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On the Job: For Him, It's All in the Cards

Jerry Mudra has operated All Star Cards since 1987, weathering the ups and downs of the collectible business while adapting to the Internet age

Back in 1987, when Jerry Mudra opened his sports card shop in Santee, he had no clue about the rollercoaster ride the business was about to take.

Just months after opened its doors, the sports card biz went crazy, riding an unprecedented bubble of inflation, interest and investments. Like the dot.com and stock market bubbles, people rushed into the card market in hopes of turning cardboard into cash.

Suddenly, investing in old Mickey Mantles and new Jose Cansecos was the hot talk, and card shops and card shows were popping up everywhere.

After just a few years, however, the bubble burst. Then, in the click of a mouse, the Internet changed everything. Throw in baseball’s steroid era and a recession, and Mudra has seen a complete evolution of the collectible card industry.

But, All Star Cards and Mudra are still here. The rollercoaster took some crazy turns, but Mudra never lost his balance.

“It’s dwindled to nothing,” says Mudra, 57, of the number of card shops in the San Diego area. “In 1992, there were probably 80 stores in San Diego.” Now, he estimates the number is four or five in an area that stretches from Santee to San Diego and from Chula Vista to Rancho Bernardo. (Those are the pure card shops, the ones that focus on cards, not memorabilia.)

The rest have vanished.

Mudra looks around his shop and points out remnants from the card boom: stacked, sealed and unopened boxes from the late ’80s and early ’90s that include some of the most coveted cards of the era: the rookie cards of Canseco, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds.

“Manufacturers just printed and printed and printed and everybody bought these cards and saved them,” he says. “Those boxes of cards were $15 to $20 a box and those same boxes we now sell for $10 a box. And if you buy them in quantity, I can sell them to you for $5 a box.”

After the boom

Now, post boom and bust, the card business is more like it was when Mudra opened his shop. It’s a niche business geared toward those who collect because they enjoy it, not because they’re trying to get rich.

“We’re telling people don’t buy (cards) as an investment,” Mudra says. “If you want to invest your money, go put it in a bank because nothing’s guaranteed in buying sports cards. Just do it for fun, not to make money, otherwise it’s not fun because you’re going to get (ticked) off.”

The old baseball cards – anything before about 1975, Mudra says – were the most valuable cards before the boom, and remain so today. The ones created during the glut were just too common to retain their value. While a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie Upper Deck card may be worth $40, tops, he says, other Griffey rookie cards may fetch $2.50. Those Cansecos and McGwires, may bring $1.

Plus many of the superstars of the era are tainted by allegations they used steroids and human growth hormone – including McGwire, Palmeiro, Bonds and Roger Clemens – and the interest in those cards has fallen.

Today, All Star Cards is one of the few surviving shops for several reasons.

Mudra, who moved from Santee to Lakeside about 10 years ago, has kept things simple and stable, used common sense and changed with the times.

“Low overhead,” he says.

He’s never moved. He’s in the same small mall off Cuyamaca Street where he opened in 1987 (though in a bigger space). By staying put, he’s kept costs low, though the shop has no access to walk-ins and can barely be seen from the street.

“You see the location,” he says, laughing. “It’s a terrible location. It’s the worst location in the world for a retail store.”

For another, it’s just Mudra and his daughter, Michele, who run the place, six days a week (closed on Sundays). They’ve worked together 17 years.

Also, Mudra has adapted. Now, a good chunk of the shop’s business is done online.

When Mudra talks about the tasks he needs to do each week, at the top of the list is posting products, answering questions and emails and shipping, all from Web sales.

“It’s a huge part of it now,” he says. “If you’ve adjusted, (the Internet) has been OK. Stores that didn’t adjust, there’s no business. There’s very little walk-in business anymore.”

Shuffling in from Buffalo

Mudra grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and began collecting cards for the reason most kids do: he just wanted his favorite players and teams.

Back then, it was baseball’s Cincinnati Reds and any of the Buffalo teams: the hockey Sabres, the basketball Braves (who later became the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers) and football Bills.

He sought out cards of the Reds’ Pete Rose and Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert of the Sabres’ French Connection line.

But the cards he collected were treated much differently than the cards purchased today. Then, they were flipped, sorted, traded and stuffed in shoeboxes. Now they’re protected in plastic and rarely touched, since every card is judged by its condition.

Mudra stopped collecting as he entered his teens, but then started again as an adult when he started seeing people buying and selling the cards he once owned.

He says he was surprised “it was something that hadn’t faded away.”

His old collection – filled with Rose, Mantle and Willie Mays cards -- had long since disappeared.

So, while he worked as a merchandiser for a drug company in Buffalo, or in retail here in San Diego – after moving here with his ex-wife – he built up his collection again.

That was the base of inventory he used for his store in 1987 (which he opened while still servicing a vending machine route).

Eventually, he dropped the route and concentrated on the shop.

Today, he has 4 million to 5 million cards in stock, 85 percent of them sports cards. The rest are gaming cards, such as Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!

Baseball cards remain the No. 1 items year round, with football popular during the season.

The clients these days are mostly adults. While kids still buy, he estimates 75 percent of his customers are 18 or over. Some, who used to come in when they were kids, bring their own children now.

Still a collector

Mudra remains a collector of items that mean something to him.

At his home he keeps some boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali, some ticket stubs signed by hockey stars Phil and Tony Esposito and an autographed Mickey Mantle figurine.

“The stuff that’s one of a kind, personalized to me,” he says. “I watched them sign it.”

Most of his time, however, he’s at his shop with Michele, surrounded by the items that fill it: cards behind counters, on the walls and stacked in boxes; figurines, mini helmets, autographed photos and a few bats and balls.

The TV is on and always tuned to sports. Customers can linger, talk or sit at a table to go through boxes or trade.

Michele says it’s an environment that draws people back again and again.

“Everyone’s friendly with them and they like to come in and talk,” she says of customers.

It’s also an atmosphere that suits Jerry just fine.

“We just BS all day long,” he says with a laugh. “We talk sports, we talk whatever we want: politics, restaurants, whatever. And in between that we’ll sell some cards, ship a few packages.”

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