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Setting Up As A Novice Card Show Dealer

“Is it worth my time to price all my cards for sale?”


This is the question I was facing as I was setting up as a card show dealer for the first time in nine months this past Saturday.  Generally speaking, it is a commonly understood standard practice as a card show dealer to make sure you know the ins and outs of your inventory, specifically putting sticker prices on your cards.  After all, you wouldn’t just go to your local grocery store to ask how much everything costs right?  But are cards analogous to grocery store items that generally have fixed prices and are not negotiable?  (Could you imagine a world where you could haggle over the price of eggs?)


I don’t know where you are situated as you read this, and I don’t mean where you physically are, whether that’s your living room or dining room or heck, maybe even the bathroom (but I certainly hope you are not reading this while driving).  What I mean is I don’t know where you are situated geographically, because I am cognizant that many collectors are in card show deserts, where the closest card show is more than a couple of hours driving and happen maybe once a quarter, if that.  That is why I do consider myself lucky to be in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where we have shows almost every weekend, whether they are in Fairfax, Annandale, Stafford, or Fredericksburg in Northern Virginia, or in Elkridge or Silver Spring in Southern Maryland (zero in the District of Columbia proper far as I know!).  We also of course have the Chantilly Card Show once a quarter, which is a regional show of national prominence.


Going back to the question of whether to price my cards, I had just got over feeling under the weather in the week leading up to the Fairfax Card Show in the basement of a Comfort Inn in Fairfax, VA on December 9, 2023.  I had a general idea of what the prices of my cards were, but did not refresh the comps on all of them, and I felt that I could have crunched and stayed up late to look up recent sales, but I thought to myself, “Why bother doing this when the majority of buyers are going to just look up the recent sales on their phones and start negotiating from there?”


I have set up as a dealer five times prior, all between November 2022 to March 2023, at small shows (such as this one) in Stafford, VA and Annandale, VA.  Twice, I barely covered my table fee, and I make no claims to be an expert, or even a good dealer, so take this entire article with a grain of salt.  To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing (I still don’t), but I wanted to give it a shot, because why not, which was the essence and spirit of my podcast, The Card Diary by Hobby S. Thompson.  


I was out there slinging low end slabs, mostly modern and ultra modern basketball.  I missed the Zion and Lamelo hype couple of years ago and so I got caught up in that upon my entry back into The Hobby, but I was buying just paper base rookie slabs and for the lack of a better phrase, wandering (and spending) aimlessly in the dark forest that we call Whatnot.  So that was my inventory, just cards that meant nothing to me and exemplified almost immediate buyer’s remorse and regrets (I have not purchased from Whatnot since probably March 2023, but instead make my purchase mistakes elsewhere).


The good (and bad) thing about setting up as a card show dealer is that there is an incredibly low barrier to entry.  You need two things - pay the table fee (in my case, it was $50 for a 3x6 table, but I split it with a card friend and so my cost basis was $25) and have a pulse.  That’s it.  


You don’t even have to have cards.  There were dealers selling sealed wax, funko pops, memorabilia, in addition to their value bin boxes and slab showcases.  


You don’t even have to say hello.  I know some people who set up, not just at this show but shows in general, who don’t say hello to anyone who walks up.  I’ve seen dealers fall asleep at their table or read newspapers/magazines, or be on their phone (presumably to read Hobby News Daily, right?).


You don’t even have to sell anything!  Once you pay the table fee, you’re free to do whatever you want, and I have seen, again not just this show but other shows, where vendors don’t sell a single item, but they keep setting up again and again, and part of me wishes I could just go up to ask them what their reason for setting up is, but the bigger part of me believes that it’s best to just leave them be.


Anyone can be a dealer, and I think that’s something amazing, but also somewhat concerning in my opinion.  There is no test of knowledge, no interview, no moral or ethics check, but there is something very important called reputation.  That is why I set out, like I do with anything in and out of The Hobby, to try and turn lemons into lemonade.


The foot traffic for this December 9 show was painfully slow.  At no point except for one brief rush around noon were there more buyers than dealers.  Admission price wasn’t the issue, as it was free for everyone.  This is also not an indictment on the promoter either, that’s not my style, and so I understand that it is a down market, but also it is after all the holiday season when people are out buying presents and doing much more merrier things than buying, selling, and trading cards in the basement of a Comfort Inn in Fairfax, VA.  (Having said all that, I know that this show was not heavily advertised or promoted on social media and also the information that was in the Beckett show locator website had this show being the following week, on December 16, and so when I posted on social media that I was going to set up, people reached out to confirm the date, and I ended up helping some people understand the correct date and time of the show so that they didn’t miss it.)


By not pricing out my cards, I know I was setting myself up for potential disaster and going back to that word, reputation, have a reputation of not being a good dealer.  But I like to think what I lacked in sticker prices, I made up for with good cheer and energy and a willingness to look comps up with any potential buyer, show them my phone with the comps I pulled up, look at their phone with the comps they pulled up, and have a willingness to work with them.  I had less than a couple dozen folks walk by my table, and I made around six sales (also meaning six new friends in The Hobby), which I think was a pretty good rate all things considered.


I greeted every person as they approached the table, made small talk, which I understand not everyone wants to do, but I offered a willingness to chat, even if they did not want to buy anything.  I put my phone down until it was time to comp cards, and if this was a busy show, it would have meant potentially having a bottleneck of folks wanting to make deals.  I would ask both kids and adults alike who their favorite players were, which sports they like to watch, and for the kids, I would root through my value bins and pluck out cards for them to just have, because I knew that it would make their day.  Even if they briefly took a glance at my showcase and walked away, I thanked them for stopping by.  


In the end, I think that yes, you go to a card show for the cards, but you can also just as easily buy cards online, and so it has to be more than just the cardboard.  I also ended up making a couple of trades with fellow dealers and bought some value bin purchases for my PC from other dealers.  I am proud of myself for some deals and sales I did not make, declining low ball offers and handling some rude folks, where the very first thing out of their mouth when they approach a table is “Are you buying?”  It’s not great when a kid does it, but it’s even worse when a grown adult does that and does not have the decency to start with a hello!


All in all, it was eight hours of hobby time, and given the slow pace of the show, I am glad I did not take all the time to price my cards, because that allowed time for me and the potential buyer to chat and even collaborate on the sale price.  It was fun but also exhausting, and I do applaud those who set up weekend after weekend to provide a good card show experience, because when there is a good mix of buyers and dealers, there is a magical buzz in the air, and much like the cards we pine for, isn’t that feeling something that we all like to chase?


PS:  What’s up with the price of eggs?

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