When you walk into Elite Sports Cards and Comics on Chicago's North Side, sports cards are everywhere - inside display cases, on counters, behind counters, in boxes. Owner Ronnie Hollway is having trouble keeping them in stock.
"It has been traumatically busy, and it’s hard to keep product on shelves, so I’m trying to buy as much as I can just to accommodate the customers and make sure that we have it for them," Holloway said.
It's a welcome change for Holloway, who's been involved in the sports card industry for three decades. When he started in the industry, business was booming. Then, for a number of reasons, it took a nose dive for many years. But lately, it's been brought back to life.
"It's very exciting," said Holloway. "We haven't had this since the 1990s, since the Bulls were making that run."
Over the last few months, Holloway has seen sales rise quite a bit, but people aren't just spending their money at local stores. People are breaking the bank at auctions, too. Just last month, a signed LeBron James rookie sold for more than $1.8 million, setting a new record for modern cards.
So what's led to the business boom? Holloway and others believe the pandemic is playing a big role. People have felt bored while stuck at home for months, and many are getting reacquainted with their old cards, some of which are worth big bucks.
"People needed to have something to do," Holloway said. "They wanted to find something to do, and this was a perfect opportunity for them to say, ‘I’m pulling out my cards. I’m looking at them. I’m back into it. I’m excited.’”
And it's not just adults who are growing increasingly interested in sports cards. Kids, like 10-year-old Nathan Massel, have spent the pandemic building their collections as well.
"It just gives you something to do, because there’s not much to do during the pandemic, and they’re worth something, and you can make money off them," Massel said. "So it’s pretty much just a win-win every way."
Inside Massel's family's home on the North Side, the entire dining room table is populated by cards. He's built his collection, which he estimates to be 15,000 cards, in large part through purchases at Elite Sports Cards and Comics.
"You can literally spend about four hours there, which I’ve done," said Massel.
His obsession has even driven him to start a YouTube channel, called Nathan's Cards, where he can share his love of the hobby with others.
"It’s been pretty fun, because you get to open products, and if you pull something really huge, you get to save it on YouTube forever so people can watch it," he said.
Massel's favorite cards to collect? Baseball. And while he loves the game, it's the chase for something special (and valuable) that keeps him buying.
"Could be life-changing, it really could be," he said before referencing a Mike Trout card that sold for $600,000.
So far, Massel hasn't hit the jackpot on a life-changing card, but thankfully, his financial future isn't in doubt. Holloway finds the 10-year-old boy's knowledge of the industry to be very impressive, so he's already offered him a job.
"Hopefully one day when he gets old enough, he’ll be able to come in and work for me, because that is my future employee," Holloway said.