Friday, July 9, 2010

Collect This? Read What?

People who were in the card business never got there through traditional, legitimate means. There was never any sort of internship-leading-to-post-graduate-study-leading-to-entry-level-job path all neatly laid out and codified in the employee handbook. It was hard to do in a business where the location of the restroom changed daily.

Instead, you had Harvard MBAs cheek-by-jowl with old journalists, venture capitalists, card-store owners, starry-eyed printers, diaper-division product managers, teenaged paper millionaires, and a sprinkling of paroled felons, for texture.

And the best part was, no one knew what the hell they were doing.

Soon enough, though, a couple of centers of activity emerged. There was the Philly-New York axis, home of the old money, such as it was – Fleer and Topps – plus newcomers like Classic and Major League Marketing. The area was also home to the infamous Renata Galasso shows, which were a sort of Woodstock for hairspray-fueled invective, and the iconic Cherry Hill show, held in a venue that made you exclaim, “Wow! I didn’t know Best Western did medium-security prisons!”

There was Chicago, home to puffy-card-maker Action Packed and the bought-up and relocated Leaf-Donruss. Leaf-Donruss was owned by the Finnish conglomerate Huhtamaki Oi, which is coincidentally what the Finns said when they saw Donruss’ balance sheet.

There was California, home to Upper Deck, and that was enough. If any more card makers had tried to settle out there Richard McWilliam would have pushed them into the sea.

There was Dallas, home to Pro Set and Pinnacle Brands and their bankruptcy lawyers.

And then there was Raleigh-Durham, home to Impel Marketing and SkyBox International, and later Maxx Racing, Inkworks, and the Racing Champions conglomerate.

The reason the card business stuck in Raleigh is pretty simple. Drive to downtown Durham, go past the gated community known as Duke University, park your car, whisper in its ear that you’ll see it in Heaven, and then sniff the air. It smells like an unsmoked cigarette.

The tobacco industry had spent millions building a distribution network aimed at having a pack of cancer sticks at the ready any time the impulse struck. It was no trick to pour a similarly addictive product through the same pipeline.

The first products through the pipe were NBA Hoops cards, which were tremendously innovative on several fronts. They were the first card set produced with the active involvement of a licensor – the NBA, obviously – which meant they were also the first card set produced with the active involvement of a midget. In that regard the David Stern set paved the way for … nothing, really, until the arrival of Zany Cards several years later. (Watch for the full Zany Cards story in a future installment.)

NBA Hoops were a seasonal item, but the nicotine taps were as wide-open and flowing as BP’s hole in the bottom of the sea. As a result, the NBA Hoops people – who were Impel Marketing at that time – needed more products to plug the pipeline.

Hence, Collect-A-Books.

If you weren’t a collector in 1990 this may not make sense. If you were a collector back then you have no business reading this, because one of the defining characteristics of collectors in the day was that they couldn’t read.

That’s not quite true, because I edited a card-collecting magazine that 100,000 people at a crack claimed to have read, though based on the letters I received, 79,000 just looked at the picture of the fat guy with the cards stuck to him. It was more that when it came to cards they didn’t care whether they read.

Companies like Pro Set spent vast sums compiling detailed player dossiers for their card backs, justifying the continued existence of Erik Affholter, only to find out that collectors liked a big ol’ glob of foil better. And Emmitt Smith on the front, if you please.

Collect-A-Books were the guy with the canoe, paddling against the current of this particular stream. While they didn’t bother to glorify Erik Affholter, they did carry far more reading material in their eight card-sized pages than most collectors deemed safe.

If you count words you'll discover that these cards were not exactly a pocket-sized War and Peace, delving into the crevasses of Ozzie Smith’s id. They carried as many words as your average Pro Set card (which incidentally was all out of go once it had one sentence down on Erik Affholter).

And lest collectors get too uneasy, Collect-A-Books also carried a whopping six pictures, including a snazzy caricature on the back cover.

Collect-A-Books were as well done as a trading-card sized player booklet could be, except no one bothered to ask beforehand whether anyone wanted a trading-card-sized player booklet.

Not to go all marketing on you, but that is a somewhat large question. I mean, there's always the possibility that it might be a bad idea, and that someone doesn't want a 30.06 that doubles as an mp3 player.

In the case of anyone wanting Collect-A-Books, the answer was no. A Hardee's Thickburger of a no. And it wouldn’t have mattered if the message had been delivered with the sensitivity of Sharon Osbourne showing the door to a prepubescent Taylor Swift impersonator on America’s Got Talent. The answer was still no.

You know, Topps, for all its what-the-hell approach to marketing, had this figured out years previous. It made insert sets and test issues of small paper comic books of top baseball and hockey players. They were very cool, even if they did drip a little cheddar. And card buyers said “ehh.” Give us a good rub-off (or rub-on or scratch-off or peel-‘n’-stick or something we can mutilate) any day.

If collectors weren’t going to clutch stone-free mini-comic-books of Reggie Jackson to their bosoms, they certainly weren’t going to nuzzle up to a pricey (approaching two bucks a pop, if memory serves) instruction manual on Ozzie Smith.

While Collect-A-Books were ostensibly created by a company called CMC they were run through the Impel pipeline, where they promptly clogged up the works and delayed the release of the latest paper-wrapped-death flavor for at least 10 minutes.

In the end, Collect-A-Books didn't put an eye out or explode when you ran over them or contribute to global warming, but you don't have to be Pol Pot to be despicable. What made Collect-A-Books nasty was that they were dumped on collectors by companies that frankly didn’t care whether they were unloading this stuff on George Plimpton and His Pals or a flock of seagulls. (The birds, not the band.)

Since this is a somewhat adolescent affair and adolescents always have to blame somebody, we'll blame Collect-A-Books on the diaper-division manager. But only because the teenaged paper millionaire was in a photo shoot with Russell Maryland and Brien Taylor.

No comments:

Post a Comment