I return there sometimes in my dreams. Plodding down the streets of my childhood, I turn sharply to the right and push through the door as the bell clangs announcing my presence. A middle-aged man is bent over rummaging; he peers past the display case and calls to me in acknowledgment. The air is warm and humid inviting me to peel off my jacket, hat, and gloves. I throw them on top of an antique credenza. The price tag is the only spoiler that this aged piece of furniture is one of the shop’s offerings and not an overpriced coat hanger. I pull up to the counter and stare down into the display case to see if the new Dwight Gooden rookie card has arrived. The year is 1985. My eyes feast on the delicious morsels laid out on the counter in front of me. A twelve-year-old not able to read the tea leaves or grasp what the future will hold. A few years later Dwight Gooden will become the victim of a vicious cocaine addiction. My mom will remarry and we will leave my beloved childhood home. And the man in front of me, the shop owner, will face his own battle with cancer and bankruptcy.
There was no greater love, in childhood, than baseball and baseball cards. I spent countless afternoons glued to WGN watching my beloved Cubs blow it on a regular basis. Ryne Sandberg, Leon Durham, Ron Cey, Rick Sutcliffe. The names pop in and out of my mind like it was yesterday.
This worship took physical form in the collection and deification of those little square pieces of stock paper packaged in wax and cellophane, and besmirched by a rotten piece of chewing gum. You could not take a single step into my room without your foot crumpling into a stack of cards strewn on the already busy floor.
The center of my worship was an antique store a mile down Central Street. The proprietor stumbled into the card business when a former customer swindled him out of a Ricky Henderson rookie card for next to nothing. That former customer, now employee, taught him the ins and outs of the business. Before long, local kids swarmed into the store to buy and sell.
Antiques were now an afterthought. Business was booming.
Booming, that is, till cancer and bankruptcy changed everything.
Product vs. personality
It would be a mistake to say that the store’s success was solely do to selling the right product, to the right customer, at the right time. The owner was smarter than that. What really sold the store was neither the hobby nor the price, it was the owner. The kindest of men, he created a place for the misfits, the friendless, the geeks and dorks. And we came. In droves. To ooh and ah at each other’s clever trades. To be a part of a community that we so longed for.
It was all so dreamy. So perfect. So calm. Until cancer.
I remember the day he sat us all down and introduced his replacement that would fill in over the next few months as he underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Self-centered as kids are, we worried not only about his wellbeing but our own. We feared that our gathering place, our place of safety, would wiggle out of our immature clumsy hands.
His replacement neither had the personal flare nor the business savvy to create that community that once flourished. Sales dropped every month as the proprietor recovered and became stronger, his financial status worsened.
Stretched between medical bills, a flagging business, and the fatigue of chemotherapy, he finally returned to a business on the brink of bankruptcy.
And then the baseball card market crashed. My generation of customers was now in high school and was more concerned with girls than batting averages and RBIs.
I remember seeing him one last time before the store closed. I had long lost the joy of collecting and brought some of my best cards to sell. The look in his eyes was carnivorous as he flipped through the pile of paper. He separated out a few cards he knew that he could sell quickly for a bit of cash.
He survived his horrendous fight with cancer.
His business did not.
I learned a lot from that kind man who owned the baseball card shop. He created a community for those of us lost and feeling left out. He developed a sense of worthiness for every child who entered his shop. A safe haven from the tumultuous winds of adolescence.
I also saw first hand the ravages of cancer and bankruptcy.
How, when you work for yourself, you become both your own greatest asset as well as liability.
When I began my own business, preparing for the worst-case scenario was at the forefront of my planning process.
I’ll never forget.
“DocG” is a physician who blogs at DiverseFI.
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