FORT WAYNE – My 7-year-old grandson Ben has recently gotten big time into collecting sports cards.
Knowing the boys passion for his budding hobby, Bens other grandfather graciously presented the lad with a long-treasured autograph of former NBA All-Star forward Julius Erving.
Ben had seen the name in some of the basketball books he devours but was unaware of Ervings true greatness until he was provided a brief history. He also heard the story how his grandpa got the Hall of Famers autograph at an airport.
After the signature was rightfully his and the boy was no longer in the presence of his generous grandfather, Ben wasted little time getting to the bottom line: What was the Dr. J. autograph worth?
Not sure of an exact figure, his father guessed somewhere between $25 and $50.
The childs eyes widened. Can I sell that and take the money? he wanted to know.
Buddy, the father says, Pop just gave you that, and hes had it 30 years. Youre not going to take it and turn around and sell it.
Well, when Pop goes (he makes a motion to indicate his grandfathers demise), Im going to sell it and do whatever I want with the money.
Even at Bens tender age, he has grasped the general concept of memorabilia collecting, which is to eventually turn a profit.
Rollie Clem, proprietor of Clems Collectibles stores in Fort Wayne and Lansing, Mich., was considerably older when he realized he could make a dollar or two in the buying and selling of collectible sports items.
Although he was born in Fort Wayne and raised just over the Indiana-Ohio line in the cozy town of Antwerp, Clem grew up with a passion for the New York Yankees. That was the team, after all, that seemed to be on television the most in the late 1950s and early 60s, when Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese broadcast the Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons. And, in black and white, young Rollie could watch Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford and all of his heroes.
Like many kids of the time, he bought nickel packs of baseball cards that came with a thin rectangular piece of hard bubble gum. Because his friends were fans of the beloved Ohio teams, Cleveland and Cincinnati, he would swap them Indians and Reds cards for whatever Yankees they would find in their packs.
So I ended up with a lot more Mantles, Berras, Fords and those kind of guys, Clem says of the Hall of Famers. They ended up with whoever played for the Indians.
The difference between Clem and so many others of his era is that Clem kept his cards through his adult years.
He got married and had kids. And like him, his boys became collectors of things. One son collected sports cards; another, comic books.
When told that his baseball card collection could be worth money, Clem and his sons attended shows, where they set up tables to display his wares. Other collectors bought his cards. Then the comic books began to sell. Thus was the genesis of the Clems Collectibles stores.
Clem is 65 now, thick in the middle, thin on top, and has his grandkids help fill the shelves. As he strolls through his Jefferson Pointe store, he shows how the collectible industry has changed across the years. On the stores left side are the sports memorabilia; much of it freshly minted by the NFL or Major League Baseball, such as dishwasher-safe mugs and license plates. There are autographed photos – Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose posing as the major cogs of Cincinnatis Big Red Machine of the mid-1970s. It sells for $399.99. And theres the Derek Jeter-signed action photo for $599.99.
This is what I know, Clem says of the sports stuff.
To the back of the room is a Notre Dame helmet, signed by several Irish legends. It goes for $1,799.99. And up front, in the storefront window, are a pair of seats from old Yankee Stadium, which sell for $1,499.99.
But then on the other side of the store are games and comic books – the new collectibles for a younger generation. Beneath a glass case are plastic-encased Magic: The Gathering.
My kids are into that, said Lisa Goff, 41, of Fort Wayne. I dont quite get it. Its some kind of card game, and it seems like theyre always playing it whenever their friends come over. I know they played a lot of it this summer. But that seems to be the thing right now.
Some of the cards – powerful cards in the game, store employee Ryan White says – are rare. Take the Mox Opal card, for example, that goes for $35. To gamers, its a mythic rare card.
So its Magic: The Gathering cards that young customers want, and not Magic Johnson cards.
It is to 2013 what the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons was in the 1980s and 90s.
I played D&D, White says. That was the back room in college; your moms basement; the stereotypical nerds thing. This, Magic: The Gathering, is easier. With Dungeons and Dragons, you had to buy all these manuals, got to have a notepad, a character sheet. With Magic, it fits in your pocket. You can take it with you everywhere you go. You can have a pick-up game. Magic really made gaming portable and easy. With D&D, youd have to take a backpack with you everywhere if you want to play. Magic really changed the game. Magic has dethroned Dungeons and Dragons.
Clem says it happens quite often when a customer walks in with a fistful of baseball or football or basketball cards and wonders how much he could get for them. Maybe he has some old magazines. But he also sees a lot of people walk through the double glass doors with comic books from the 1960s and 70s and 80s. Those are the hot sellers these days.
Theyve cut the production way down, Clem says. The market is good. And theyre making all these movies based on comic book characters. Theyve come out with Superman, Batman and Wolverine and Captain America. The TV series, The Walking Dead, is one of the most popular cable shows, and its based on a comic book.
The Holy Grail of all comics, though, is Action Comics No. 1, issued in 1938, which began the superhero phenomenon. It has Superman on the cover, holding a truck over his head.
A copy in good condition has sold for more than $1 million.
Then whats next in memorabilia?
Rollie Clem smiles, gently taps his fingers on the table, and says, I wish I knew. I wish I knew.