While Major League Baseball tries to hold on to its fan base, a business born from the national pastime — baseball-card stores — has been in a decadelong slide, forcing card-store owners to scramble to maintain their niche and learn valuable business lessons in the process.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the baseball-card business boomed into a billion-dollar industry, drawing kids as well as adults who hoped their cards would appreciate in value over time.

Walter Curioni, owner of Curioni’s Market in Lodi, N.J., jumped into the baseball-card game a generation ago. Curioni sold baseball cards as a side business at his pizzeria beginning in 1988, and at the height of the baseball-card craze he would spend between $20,000 and $25,000 on cards per year.

“In the late 1980s, people would think someone would be a huge home-run hitter or something in the future, so they would buy their rookie card almost as an investment,” Curioni said. “But now, that whole idea has just fallen through the floor for me. I really only sell cards now if people call me up looking to finish a set.”

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According to the weekly publication Sports Collectors Digest, card sales peaked at $1.2 billion in 1991, but dropped below $400 million by the end of the 2000s. In that period, the magazine said, the number of dedicated sports-card stores dropped to 500 from 5,000.

Some store owners said video games where children can trade or play with their favorite players has had a role in the decline in the allure of baseball cards. Also, free agency has loosened the bond between fans and players who constantly change teams.

Interestingly, the Internet has been less of a bane to collectors than for other business models. Online commerce has allowed the remaining stores to expand their business beyond local collectors.

The diminished market has made the hunt to find rare and valuable cards essential for the remaining stores.

“Now the more big-ticket cards you have — like the Mickey Mantle rookies or the Joe DiMaggio rookies — the more credibility it adds to your inventory,” said Richard Budnick, the owner of America’s Pastime in Fair Lawn, N.J.

A Joe DiMaggio rookie card can sell for more than $1,000, and a 1952 Mickey Mantle card can cost him upward of $15,000, Budnick said, which he can then sell for a profit. Finding such highly valued vintage cards isn’t easy, though.

When he attends national or regional sport-card shows, Budnick said, he brings “tens of thousands of dollars” in cash to spend.
The key, he said, is finding a way to get a leg up on his competitors — such as going a day early — because there are only so many cards that collectors are willing to spend significant money on.

“Today’s buys are tomorrow’s sales,” Budnick said. “It’s like being a hunter. I’m going up against a guy like me in Chicago and doing what I’m doing. I just have to beat them to the card.”