The business of collectibles

A generation separates Dave Orr and Jake Willey who share life-long interests that grew into two Dubuque collectibles businesses.

“I’ve had a storefront since 1990. Before that I was working out of my home and I called it Dave’s Baseball Card House,” said Orr, 74, owner of Tri-State Baseball Cards at 3330 Asbury Road. “I actually started in 1975. I just kept slowly building it up and getting more and more into it and took off in 1983, 1984. Eventually, my ex-wife said that it needed to go or I needed to go, so we got a store and opened it up.”

Willey, 54, opened Superstars of the Game three or four years ago at 2617 University Ave.

“I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. When I was 11 or 12, I started collecting cards and then going to card shows and setting up, buying, selling and trading,” he said. “My mom got me hooked on garage sales, so I would find baseball cards there and then we would find other collectible things. I just kind of learned the business that way.”

Helen Willey still helps at her son’s business.

“My mom helps a lot,” Willey said. “Other times, I’ll have friends come in and help out, but it’s mainly just us.”

Willey buys and sells cards, but jerseys and other memorabilia make up a big part of his business.

“We probably do the majority of it online, but the foot traffic is getting better,” he said. “We sell a lot on Facebook Marketplace. People find us on there and then they’ll come see what else we have.”

The two shops occupy a space in the collectibles corner of sports retail, a $44 billion industry, according to Verified Market Research, a data firm with offices in Washington D.C., India and Dubai.

“Our typical customers, we have anywhere from kids to adults in their 80s. It’s a slice of the population,” Orr said.

When asked about the most valuable cards he has bought and sold, Orr mentioned a set of cards he bought in the late 1980s that had a 1953 and a 1956 Mickey Mantle and a Michael Jordan rookie card from 1987-1987.

“Those are high-value cards that came in, and we moved them along pretty quickly,” he said.

Willey said he recently bought a collection that included a Cincinnati Bengals No. 9 jersey autographed by Joe Burrow, along with several of the quarterback’s rookie cards that had been graded highly by Professional Sports Authenticator, a leading third-party evaluator.

“Then we got a Chicago Bulls autographed basketball from their first championship in 1990-91, so you’re talking Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin, Phil Jackson,” Willey said. “That is probably around an $8,000 basketball.”

Expecting to see a big return on an investment in cards, jerseys and other memorabilia, however, shouldn’t be the only reason to start a collection.

“During COVID, card prices went through the roof. A lot of people got into it with the intent to make money instead of enjoying the hobby and they ran up credit card debts,” Orr said. He said some of those collectors have had to dump cards since then and prices have come back down to normal.

“The first thing I tell everyone is collect what you like. If you have a certain player you like, collect it. And as you’re collecting it, make sure you keep it in good shape.

“I have stuff I collect. It’s not that big because I have a narrow collection. I only collect stuff from 1960 to 65, which are the years of my childhood when I enjoyed doing it. I collect stuff that’s a good memory for me.”

Willey has a similar narrow focus to his personal collection.

“I collect a little bit of everything, but my all-time favorite player is Walter Payton,” he said of the Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back. “I’m always on the hunt for something that I don’t have.”