Chris Heck is pictured behind a glass case full of sports cards. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

To make money off sports cards, a few rules reign supreme. Just ask Chris Heck and Mike Pap.

Beyond names built for a talk show, the two are using their decades of experience in card collecting to kickstart a brand new business venture, Green Mountain Sportscards & Gaming. The shop opened in April and held a well-attended grand opening last month.

Standing behind glass cases filled with the mugs an uncounted number of hall-of-famers, Heck and Pap gave The Reporter a quick crash course on how to not go broke buying and selling cards.

Top of the list: Do your research.

“You can lose a lot of money quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Heck said. “If you buy dumb, or if you sell dumb, or you don’t price right.”

See, card collecting is a lot like the stock market – it’s volatile. You need to know not only when to weather the storm, but when to cash out. Think that rookie is the next Pedro Martinez? Get his card, and hold on tight. But not too tight: Nothing plummets a $1,000-investment quite like a mid-season injury.

Heck and Pap know the rules well. They met at a card shop in Winooski and soon came up with the plan to open their own store. Heck comes with experience in e-commerce thanks to his other business, Quick Consignment 802.

For Pap, the venture is his second time in the game. He graduated from the University of Vermont in the late ’80s and opened a shop on Burlington’s Church Street, running it for six years amid intense competition as one of a dozen sellers in the area. He later entered the military and has since rejoined the civilian ranks.

Twenty years later, much has changed in the card business starting, as always, with the internet.

The web vacillates between a card seller’s biggest foe and most useful tool. On one hand, it forces them to compete on a global scale. But it has also blasted open the market for sellers like Heck and Pap who can now reach customers around the world.

Mike Pap shows off a one-of-a-kind Bill Russell autographed card that’s on sale at Green Mountain Sportscard & Gaming earlier this month. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

Online sales help supplement their slower weeks, but they say that only accounts for about half their business. The rest comes from a growing clientele gradually finding its way into their nondescript suite hidden in the back of Complex 159, the strip of businesses next door to Harley Davidson.

It’s not exactly a prime location for foot traffic, but Heck said in their line of business, that’s not a problem.

“All you need them to do is find you once,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are. We could be in a cave ¬– if they find you, they’ll keep coming back.”

Indeed, knowing much of their business comes from repeat customers, Heck and Pap plan to switch up their inventory often. They say they will buy new items both online and from people in the area, hoping that the prior volume of card sellers here means there’s still plenty of fish – or autographed cards – in the sea.

They don’t focus solely on sports cards, however. They’ve amassed a large collection of trading cards, too, including Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering and earned a notable following among enthusiasts unaccustomed to finding such vintage cards for sale in Vermont.

They vow they can find any card within several days and track down unique or rare items. That service has prompted some to come in with regular requests and built a relationship Pap says is exactly why brick-and-mortar locations are still relevant today.

“You don’t go to Amazon and start talking about the game last night,” Pap said.

“It’s an experience,” Heck added.

Customers can sift through thousands of cards in the shop’s bargain corner. (Colin Flanders | Essex Reporter)

 

The customer base for card sellers has also drastically changed in recent years. Collections were once no doubt a rite of passage for many youth, and chances are someone you know still has a fat binder away in their attic somewhere.

But Heck and Pap don’t see a lot of kids collecting cards anymore, and many casual hobbyists – and the stores that helped build them up – have also faded with time.

Instead, their base is mostly older men who collect on the side or view cards as a form of gambling; it’s not uncommon for someone to buy a pack of cards, rip it open and then ask the owners to sell a few on consignment.

Heck and Pap know some might roll their eyes at the idea of opening a card shop in the digital age. They acknowledge they rely on a somewhat unconventional business model: Instead of convincing people to need something, they must react to the market and evolve with their customers.

Even then, it takes discipline to survive.

That’s why neither Pap nor Heck indulges when asked if they have a favorite card.

“I don’t have any real attachment to any of it,” Heck said of his collection, “because if [you] do, that’s how you lose money.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Heck thinks of his dad every time he sees a Ken Griffey card from the ’89 Upper Deck collection, which dropped when he first started getting into cards. Pap, too, remembers opening a new box of cards every Easter.

With a business to run, Heck and Pap have less room for sentiment, and many of their clients have the same mentality. But they say one theme ties together nearly all customers, no matter what they’re looking for.   

“It all goes back to their childhood,” Heck said.

One five-star review among more than a dozen on their Facebook page seems to agree.

“It was like going back in time,” wrote Earl Handy. “But this time, I was the dad.”