Sports Collectible Owner Stays Afloat as Industry Falters
Rich Budnick has been in the sports card business for 23 years, the last 15 of which he's spent on Broadway in Fair Lawn.
The first rule of running a successful sports card shop, Rich Budnick says, is you can't be both a collector and a dealer at the same time.
Budnick, a Paramus resident who owns the Broadway sports collectible mainstay America’s Pastime, learned that lesson the hard way in his early days running the shop.
The last card Budnick sold from his childhood collection -- a 1969 Mickey Mantle – remains to this day the card he had the most trouble parting with.
“If you have cards put aside, it’s difficult,” he said. “If somebody wants a card that you have in your collection that’s not out for sale, how do you say ‘no’ to that? You’re in business.”
For Budnick, the Mantle card took on special significance, both because Mantle was one of his favorite players as a child and because his older brother had bought him a baseball signed by Mantle that he’d paired with the card and proudly displayed at the shop.
“One day somebody came in [to the shop] and said, ‘Do you have a ’69 Mickey Mantle card?’” Budnick recalled. “I thought about the card and I’m like, you know what, I can always replace that card with something else. So I went into the display, I took the card out and sold it.”
Although the ’69 Mantle card is long gone – it sold for about $300 -- Budnick said he’s held onto the signed baseball from his brother. He has no regrets about selling the card.
“I cant’ fall in love with this stuff. It’s a business,” he said, pausing reflectively. “But that card, I remember it vividly, that was a hard card for me to sell. I really had to grapple with that because it was emotional for me to sell that card.”
Budnick got into the sports card business in 1989, leaving behind a corporate sales job to pursue his card-collecting hobby.
“I had been packing my house up because I was getting married at the time – it was 1988 -- and I found some of my old baseball cards and it got me, for about a year, into collecting,” Budnick said. “I realized I was having more fun doing that than I was at my job, so I decided to make the big change and open up the store.”
In October of 1989, Budnick set up shop in Ridgefield, where he remained for the next five years until relocating to Rochelle Park. After three years in Rochelle Park, Budnick relocated again, this time to Broadway, where he’s been ever since.
“We felt it would be some good exposure for the store being on a main road like this,” Budnick said of his move to Broadway in April 1997. “It’s relatively close to home, it’s relatively close to family, it was an easier commute.”
Budnick said he’s applied everything he learned in his previous corporate sales job to his business, which in addition to his retail location in Fair Lawn, includes a website, an eBay store and a booth at sporting card trade shows across the country.
“Between all of those things it’s kind of like a four-headed business,” he said. “If the retail store isn’t working well, I’ve still got my eBay store, I’ve still got my shows.”
Although Budnick is intent on maintaining his storefront, he acknowledges that trade shows are the future of his business. He makes most of his sales at shows and said they allow him to network with dealers and customers from all over the United States.
“I think that’s really important to be out at the shows because you really know what’s happening in the hobby, what’s going on, what’s new, the trends, you talk to other people,” he said. “It’s very important you’re not isolated and you’re not in your store everyday. You gotta keep working the business.”
As card collecting has lost popularity with distracted younger generations, many shops have been forced to close. Thus far, Budnick has weathered that storm and hopes America’s Pastime can survive until it’s the last shop standing.
He said he’s been able to survive where others have failed because he has his own money behind him, he hasn’t spent frivolously and, most importantly, he has what his customers are looking for.
“I built the business up from nothing to substantial because I’ve always got what people want,” Budnick said. “I think a lot of the stores that went out of business didn’t have a lot of what the customers wanted, so they really didn’t keep the customers.”
Budnick specializes in vintage cards – anything from the 1930s to the late 1960s – but he also carries sets and rookie cards of current and future stars.
“If somebody walks in and says they want a rookie card of a player, I’ve got to have that,” he said. “I don’t want to lose that sale. The worst feeling in the world is not having something somebody wants…if I don’t have it, I really take it personally.”
In addition to cards, America’s Pastime also sells autographed sports items and memorabilia from all four major American sports – baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
Budnick has more baseball memorabilia than any other sport because he sells more of it, but said the in the past couple years both his football and hockey inventories have grown tremendously.
While hockey collectors number few and far between, Budnick said they make for some of the most passionate collectors because finding top condition vintage hockey cards can be tricky given the limited number that were produced.
Nowadays, card shop owners and collectors alike face the opposite problem -- too many cards on the market -- due to the massive overproduction of sports cards in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“The problem is that back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they made too much of the product,” Budnick explained. “So they really killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”
With so much product out there and so many different brands jumping into the card printing business, the value of individual cards went down.
“Basically it’s the law of supply and demand,” Budnick said. ”A lot of people got out of the hobby because they were losing money, so they stopped collecting. Then everything went down.”
Besides a willingness to let go of your prized personal cards and keeping your store stocked with what customers want, Budnick said memorabilia shop owners must also have an excellent pricing sense and be ready to act opportunistically.
When someone enters the store looking to sell a card collection, Budnick must ensure he doesn't risk alienating the seller by throwing out a lowball offer, while at the same time only making purchases that he can turn a profit on at resale.
He said he learned the importance of seizing opportunities early on.
Coincidentally, it was “The Mick” again who taught him.
Budnick remembers the day vividly. He was at Pascack Valley Hospital, just hours after the birth of his son. A friend was running the store in his absence.
“My friend calls me up and he goes, ‘There’s a guy here that wants to buy the Mantle rookie,” he recalled.
At the time, Mantle's rookie card was valued at approximately $20,000.
“So, of course, I said [to my wife], ‘Honey, gotta go!’” Budnick recalled, chuckling. “I rushed to the store and we made the sale for $20,000. Cash.
"And I’ll never forget what [the buyer] said to me," he continued. "He said, ‘This will buy a lot of diapers.’ And I said, ‘Yes, and some formula, too.’ That was probably the most fun I ever had with a sale.”