Vinny Acerenza's Commack sports memorabilia shop is a time capsule in nearly every way but one.
It's a mild early afternoon in mid-August and, in the span of about an hour, only three people walk in - the door creaking open noisily only four times. It didn't used to be like this 20 years ago, when small shops like Acerenza's were filled with the sounds of 12-year-olds praying for a Don Mattingly rookie card.
Today is relatively silent. A father and son team enters and glances at parts of Acerenza's entertainment collection - Pokemon collectibles, pristine vintage Beatles figures, and a hodgepodge of WWE paraphernalia. They bypass the hanging autographed jerseys and don't spare a look at the thousands upon thousands of baseball cards behind the counter.
They don't speak much. It lasts less than 10 minutes in all and the two leave without buying anything. The door shuts languidly behind them.
The next visitor - an older woman, all business - starts off with, "We spoke on the phone . . ." and ends by going to get her husband in the car. She's got a box of collectibles she's hoping to unload and Acerenza is buying.
Acerenza leans on his crowded counter and gets ready to work, long having learned to adapt to this shifting landscape. The baseball cards behind him - a commanding display that reaches about 7 feet high and 15 feet across - remain untouched in their cellophane. The mighty image of Stephen Strasburg, midpitch, has no power here.
Acerenza said he believes that the baseball card industry is teetering into possible obscurity; he doesn't need numbers to tell him what he sees every day at Commack Collectibles on Jericho Turnpike - a store that gives off the pleasant feeling of being in an eclectic kid's overstuffed room.
"It's a turning point," he said. "It went through stages. There was the collecting stage and the investment stage."
He didn't say what stage it's in now, only that kids sometimes will tear open packs, not get the guy they want, and refuse to buy.
"People with big-time love are dropping," he said sadly. "People don't have cash flow. They're absolutely hurting . . . They're selling [cards] they've inherited. It's like, 'I can't pay my rent, my car. I'm losing my house.' It's even worse when it's a customer I've known for 20 years."
It's a buyer's market and Acerenza is a buyer, but there's no joy in others' misfortune. "There are things coming out of the woodworks that we haven't seen for years," he said. "But I liked it better when I was looking for stuff."
The boom goes bust
John Goodman opened his glass case and, coasting his hand expertly over the aged cards, stopped at one. He held it out delicately with his thumb and forefinger - like a flower - and brightened immediately. "Ty Cobb," he said, a slight smile playing on his lips. The tobacco card, from 1911, has a red background. "It's trimmed," he added, and goes for about $200.
"The high time for cards was 1980 to 1985," he said. After that, "companies ran the presser and started to overproduce. The one big problem is that companies and collectors are at odds with their goals."
The goals: Collectors want rare cards and companies want to sell as many rare cards as possible - making them, by their nature, common.
The consensus among vendors and collectors is that the big shift occurred in the '80s, when card collecting became less of a hobby and more of an investment. A number of companies were involved - Topps, Bowman, Fleer, Donruss and others - each with its own set. The market became oversaturated and the bubble burst.
"By the early '90s, everyone was trying to come into the industry and be an investor," said Terry Melia, a spokesman for Upper Deck, which came into the fray in 1989. "People would purchase cards, stick them in a closet and [hope to] pay for college. That died on the vine because of the proliferation of cards."
A quick look at Long Island's own mercurial love affair with baseball cards underlines the point. There were fewer than a dozen card shops in Nassau County in 1985 and only one or two in Suffolk. By 1989, the Nassau listings for collectibles - mostly baseball cards - took up three-fourths of a page in the Yellow Pages. The Suffolk NYNEX from that span showed some of the earliest instances of area stores that dealt exclusively in baseball cards. Jimmy Ryan, who runs JP Sports/Rock Solid, the company that organizes the largest card shows in the state, estimates that there were about 200 to 300 shops in the heyday.
"There were at least three in every town," he said. "They were like pizzerias."
Today, it's down to a few dozen - the exact number ranging from around 20 to 50. Specifics are difficult to come by because so many stores have branched out to compensate for the lagging market.
Upper Deck, which manufactured major league baseball cards from 1989 to 2008, dealt with an estimated high of 5,500 retailers in 1993-94 to fewer than 1,500 today, Milia said. Topps, which now holds the exclusive contract with MLB, sells to around 100 wholesalers and 30,000 retailers nationwide, according to Warren Friss, vice president and general manager of Topps Sports.
'Steroids killed those players'
Goodman and his colleagues give the same reasons for the downturn: oversaturation and high prices. Internet buying hurts them, Ryan said, but mostly just changes the playing field. Goodman added that it was more than that; the baseball lockout in 1994 and the subsequent steroid scandal deadened emotional ties in an industry that dealt in nostalgia.
Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, even Alex Rodriguez: "Steroids killed those players," Goodman said. (Sosa has never admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.) The emotional connection was, for many, stronger than the financial pull, according to Josh Wilker, author of "Cardboard Gods," a memoir told through his baseball card collection. It goes to reason, then, that a perceived betrayal such as steroid use would hurt the industry more than a bad batting average.
"I don't know if [collecting] can ever go back to what it was before," Wilker said. "There's no reason anyone would pay $50 for a piece of cardboard. People are interested in having a little piece of the sport as their own."
The rest is unsaid: Without that interest, there's simply no point.
For love of the game
"I really love the cards no one has ever heard of," Wilker said. "It's like having a secret."
Those cards - called commons ("the point being that they're not rare, but they're special to me," he said) - aren't going to fetch a couple thousand dollars on the market. But those days are mostly long gone, anyway.
The market has weeded out most of the investors. Whoever is left is a lifer.
"I have a passion for it," Acerenza said of his own card collection. "Once you have it, you don't lose it. It's like a drug."
Acerenza, who wears a Thurman Munson World Series ring on his right hand, is part of a dwindling crew of collectors - mostly financially stable professionals, mostly past their 30s - who collect mostly older cards for the love of it.
This group represents a second chance for baseball cards and Acerenza has yet to give up. "We need young star players to catch people's imagination," he said. "Win a championship in the early years, become an icon, make some excitement."
"The baseball card market is like the Nasdaq these days," he said. "It takes the joy out of it."
That joy is what he hopes to share with his three kids - the oldest, an 8-year-old boy - and one of the reasons he keeps his thousands of cards close at hand. He began collecting when he was 5 and kept it up religiously till about 16, wherein he and almost every other collector interviewed "discovered girls."
His childhood glee remains unabated when he picks out his Graig Nettles card. "I'm not even a Yankee fan," he says. "I just remember thinking it was so cool that he had a name so close to mine."
The cards, including what he calls his elite collection, an impressive consortium of 750 cards, stay in the basement of his home.
That collection was out on the living room table one morning. The cards had been organized and screwed into special plastic holders - a process that likely took hours once upon a time - "and you can tell where I couldn't screw it in all the way," he said good-naturedly, holding up one such example.
He won't sell and in fact has sold cards only once - a United States Football League pack to a friend. ("He gave me $80. I bought more baseball cards.") After all, Johnson said, that's not really the point, is it?
"The purpose of baseball cards isn't to check a ticker," he said, stacking them meticulously and placing the plastic bricks back in the brown shoe boxes along with the inventory list - handwritten, on yellow legal pad paper. "At the end of the day, they're just pieces of cardboard."