First Base keeps defying odds

"Much like a rock and roll band, the Lawrence family, owners of First Base Trading Cards and Comics, have enjoyed a loyal following that's helped them withstand the increasing death of hobby stores throughout the country.Since 1986, Jim and Janet Lawrence, along with sons Greg and Steve, have maintained a hobby shop loaded with sports and non-sports cards, comics, and various hobby supplies.After three years in Manchester, the Lawrences have spent the last 12 years in their building on Mile Hill Drive.It's there the hobby store has withstood the baseball strike of 1994, a burglary and the advent of internet auction sites.The popularity of hobby shops hit an all-time high in the 1980s. It was common to find at least one hobby store in every town in America.Greg Lawrence said his parents had no financial motive for opening up a hobby store.Part of the reason we opened it was so me and Steve could learn how a business is run instead of flipping burgers, Lawrence said. Lawrence said a love of the hobby has always been in the family.My dad used to collect baseball cards, and I've been collecting cards since I was four or five. We used to drive up to the warehouse in Edmonds (now Pacific Trading Cards) and swap meets in Tacoma on weekends.While baseball cards have been the crown jewel of hobby cards, Lawrence said popularity has risen over the past five years in football, basketball, hockey and racing.But Lawrence said the hobby shop wouldn't survive without the popularity of non-sports cards such as Magic, Pokemon, Digimon, Star Wars and Star Trek.The hobby shop is known to have two types of customers: collectors and gamers.Lawrence, who has always been a collector in baseball and football cards, said he resisted the temptation of being a gamer.But the resistance was futile and the family got hooked on Magic.After we'd close the shop at (6 p.m.) sometimes we'd play until five or six in the morning, Lawrence said.Lawrence said the store must co-exist between sports and non-sports or else the hobby store would fall flat on its face.Three years ago the Lawrences felt like they had fallen flat on their face when they walked into an empty store.They store had been cleaned out by a burglar.All seemed lost until Janet remembered a suspicious customer a couple of days earlier.He asked strange enough questions she wrote down his license plate number when he left.Sure enough, the license plate led the police to his residence which, still had boxes of cards sitting outside his home.Everything was recovered. The Lawrences also recovered from a lull in baseball card sales after the baseball strike in 1994.It took two years before faith in baseball brought back the customer.The popularity of a certain hobby always fluctuates, Lawrence said, and it's important the store carry whatever is hot.Comic books maintained a popularity for more than 30 years before economic overspeculation killed it in the mid-1990s.Magic went through a phase of dormancy, but Lawrence said it, along with comic books, are making a comeback. The Pokemon and Digimon craze lasted well over a year and continues to bring in customers.Without Pokemon, I don't know what we'd do, Lawrence said. It (the craze) was just insane.The sports card industry has undergone a huge facelift.Gone are the days of companies mass-producing cards.Rookie cards of athletes have always been a driving force in the sports card hobby, but all cards were so plentiful in the 1980s and early 1990s that there was no element of surprise.In 1993 Upper Deck came up with an idea of short-printing baseball rookie cards. It was a master stroke, as hobby enthusiasts would try to chase down the cards they need to fill a set or to collect their favorite player.That idea has brought a whole new meaning to today's hobby.Card companies, always looking to push the envelope, now have cards that contain autographs and game-used material such as pieces of a uniform, bat, batting glove, or hat.This has also evolved the hobby into more into a business instead of a hobby.There are more than a half-dozen grading companies that professionally grade the condition of cards. The better the condition, the more its worth.Lawrence said the hobby doesn't just have collectors anymore.There are two kinds of collectors, he said. There are those who enjoy (sports cards) and the others buy them and sell them so they can make money.The internet has fueled the economics of the sports card industry.E-bay is the worldwide leader in on-line auctions and hobby shops have taken a big hit.More and more dealers have shut down their stores and sit in front of a computer all day selling cards from the comfort of home.E-bay has made a definite line in the hobby between the collector and investor, Lawrence said. Despite E-bay's stronghold on the hobby, Lawrence said it has not affected the family store.I don't think it's affected our business because it's such a small market here, he said. The people that come in here aren't usually investors. It's a social thing for them. It's an excuse to come down and interact with people and talk sports (or play games).Lawrence said he has nothing against E-bay. He said he thinks it has maintained a popularity with the hobby, but it isn't the hobby.We're not in it for the money, Lawrence said. We're here because we enjoy it. We all have other jobs. If we wanted to make money we'd have to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week and sit in front of a computer buying and selling product. I couldn't imagine making a living at it. "

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