Paul owns Don’s Sports Card Center, a wood-paneled shrine to sports culture’s past and present, on Brighton Avenue in Portland. As he sipped a Dunkin’ Donut’s coffee, he showed me around his shop: pointing out the Ted William’s poster on the wall, the baseball cards that once came with cigarettes, and a collection of old record players that he seemed to love more than the cards. For the past ten years, he’s made his living on little bits of paper. And in that room full of carefully sealed and cataloged cards, there was one that he insisted I see, hold, and read: a birthday card made by Paul’s granddaughter.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A COLLECTOR?
When I was little, I bought baseball cards and things like that, but I never saved anything. I lost it all in the schoolyard.
WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU LIKE TO SAVE NOW?
Someone just asked me that today. They said, “You must have a lot of things in your house.” And I said, “I don’t really at all.” I think I must have about two baseball cards at my house. But I’m here in the shop with my collection all day long, in a way. But sometimes something special comes by, and special doesn’t have to mean expensive, like I collect old records. My wife got one of my favorite records at a yard sale for ten cents.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW THIS STORE CAME INTO YOUR LIFE?
Well, I got back into collecting in about 1985-86 with my two boys. We started collecting baseball cards together and going to shows. And Don owned this shop at the time and I worked for the telephone company. He kept trying to get me to buy it. When I retired, they gave us a decent “early-out” and when I turned the page on that part of my life, I was down here working several days a week. He was going to sell the shop, so my wife and I thought, “Let’s buy it.”
DO YOU REMEMBER ANY OF THE CARDS YOU HAD WHEN YOU WERE LITTLE?
Yes. I was at the flea market one time and I had some 1948 football cards. And a guy looked at them and said, “I feel like I am in my backyard in my childhood.” I remember they made a Zorro and a Robin Hood card and I remember them so well from when I was a kid. It’s like hearing a song, you remember that song and it’s just… wow. A lot of guys feel this way.
WAS THE APPEAL ALWAYS FOR THE CARDS? OR FOR THE PRODUCT THAT CAME WITH THEM?
They used to have candy cards and tobacco cards. Some came with bubblegum. When the companies did this, they wanted you to buy the bubblegum, so they included the cards. They didn’t start this so you would buy cards. They did this so you could buy gum and candy. And eventually it’s the other way around. To me it’s about the players. I don’t know if girls collect, my daughter doesn’t collect and my wife might collect shoes or pocket books, but guys like to collect. And some guys collect the whole set. They might want to collect the whole 1955 set, for example. There is also a set registry, and some people want the best rating for a card. If they are insanely rich, instead of paying $100 for a card, they’ll pay $1,000 if it has a high grade. The condition of a card factors into the rating. My favorites are the 1956’s and the Red Sox catchers from 1953 because they are just beautiful Kodachrome color. They were so successful they did another run that were black and white and they were the most hideous cards I’ve ever seen!
WHEN YOU WERE A KID, WHO WERE YOUR FAVORITE PLAYERS?
Ted Williams. I was a Red Sox guy. I’m still a Red Sox guy. I’m interested in other sports, but not like baseball. Baseball is still king.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING THROUGH THE CARDS THAT CUSTOMERS BRING YOU?
When people bring in cards, I tell them straight up, “This is the stuff I like.” I like this or I enjoy looking at that. If we don’t come to an agreement on price, that’s okay. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. But I’d much rather look at older cards that newer cards. But the newer cards have a big role in collecting now though. Sometimes I remind dads about their sons and tell them, “Don’t forget that they have their own heroes.” You think Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle was great and they might think Bo Jackson or Jacoby Ellsbury is great.
DO YOU WORRY THAT THE PASSION FOR TRADING CARDS WILL DIE OUT?
Younger generations aren’t as interested. I think they have more things to be interested in. When I was a kid, I would go to the store with my nickel and I might buy a pack of baseball cards or Davy Crockett cards. There weren’t any video games or anything like that. I used to work with a fellow and he said he’d bring me the cards he had when he was a kid. So he brought in a little cigar box and opens the box and he brings out the early Bowman, a 1950 or 1951. And on the top of the box, he had pasted little pictures that he had cut out of magazines and newspapers. And he says he remembers that he and his brother would fight over the magazines for the pictures of those athletes, quarterbacks or whatever. Because it wasn’t like today with ESPN where you are just getting pounded with things. Back then, if you saw a picture of Ted Williams in a magazine, it was scarce! It was a commodity. There’s an elderly gentlemen who lives right across the street from me. He grew up down in Biddeford. And he told me about coming up to Portland with his grandmother, just to look at the South Portland bridge. That was a big deal.
ARE THERE PIECES THAT YOUR CUSTOMERS ALWAYS GET EXCITED ABOUT?
One of the things that a lot of people look for if they’ve been a collector for a long time is that they are looking for something different. It might not even be a card; it might be something really odd. Like one guy found a coin here from 1912. It was something interesting that he hadn’t seen before. And one thing about baseball is that once kids get into baseball, they get sucked into the history of baseball.
HOW DO SPORTS CONNECT YOU TO YOUR COMMUNITY?
It’s like the old Beach Boy’s song, “Be True to Your School.” That was a great song! But it translates across the country. One thing that happens in New England, it’s so different than anywhere else. The Red Sox had a guy named Fred Lynn from California. And he was a great player: the first guy ever to be Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same year. But he had a hard time here in the East Coast because he couldn’t get used to how important baseball was here. He was just playing ball, it wasn’t a live or die thing. He ended up leaving Boston to play for the Angels. One of the great things about sports is when my kids were growing up, if I wanted to talk to my son about his homework, I would start by talking about the Tigers. We’d get to homework eventually, but it might take a while. It’s a good bridge.
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS WHEN IT COMES TO SPORTS?
Only if the team wins. If they lose, I’m not. When the Red Sox were in the World Series, I think I was sick or something and I had on my pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. And they won the game. Okay. Every day, same chair, same outfit. I have to! I don’t want to take a chance.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My grandchildren, I’d say. I’m supposed to say my wife! It’s my birthday today. We have four grandchildren and my three-year-old brought me a drawing.
WHAT’S A LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE, OR ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW?
Just keep moving. Don’t get down on things. I guess I feel like I learned a lot of my lessons earlier in life, and now it’s just about applying what I’ve learned. When I worked for the phone companies out on the islands, we used to run around on boats. And I asked a guy who knew about such boats, “When it gets rough, how do you usually run it?” And he said, “Point the nose and run the throttle.” And I thought, yeah! And life is like that sometimes. Sometimes (things) looks a little rough and you figure out which way to go and give it some throttle.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Our family. Family and health.
AND WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE?
Family and health. I guess really struggles are what you make them.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
When kids are enjoying the shop. That’s always the best part.