Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Card collector turns hobby into business

This is a copy of the Article published at

Dean Hanley, seen here holding three
Babe Ruth baseball cards, has built into one of the largest online
sellers of sports cards and memorabilia.
 / The Enquirer/Joseph Fuqua II
Dean Hanley remembers the summer days of youth, trading baseball cards with his buddies and chewing Topps bubblegum till his teeth hurt.

In the spokes of his bike, he'd stick the early 1970s colored cards with stats and signatures of baseball greats like Pete Rose, Frank Robinson and Johnny Bench.

"The cards would make our bikes sound like motorcycles. We didn't know they'd be worth something 40 years later," he says.

Today, Hanley knows exactly what they're worth. Over a decade, he's built into one of the largest online sellers of sports cards and memorabilia. His seven-person Oakley shop annually trades hundreds of thousands of cards, new and old, online.

Hanley is especially known among card collectors and dealers nationwide as an expert on vintage cards from the 1950s and '60s. He writes a regular column for Sports Collectors Digest, blogs at, produces YouTube videos on rare cards and will soon publish two historical e-books on card collecting in the late 1800s and early 1950s. In May, he'll travel to Los Angeles to film a pilot for a new reality show called "It's Worth What?". He calls the show a mix of Antiques Roadshow and the Price is Right, where he'll be the expert card appraiser.

"The secret to my success has always been that I'm first and foremost a collector," he says. "If I think it's cool, I want to sell it."

Hanley has been fascinated with baseball cards for most of his life. In business school at the University of Southern California, he wrote a thesis about card collecting. One of the foremost dealers at the time even offered him a job, but Hanley chose to move back East and enter the burgeoning software industry instead. He spent nearly 15 years in sales and product development roles for information technology companies, which gave him the technical and marketing skills he uses today.

Hanley's adult interest in cards picked back up again in the late 1990s when his son (now 14) was young. He attended some vintage card shows and began searching for dealers online, but quickly became frustrated with few options.

In 2001, Hanley lost his job in product management at a large software firm.

"I decided to take the opportunity to pursue my hobby," he says. That year, Hanley built an e-commerce site populated with 20,000 cards from his father's collection and began marketing at shows and through online advertising. His first employee was the family's babysitter, Allyson Hamlin, who spent time sorting cards, grading their quality and shipping orders. She still works at Dean's Cards today, managing the inventory of vintage cards and bidding on incoming collections. She co-wrote the first e-book.

Within a few years, several teenagers had taken over the Hanley basement, forcing the operation to move to office space in Mariemont. Four years ago, Dean's Cards expanded into the 3,000-square-foot office in Oakley.

Hanley says sales have grown an average of 35 percent a year, with one flat year during the recession in 2009. He buys about 500 collections of cards annually and processes about 1,000 orders a month. An average order tops $100. But his largest sale happened last year, when a collector spent $71,000 on the full 1952 Topps set of 407 cards. One Mickey Mantle card was worth $31,000 of that sum.

"Vintage cards were from the golden age in baseball, and they weren't produced in mass quantities like today," says Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest in Wisconsin. "That's where the money is."

And that market won't go away any time soon as about 5,000 men turn 65 each day. Back in the early 1960s, when they were young, 89 percent of all pre-teen boys collected cards.

In the Oakley office, Hanley is grooming the next generation of young collectors. His full-time staff of five is aged between 21 and 28, "computer experts," he says. His wife, Valarie, keeps the books.

Working together helps build camaraderie, Hanley says. That means everyone at the office chips in with the not-so-fun jobs. Each morning is spent pulling orders made the day before. They all scan inbound cards worth more than $300 to list for sale on the web site.

Hanley likes to joke, "They always seem to sell a little better online."

Updating that site is a constant priority for Hanley; more than 1 million cards are up today.

"Collectors want the cards accurate, and they want them fast and easy to buy," he says.

But maintaining his role as an industry expert is important, too. He's especially interested in the role of cards in baseball history, starting from when cards were packaged with tobacco in the late 1800s. Prior to television, those cards often provided baseball fans their only visual of their favorite players.

Hanley's upcoming e-books are titled "Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Cards" and "The Baseball Card "Gum Wars" and the Great Topps Sets of the early 1950s." The first is for sale at The second will be available by June.

"It's Worth What?", hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, airs on NBC this summer.

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