By Greg Bates
It all started with 5,000 square feet and just 15 vendor tables.
What it has become is beyond what Frank Zamarripa ever imagined. Frank & Son Collectible Show in Industry, California, has become one of the largest one-stop shops for sports cards, memorabilia, comics, toys, coins, you name it.
The show almost resembles a smaller-scale version of the National Sports Collectors Convention. But Frank & Son Collectible Show happens more than 50 times a year, not just yearly like the National.
“If you can’t find it there, it doesn’t exist,” said longtime Frank & Son vendor Victor Pritchard, who runs Gemini Sports Cards.
“You’re like a kid in a candy store. People come back there and they feel like they’re reliving their childhood again. If you’re a collector of anything, I recommend anybody to come to the show once in their life — just to have the experience.”
Zamarripa, who owned Frank & Son Trucking for 40 years, opened the collectibles show in his business warehouse in Walnut, California, in 1988.
Zamarripa has been an avid collector of McDonald’s items for 40 years. He gets his hands on anything McDonald’s: toys, cups, straws, Styrofoam containers for Big Macs. He even has his own Playland with original equipment. He now has around 100,000 McDonald’s collectibles.
When Zamarripa and his wife, Janet, started the collectible show, he didn’t need the money. Because of his interest in McDonald’s, he became associated with the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Throughout the years, Zamarripa figures his show has donated more than $2 million to the cause that helps children with serious illness or injury.
When he first started the show, Zamarripa couldn’t have dreamed it would become successful.
“Shoot, I thought it would last a couple years and that would be it,” Zamarripa said. “I always wondered when it was going to end. I keep adding more tables, adding more tables.”
Now there are 250 booths – all the vendors have permanent fixtures at the show – and Zamarripa estimates 2,000 to 3,000 people attend the twice-a-week show, which is housed in a 125,000-square-foot warehouse about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The collectible show moved to a different warehouse around the corner from its original spot in the mid-1990s. About 90,000 square feet are occupied by vendors, while another 15,000 square feet are reserved for autograph sessions.
Zamarripa has maxed out the show at 250 booths. There’s actually a waiting list of vendors who want to set up at the Frank & Son Collectible Show.
“It’s long,” said Zamarripa, laughing. “Everybody wants a spot and everybody wants to get rid of collections.”
What’s the best part of the collectible show? Parking and admission are free. Zamarripa wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I used to take my kids to shows and with what it would cost with my three kids and myself to get in and parking, you were in $90 before you walked in the show,”
Zamarripa said. “Then the autographs and everything else. Then, why would you buy anything from anybody else? After the autographs you don’t have any money to buy any cards or anything.
“I thought about it one day and said, ‘I’ll just do my own show. Make it free to get in, free to park and bring your family.’ People bring their whole family and strollers and stuff and spend their whole day here.”
Frank & Son Collectible Show is open Wednesdays from 3 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“During the summer time, we get tons of kids on Wednesdays,” Zamarripa said. “They’re lining up outside to come in. When school starts, it slows down a little bit on Wednesdays because kids have to do their homework before they come. Sometimes, I think I’m the cause for them doing their homework, so they can run to Frank & Son’s.”
Longtime vendor Chris Fernandez noted Saturdays provide more foot traffic and is generally a more prosperous day for business.
“Every now and then we’ll have a pretty decent Wednesday, because, the average guy by the time he gets off of work and drives over there and wants to buy something, it’s a more serious buyer,” Fernandez said. “Saturday, it’s cheaper than going to the movies, so they’ll take their family and walk around and say they went out this weekend.”
Times they are a-changin’
When the show started 28 years ago, selling and trading sports cards was the most common activity, along with comic books sales. Over the years, the sports card sector has shrunk at Frank & Son as the economy changed.
“Sports is still strong there, but it’s not what it once was,” said Chris Weber, a vendor at Frank & Son, who runs Hall of Fame Sports and Collectibles.
Nowadays, Zamarripa figures the show is comprised of 20 percent sports cards, 40 percent comics and the other 20 percent toys, magic and the latest craze items. He said he started to see the shift to toys and other collectibles in the last five years.
“When Frank & Son’s first started it was, I don’t want to say a small operation, a different operation than it is today,” Weber said. “It was a pretty clearly defined sports card and comic book show. There wasn’t at that time, this was of course before cellphones, a lot of media and gaming hadn’t really begun. In the old room, it was pretty much like it was in the late ’80s and the ’90s – lots of wax, breaking a lot of product, that kind of thing. When the whole Pog thing hit it started the metamorphosis if you will, that ultimately brings us to where we are today.”
Fernandez, who started attending Frank & Son as a collector in 1996, before becoming a vendor two years later, said a lot of sports card dealers at the show couldn’t adapt to the change over the years and either retired or got out of the business entirely.
“After 9/11, a lot of people dropped out because they couldn’t get the price on their stuff,” Fernandez said. “Frank & Sons was slowly raising their rent on us for the booth. A lot of the old-school people were not very Internet savvy and were too lazy to do eBay. A lot of our clientele went to eBay to buy their stuff. But I do fine because I use Frank & Sons to buy the stuff, and I do fine on eBay as well. You’ve got to adapt to the changes and circumstances.”
Fernandez, who has a 20-foot-by-20-foot booth (which is considered two booths), sells mostly cards, signed baseballs and the random piece of memorabilia or jerseys.
What has kept Fernandez at Frank & Son so long as one of only a handful of sports cards vendors?
“Just my passion, probably,” Fernandez said. “There’s always something new coming out. I diversify. I do all sports, so there’s never really an offseason for me. I’ll do celebrity stuff. I’ll do ultimate fighting. I do NASCAR. I have a showcase for every sport.”
Pritchard evolved over time as well and expanded his business. He runs a 10-foot-by-30-foot booth and sells everything from low-end $1 cards to cards that are a couple thousand dollars. Pritchard sells cards and items from baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, UFC, auto memorabilia, jerseys, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, wrestling figures and wrestling belts. His biggest draw is wrestling. He brings in pro wrestlers every couple months for autograph signings in his booth.
Pritchard first attended Frank & Son in 1989, at the age of eight. He and his dad, Michael, got a booth in 1991, and Pritchard helped out until he went off to college. Pritchard was away from the operation for a few years, but permanently took over when his dad passed away in 2004. It was a true father-son business for years.
“It’s a great family place,” Pritchard said. “Now the way sports cards are, there aren’t as many sports cards collectors as there were 10, 15 years ago, but the thing that’s nice about it is you still get people that collect something. You kind of cross market and if they come to Frank & Sons for something else, you never know, they may get interested in sports and they start collecting again.”
Frank & Son Collectible Show has always been leading the way. All the vendors keep up with the latest trends and make sure they’re fully stocked for their customers.
“Frank & Sons was always kind of the cutting edge for the West Coast where most of the sports collecting and sports memorabilia business in those days was isolated to stores, which were served mostly by the master distributors or local route distributors,” Weber said. “Frank & Sons would have the latest and the greatest faster than everyone else. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the country, so it was truly its own economic microcosm world and it was on the edge of the sports business.”
Weber has been a vendor at Frank & Son for 20 years. In the early days at the show, Weber was big into selling cards, but now he’s big into memorabilia since he brings in signers. On site, he has 600 autographed baseballs, 100,000 photos, and also sells cards and supplies.
An attraction all over the world
On a toasty day in Southern California, it can get a little warm and stuffy at the Frank & Son Collectible Show. The warehouse isn’t equipped with air conditioning, but that doesn’t seem to deter vendors or customers.
“I definitely have my regulars,” Fernandez said. “Then there are always new people. They’ll come in either with their kids or by themselves and sometimes getting gifts for someone.”
The large majority of people who attend the show are locals, but it definitely attracts people from all over the country and the world. According to the vendors, when the NBA started releasing autographed cards and special inserts that attracted dealers and customers from places such as New Zealand, Japan and Australia, they came to Frank & Son in search of items to bring back to their countries.
“It’s amazing to me, two things -- Number 1, how many different people go there,” Weber said. “But the more amazing thing to me is how many people I meet from Southern California that are there for their very first time.”
Pritchard and Weber certainly attract new clientele all the time with celebrity signings.
Zamarripa also brings in a lot of famous athletes for autograph shows. Even though Frank & Son is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Zamarripa has been setting aside Sundays just for signings. Big names are constantly in attendance, including Pete Rose, Tommy Lasorda and Stan Lee. Lee comes once a year and is always the biggest draw, Zamarripa noted.
Adding signings to the regular routine has given Frank & Son Collectible Show even greater appeal for customers. Zamarripa said the show is the best it has ever been in its 28 years.
“It gets better every week,” Zamarripa said. “We’re always doing something new. If I had more parking I could do more things. We’re limited to parking over here. I could add 100 more dealers if I had 500 more parking spots. The show’s where it’s at, I’m happy about it. We’re good. Thirty years of doing this, if I can get another 10 more years out of it, I’ll give it to my kids.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.