Junk wax and me: First experience behind card show table was exciting, but not fulfilling


At the best baseball card show of my life, three incredible things happened: Muhammad Ali handed me an autographed card , I opened a coveted Frank Thomas rookie card in a 1990 Leaf pack and I won a Lou Brock autographed baseball as a door prize. 

It was a trifecta that even now makes me happy. I was 14 or so when I wandered those endless rows of tables that day, at a massive show at Cervantes Convention Center in downtown St. Louis. I’d gone to dozens of smaller shows before, and went to dozens after. I would walk around my binder — the one with Upper Deck stickers on the front cover — hoping to find someone who would give me $3 for one of the Tom Gordon cards on that page of Rated Rookies so I could buy more packs.

Even then, I wondered what it would be like to be the person on the other side of those tables. They seemed to have, well, everything. Their tables were stacked high with boxes of cards, some that were sold as sealed boxes and some that were opened so you could buy individual packs. Their display cases had cards protected in hard cases marked with dollar signs followed by numbers three or four digits long. I was in awe.

MORE: “Absolutely insane”: How the pandemic fueled a trading card boom

But then I went to college and became a bit obsessed with traveling and fishing. I drifted far, far away from the world of collecting, for more than two decades. Every once in a while, I’d find a couple of packs at an antique mall, or a box of junk wax (loosely defined as baseball cards over-produced and sold between 1987 and 1993). 

Then, a few months before the pandemic hit, the collecting bug bit, hard. Finding “deals” became the goal, whether it was on eBay (that became pretty much impossible by June 2020) or at local card shops or on Facebook Marketplace or antique malls, once those places re-opened. The thrill of the chase and all that good stuff. 

I built a collection of bargain-hunted junk wax that would have been the envy of 14-year-old Ryan. It’s made 40-something Ryan happy, too. I’ve shared small bits of the collection on Twitter pretty much every day since February 2020, with my pack of the day and then with the card of the day thread I started in January 2021 . It’s fun to share the cards; it’s better to hear your stories. It’s been a daily bright spot in what’s been a pretty crummy year. A few months ago, after attending my first card show since probably 1993, I decided I wanted to see what it would be like to step behind the table and experience that element of the hobby (also, I need to clear space in our cramped basement). 

My first show was Sunday, June 13, about 10 miles south of the Ali/Thomas/Brock show.

It was a blast. I really, truly did enjoy the experience. Walking into a mostly empty room at five minutes past 7 a.m. to set up, interacting with the collectors and handing out free packs to the kiddos there with their moms and dads? Lots of fun. 

And my favorite item of the day, a signed Derrick Goold card from the 2020 Allen & Ginter Topps set, sold quickly. Goold, of course, is the outstanding  Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past BBWAA president. Topps gave him a card in the eclectic set after he performed CPR at the ballpark and saved a life . Goold signed and dated this card for me in the Busch Stadium press box, as I took video. I thought that would be a nice, unique bonus. I priced it at $25, with every dollar going to the St. Louis BBWAA scholarship fund .

The collector who bought it, Chris, was thrilled. He said he’d spent his childhood reading about the Cardinals in the pages of the Post-Dispatch with his dad, and he’d read Goold’s work since he starting writing about the Cardinals 17 years ago. Chris bought the card for his dad, and of course I sent him the video, too. It was a really, really cool moment. 

My buddy Marc, who’s been a close friend since college, drove over from Kansas City and split the tables with me. Because of the pandemic and life-is-busy reasons, we hadn’t hung out in person since I moved from Charlotte, N.C., to St. Louis in the fall of 2019. That was a huge part of this equation; I wouldn’t have done this by myself. It’s about sharing an experience with a friend. We had a good mix; he collects mostly newer stuff and singles, while my offerings were mostly nostalgia-driven.

The only way the day could have been more nostalgic was if I had eaten a piece or two of stale gum. Good times, for sure. 

(Ryan Fagan/SN)

But honestly? I feel like that “get a table” itch has been scratched, and I kind of doubt I’ll do it again. I sold enough cards to pay for the table and make a small profit, which was really the bottom-line goal. So that’s good. But I couldn’t shake the sense that it wasn’t everything I had hoped it would be. That’s just the truth. I built the experience up in my mind too much, after bouncing around the walls of a “junk wax is the best” echo chamber on Twitter. 

I set up a table that would have sent me sprinting to an ATM, had I stumbled across it at a show. There was a tiny wall of junk-wax boxes — probably 50 or so — set up, marked below the average eBay sold price (no shipping fees at a card show!). I did a lot of research in the weeks leading up to the show, just to make sure I wasn’t pricing based on, let’s say, January eBay sold listings, when things were REALLY crazy. I had stopped by a new-to-me shop earlier in the week and started talking with the owner. He’d done shows in the past, but nothing in a long time. He said: “I always look at it like this: It’s better to make a fast nickel than a slow dime.”

MORE: Ranking the 13 best sets of the junk wax era of baseball cards

In this current roller-coaster hobby climate, though, it’s hard to know which price is a fast nickel and which price is a slow dime. The best example, maybe, are standard-size top-loaders, the go-to essential supply for anyone wanting to give a decent card a little protection. For years, they’ve sold for maybe $3 or $4 for a pack of 25.

Right now, though, top-loaders are scarce. Even the suppliers can’t get — or keep — product in stock. This shortage is a thing nobody in the hobby could have predicted, but really, isn’t that theme for the past year or so? Now, they’re regularly selling on eBay for more than $10 per pack, up to $15 . Yikes. I stopped at a different local card shop a few days before my show and they were limiting customers to two each, and you could only buy those two if you spent $100. What?!? He said his supplier told him it might be six months before their next shipment. Who knows whether that’s true.

Because here’s the thing: At the show, maybe six tables over from Marc and me, a guy was selling top-loaders, and he had lots of them. He was limiting people to four each, and selling them for $4 a pack. I know this because right before I packed up for the day, around 1:30 p.m., I went over and bought four myself.

Lots of boxes on my table could be had for $15 — that’s 36 doses/packs of nostalgic goodness at 41 cents a rip — and only a couple above $30. I had maybe a dozen boxes sitting open, with packs marked at 50 cents, $1 or $1.50; not including 20ish packs from 1981 and 1982 Fleer priced well below eBay-sold listing averages. I had another couple of hundred packs in boxes marked from 50 cents to $3. I didn’t do an exact count, but if someone had said, “Give me exactly one pack from each unique set!” they would have walked away with packs representing at least 50 different sets. 

It was basically my dream junk wax table, with everything priced at or below “I’d pay that” levels. I took a picture moments before the door opened, for posterity. 

But I didn’t pay a $5 admission and walk through that door, and I’m not sure anyone who shared my approach to the hobby did. Lots of people stopped by, and lots of great conversations were had. One guy, wearing a Cardinals cap and holding a cardboard box full of PSA-graded cards, spent a few minutes chatting. When his buddy said something from another table, Cardinals-cap guy said, “Hold on. I’m looking at my childhood here.”

I liked that. But he didn’t buy anything. Oh well. That happened a decent amount. I really thought, if nothing else, that a lot of people would throw out a couple bucks for a couple packs, just to scratch that nostalgia itch. That’s exactly what I would have done. Heck, I did open a few packs sitting behind the table, because even after a year of busting open hundreds and hundreds of junk wax packs, I still love opening a pack and slowly looking at each card. The mullets! The mustaches! The dad bods! The memories. One guy did buy a combination of 18 1989 Fleer/Donruss/Bowman packs hoping for a Griffey. I found myself really hoping he’d get at least one, with proper centering and sharp corners. 

MORE: Who’s the blame for Target’s decision to halt trading card sales? Everyone.

I’m not complaining, of course. One of the great things about the hobby is that there are so many different — and unique — ways to look at it. One guy asked whether I had any 1992 golf cards, and seemed disappointed that I only had 1991 cards. I mean, what are you going to do? Marc sold about $35 worth of cards from his 50-cent box to a guy who collected solely cards of former Notre Dame football players. That’s no more random than someone who happened to love two-sport athletes; that person would have gone crazy when they saw how many Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan cards I had. 

It would have been cool if a half-dozen people with my exact approach, or at least a collection of players in my wheelhouse, sauntered in. There are two parties, I had to remind myself, to any sale: a buyer and a seller, and their wants/needs/supplies have to line up perfectly. For me, that didn’t happen often Sunday.

In a different setting, at a different show, I really do believe my table would have been a big hit. These boxes and packs sell on eBay, with people paying way more than I was charging. Earlier in the week, I bought a few boxes of 1988 Donruss from a local guy who said he’d made more than $4,500 selling cards exclusively from 1988 to 1991, at $15 to $25 per box — and he didn’t even sell his 1989 Upper Deck cards! But this show wasn’t packed, and the approaches of most people were different than mine. 

Before deciding to do this show, I thought about setting up a couple of tables in my driveway one Saturday morning and advertising a “Junk Wax Baseball Card Yard Sale!” on Facebook marketplace and Nextdoor. Probably wouldn’t get a ton of people, but at least they would come looking for the wax-pack nostalgic goodness. 

And I just might make that happen. That is, if I haven’t opened everything by then. 





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