve said, it really wasn’t a goal of his dad’s to go out and seek a large customer base, nor necessarily be eager to help a fellow card dealer. Of course, this led to a few more sayings.

“The guy across the street isn’t going to pay our bills, and doubly sure I’m not going to pay his,” was one of those sayings. And when it came to running a business, any business, another famous quote was, “Be so small you can handle it yourself, or so large you don’t have to go in to work.”

While Steve may have stuck to the latter philosophy, he knew changes had to be made to increase his audience and become more of a player in the field. In 2000, he launched his website as a Beckett store. Steve says of the Internet, “You can either fight it or you can make friends with it. Give them the advantages you do have vs. the disadvantages you’re going to get online.” In 2006, memorabilia came into the mix, as Steve started to hold signings in his store.

“In 2006, I was standing in a competitor’s store and saying, ‘I have to get some customers, retail is dying.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you hold a signing?’ To this day, he says, ‘I told you to hold one signing, I didn’t tell you to go crazy.’ We probably had 100 since then.”

Among the athletes who have come to Jim n Steve’s are Stan Mikita, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Monte Irvin, Rollie Fingers, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams and, soon, Bob Gibson, tying in his 1981 HOF induction year with opening of Jim n Steve’s. And just recently Steve – along with Sidsgraphs – has become the exclusive public signing handlers of Chicago Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro.

“We got into the memorabilia business, and now we’re branching out – not agents by any means – but trying to have some exclusives or do what we can in the memorabilia business,” Steve said.

Steve is also looking to do more shows, if nothing else than to get the word out that his business is more than just cards. This was a different path than his dad, who Steve said was “showed-out” when they started the sportscard business. Always the clever wordsmith, Jim would say instead, “There’s a show here every day.”

Moving forward, Steve said, one of his goals is to get his name out there more. “That’s the main thing I would have changed when we first started, I would have went a little more national, looking back, trying to get our name out there. I don’t think my dad realized we would still be here in 30 years.”

Another change in the business is the idea of competition. While some might see another card shop as someone taking away customers, Steve has embraced others’ help and provided his own to make things work for everybody. And he’s taking that approach to help get his name out to the public.

“Most guys in the business are nice and will show you how they operate,” he said. “The old theory of competition – I’m not going to help him out – has gone by the wayside. The more cards that Rob Veres sells is going to help my business, because he calls me up weekly and needs stuff. The more you network with people, the better. In the 1980s, you wanted to keep the secret to yourself.”

Naturally, this brings up another saying Steve heard growing up.

“In the old days, my dad would say, ‘If you can get it cheaper, I’d hurry up and get it!’ Well, when there wasn’t anybody in between Chicago and Milwaukee, for us, it worked. Now, you’d be out of business with that theory.”

Yet Jim n Steve’s has been going strong for 30 years, and it’s a passion Steve hopes to continue.

Keys to success
When you conduct a business for 30 years, success doesn’t boil down to just having a good inventory or being at the right place at the right time, especially in the sports collectibles hobby. There are still little things that need to be done to attract and keep a buying customer base.
“You have to treat them right and you got to have what they are looking for,” Steve said. “Diversification – have what people want or make an attempt to go out and get it.

“When someone comes into your shop, they obviously have come in for a reason. Today, more than ever, they can shop wherever they want, so I have to drop what I’m doing and wait on that guy. I have a slogan: ‘Serving collectors since 1981.’ I’ve been in a lot of places I won’t go back to because you can get treated that way from anybody. When people come into a card store, you have to make it fun.”

Steve does that with pack wars, box battles, the aforementioned signings and other promotions throughout the year. He said he still has a half-dozen of the same customers who attended the three-day “shows” he and his dad would run from their home in 1979-’80. In the summer, these events would be held in the garage, moving into the living room in the winter months, much to Mom’s chagrin.

Steve said he’s been to probably 2,000-3,000 card shops over the years, as he and his dad would go on week-long buying trips in the spring and fall and that, too, provided some lessons in business.

“Some shops are still operating like it’s 1980. But they probably have a another job, too,” he said. “If you do this full time, there is no way you can do it at the same level you were doing it in the 1980s.”

While Steve’s dad didn’t go for the bickering on prices, Steve said as time progressed and more shops opened, you had to be more lenient and cater to customers needs.

“We didn’t always see eye-to-eye in how we operated, but in the end, we always got to the finish line and at the end of the year, we always made money,” he said.

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