Card Shop Spotlight 1: Lab 20 Sports Cards

mobile lab20
Jason Koeppel // ONE37pm

Welcome to the first of my card shop spotlight series, which will focus on the people and stories behind some of the top hobby shops on the planet.

As a kid, I can vividly remember walking into hobby shops on Saturday afternoons after Little League games.  At 11 years old I couldn’t quite articulate the fun I had sifting through old Topps Chrome football cards, nor could I explain why I thought tiny pictures of Derrick Rose and Tim Tebow were cool.  But I did, and I still have that same feeling when I walk into a shop to this day.

In this new series, I intend to explore the heartbeat of the hobby: local card shops. The sports card market is valued at over $20 billion, and that number is expected to skyrocket in the next decade. However, this resurgence would not have been possible if it weren’t for shops across the country.  These articles will take a look at them all - from the biggest stores in New York or LA to the Main Street spots in small towns. 

In each entry, I will be introducing an LCS and providing some information about their location, history, and specialties. I’ll also be conducting a Q&A with the owners and employees to gain more insight about running a shop.
To kick off this series, I will be starting things in my own backyard.  My father, Josh, and I own and operate Lab 20 Sports Cards, a retail store in Saint Paul, Virginia. We are thrilled to share our story and offer some perspective as a father/son duo. So, let’s jump right into the first card shop spotlight!

The Brick and Mortar

lab20 storefront
Lab 20 Sports Cards

We began crafting a retail space in October 2018, which was located in a 450-square-foot office space.  It was about the size of Harry Potter’s bedroom,  but it was one of the few local shops in the area.  Lab 20 was originally only open on Saturdays and Sundays, but we did some breaks on Instagram and Facebook as well.  As the sports card market began to boom during the pandemic,  my dad left his previous job as an Innovation Center Manager for a local college and committed to the hobby full time.  Shortly thereafter, we relocated to a 2,000+ square foot in the business district of town.

We like to keep 4-5 large showcases stocked with new sports and Pokemon singles, as well as several shelves for supplies.  There is also a lounge area to rip boxes, a service counter to drop off collections, and a station to submit cards for grading.  Of course, we are always trying to expand, but our current mission is to be a five-tool card shop for the everyday collector.

lab20 interior
Jacob Sawyers // ONE37pm

As the hobby began to grow to new heights, my father and I started transitioning into online breaks and eBay as channels to grow our business.  In doing so, this allowed us to invest in our storefront more and curate a space for local collectors.

We had built a small clientele on Instagram and Facebook, but our online presence gained traction when we became a seller on Loupe in 2020.  Breaking on Livestream apps like Loupe helped us turn over more inventory than we had in the past, and it also helped us strengthen connections within the hobby.  We began to travel to more shows to find quality cards and boxes for our buyers, meeting many friendly faces along the way.  Our team was also expanding: we added Casey, a breaker, to handle many of our streams and live sales.  

lab20 national
Jacob Sawyers // ONE37pm

Owning a card shop in a smaller rural area has both advantages and drawbacks. For starters, our overhead is comparatively low, which allows us to budget more for traveling.  We are also the only LCS in a 30-mile radius, so we do not have to compete with others to stay open.  However, our large regional area has made word-of-mouth a little difficult at times. Facebook marketing and Trade Nights have become great methods for us to get our name out. Thankfully, we have seen immense growth in the store over the last few years, and it has been heartwarming to see collectors in our community discover a new place to hang out and chop it up.

Q & A

lab20 virginia
Jacob Sawyers // ONE37pm

I sat down with my father, Josh Sawyers, and asked him about his experience of owning a card shop.  Here is what he had to say:

How long have you been in the hobby?

JS: My first memories are in 1986 when I had a Jose Canseco Donruss Rated Rookie that I use to carry in a bread back with my other cards to trade with friends in the neighborhood. I remember keeping my backpack stock with 50-cent packs to sell in the school lunchroom. Similar to many others, I stayed involved in cards through college, and then slowed down after getting married and having kids. Once my children started to have an interest in collecting, I got back in the swing of things and have been pretty involved ever since. 

What has been your biggest joy in owning a shop? 

JS:  Being able to do it alongside my son.  One day in 2018, I asked Jacob if he wanted to open up a shop, and he replied with an emphatic “yes!” Ever since then, I’ve been able to work alongside him and travel the country, which are experiences we wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for sports cards.  

We’ve also been able to help the local community and move a business into the downtown district of St. Paul.  Having a shop here shows me that entrepreneurship is alive and well in a rural environment.  

What has been your biggest frustration?

JS: There’s a tie for that one.  We were extremely lucky to get started in 2018 and secure some wax allocation.  However, as the demand has grown, it has gotten tougher and tougher to find sealed products. So, a large portion of our week is spent on finding reasonably-priced boxes for our customers. Regardless, I am really excited about Fanatics’ acquisition of Topps, and I’m eager to see how they reinvent the distribution process.

The other part of the job I don’t like is having to tell someone that their collection from the 80s and 90s isn’t going to allow them to retire anytime soon.  It’s always disheartening to break that news, and I dread it every time.  

What would you say to someone who wants to open up a card shop?

JS:  Before you open up, do your homework and plan on starting small.  Research local card shops in your area and find out what they are and aren’t doing so you can fill in gaps for collectors in the community.  As your business expands, learn more about your customer base and ways you can help their collections and alleviate their needs.  It’s impossible to do everything at once. But if one facet of the shop is running smoothly, look to diversify your operations.

How are you looking to grow your business moving forward?

JS:  There’s a couple.  We’ve seen tremendous growth online in the last 3 years, but I believe one of our best options for revenue growth is building our e-commerce platform.  After moving into our new shop, our plan was to create a website for wax and graded cards.  When we found Loupe, we really didn’t have the excess inventory to build a substantial website at the time. Now, I’m definitely wanting to keep a nice balance of boxes to break and boxes to sell on the website. 

I’d also like to continue to build our grading services for local customers. There aren’t many places in Southwestern Virginia for bulk submissions, so growing ours and educating the buyer about grading is on my checklist for the future.

Which card shops would you like to see featured? Let us know on Instagram and Twitter @CardTalkPod!

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