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Fewer Are Investing Hearts and Money Into Baseball Cards

Sara Wright opened her collector's card shop 33 years ago in Cornelia, Ga.

Sara Wright opened her collector’s card shop 33 years ago in Cornelia, Ga.

CORNELIA, Ga. — Just before noon, Sara Wright unlocked the small store on the first floor of a fatigued two-story building and flipped the sign to “Open” from “Closed.” On went two fans in place of the broken air conditioning. A small ringer was positioned on a glass counter atop a handwritten notice that read, “Please shake the bells. I am in the back.”

For the next five hours, Wright enjoyed the inanimate companionship provided by the beloved baseball merchandise at her Cornelia Sports Card Shop. There was no other option, given the scarce human traffic. She made two sales that day, and only one was for baseball cards.

“That’s just the way it is, and I accept it,” Wright said, looking forward to dinner out with relatives at her favorite eatery, the seafood chain restaurant Captain D’s, to toast her 89th birthday in three days.

She first opened 33 years ago in this tiny town tucked into the northeast corner of Georgia. It was an era when baseball card collecting engaged scores of passionate Americans, especially children.

The hobby ultimately engulfed adult baby boomers — some driven by the investment potential, others willing to spend considerable discretionary dollars just for fun. By the early 1990s, baseball cards were the engine of a full-blown billion-dollar industry that capitalized on a card collection craze.

Wright’s involvement can be traced to her two young sons, who swapped cards with friends. When they grew up and moved out of the house, she gathered the cards left behind and performed a parenting role reversal — following in the footsteps of her children.

She took it a step further, at first operating card shows at a local school in the 1970s, with dealers renting tables for $5. Then, freshly retired from her job as a school dietitian, she scraped together $10,000 for a baseball-centric shop located a hilly block from Cornelia’s compact downtown.

Wright immersed herself in the trade, educating herself on the value of cards. She boned up on baseball by making televised big league games, especially those of her Atlanta Braves, a nightly ritual with her husband.

Customers came — and still do, if less frequently — from neighboring cities as well as metro Atlanta, at least an hour’s drive south. Children gobbled up the small packs, their fathers the jumbo ones. One Atlantan paid $2,300 for a set, her biggest score.

Her next largest sale was a single card. Ordered shipments sometimes included a special pack with one player, unidentified, inside. Attempts to sell it for $5 proved fruitless, so she tore open the silver wrapping to discover a Joe DiMaggio card from an exclusive series.

For once, she resorted to the Internet, relying on one of her sons to list the no-longer-hidden treasure for sale. It fetched $1,800.

Sara Wright said her $500 in weekly business comes mainly from sales of Magic trading cards, not baseball cards. That reflects a broader trend.

Sara Wright said her $500 in weekly business comes mainly from sales of Magic trading cards, not baseball cards. That reflects a broader trend.

Mostly, Wright has catered to the casual collector, marking up the price of packs and sets just enough to assure a small gain for herself while keeping them affordable.

“This has been such a fun thing,” she said.

But not nearly as profitable over the last two decades. As much as nostalgists might like to protect the collecting hobby with the type of clear cellophane case that keeps vintage cards from aging, interest has faded from its peak period.

“The standard card is no longer a draw enough for an average baseball fan,” said Tom Bartsch, the editor of the Sports Collectors Digest. “It won’t ever be what it was. It’s a different culture now.”

At the annual National Sports Collectors Convention, which begins July 31 in Chicago, the inventory devoted to baseball cards will fall to about 15 percent from more than half in the late 1990s, according to Mike Berkus, the convention’s founder and executive director.

Berkus estimated that the amount of money from card sales across the country each year has declined by nearly two thirds from its peak. Illustrating the trend is the reduction in the number of manufacturers licensed by Major League Baseball to one this season, from five during collecting’s heyday, though at least two other companies still churn out cards.

Berkus in part blamed cards flooding the market from multiple manufacturers that had previously waged healthy competition. “The collector could not keep up with the production, investors lost money, and then we lost manufacturers,” he said.

To Dave Jamieson, author of “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an America Obsession,” the influx of collectors who viewed cards as a commodity caused a price hike that chased off young people. Then investors found them to be less reliable than shares of stock.

Collecting’s transition to the Internet age has offered some hope for sustainability. And industry observers note that the high-end vintage cards in mint condition continue to increase in value, drawing rather than deterring the well-heeled hobbyist. Some experts envision the fever, even if low-grade, spreading again to the masses.

“I do see a turnaround,” Berkus said. “The consumer is smarter. They have changed habits: ‘I don’t need a full set, but I want my local player or my favorite superstars, and these I can afford if I don’t try to buy everything.’

“There is a magic to opening a fresh pack of cards.”

Chris Carlin, the manager of sports marketing and social media for the card maker Upper Deck, also senses more prosperous times ahead as customers grow accustomed to buying and trading online.

“It is not all doom and gloom,” said Carlin, whose company prints cards through a deal with the baseball players union. “People love the hobby.”

Wright does not share the encouraging outlook. “It’s all over,” she said, noting that her roster of regular shoppers for baseball cards has dwindled to three. “The market is so bad.”

Still, she has no plans to shutter the store, one of few that peddle baseball cards in north Georgia. The nearest competitor is in Helen, about 20 miles away.

Never mind that she typically records only about $500 in sales each week, mainly from the popular Magic trading cards that depict wizards instead of ballplayers. (Also on the shelves and in glass cases are cards featuring Pokemon, football, basketball, Tiger Woods and President Obama, along with specially minted coins and items that remind visitors of long-gone fads like Beanie Babies.)

Or that the shop has been burglarized, most recently of merchandise worth $2,000.

Or that a prosthesis has replaced one of Wright’s eyes and that the other is weakened from hemorrhaging, forcing her to use a magnifying glass for tasks such as reading the minuscule print in the Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide.

Her eyesight limits Wright’s ability, and her motivation, to research the value of particular cards in response to some customer queries. She took a so-be-it attitude toward one frustrated phone caller who, dissatisfied with the limited amount of information being provided, snapped at her, “You must not want my business.”

She is determined to carry on, relying on intuition and the knowledge she has collected to recognize that Evan Gattis, the Braves’ rookie sensation, may become a coveted card. The other day, she paid $4.95 apiece for a dozen Gattis cards, with the intent to sell them for $7 to $8 each.

“People depend on the shop,” she said.

It is not enough to make the venture financially worthwhile for her, but Wright is content to wile away the hours — 25 over the course of a week — in the quiet company of her cards and the memories they bring.

“If you don’t work for the money,” she said, “it can be a lot of fun.”

 A version of this article appeared in print on July 1, 2013, on page D7 of the New York edition with the headline: Time Passing Baseball Cards By. NYTimes, MIKE TIERNEY, June 30, 2013.

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