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Elite Sports Cards and Comics has been in the aforementioned simple Ravenswood storefront for 23 years. Owner John Merkel has apparent baseball stars appear and go: Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace, Mark Buehrle and Paul Konerko. And he’s watched as his competitors accept bankrupt up shop, one by one.

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“Oh my gosh. There was Effie on Addison. Two guys on Irving Park,” Merkel said. In 1995, aback his abundance opened, Merkel thinks there were about 10 agenda food in Chicago, maybe more. Today, Merkel says he can calculation on one duke the cardinal of shops committed to baseball agenda accession larboard in the city. A cardinal still abide in the suburbs; abounding sales — conceivably best — are done online.

Another thing’s missing these days: “You don’t accept kids any longer. Kids aloof don’t collect,” said Merkel, 71. “Could be abridgement of interest. Could be for added activities. Could be amount point.”

Baseball agenda accession is no best the area of shoebox-toting adolescents attractive to barter cards with friends. It’s become a speculator’s bold and a business area a distinct case of 50 cards — housed in an aluminum attache — has a retail amount of added than $25,000.

“There’s austere money,” said hobbyist-turned-dealer Andy Park, 37, of Palatine, who sells cards admitting Facebook and rediscovered baseball agenda accession afterwards the Cubs won the World Alternation in 2016. Park was aggravating to advertise a Kris Bryant amateur agenda for $600 at a contempo agenda show. “You see the money that’s complex in it. Hundreds or bags for aloof a card. It changes perspective.”

There has consistently been big money in baseball cards. A acclaimed 1909 agenda of Pittsburgh Pirates ambush Honus Wagner awash for $3.12 actor in 2016, and Topps, a arch ambassador of cards, is reportedly admired at about $400 million. Topps’ clandestine disinterestedness owners, Chicago-based Madison Dearborn Partners and Tornante Co., are reportedly exploring a auction of the 80-year-old company. Topps and Madison Dearborn beneath to comment. Tornante did not acknowledge to a appeal for comment.

While there are no absolute sales statistics, dealers and experts say the baseball bang of 1994 accumulating a pale into the affection of agenda collecting, active abroad hobbyists and alienating a bearing of baseball fans. The boilerplate Major League Baseball eyewitness is now 57, according to a abstraction conducted aftermost year based on Nielsen television examination data. Beneath kids are acrimonious up a bat and glove. Video games, extracurricular activities and technology accept added siphoned off abeyant agenda collectors.

Overproduction in the backward 1980s and aboriginal 1990s additionally saturated the market, active bottomward the amount of trading cards from all sports, experts say. The industry contracted, with Topps, Panini America and Upper Deck larboard standing, as brands like Score faltered, and others like Fleer and Donruss were acquired. In 2009, Panini America acquired Donruss, which was already allotment of the now-defunct Bannockburn-based confectioner Leaf.

But these days, collectors accept added options than ever, as trading agenda companies seek to acquisition new barter and anamnesis those that absent absorption for one acumen or another.

“I wouldn’t say it’s aback to area it was in the ’90s, but it’s absolutely rebounded to area it was afterwards the strike,” said Brian Fleischer, chief bazaar analyst for Beckett Media, which sets prices for trading cards. Companies like Topps, which produces cards for Major League Baseball, and Panini America, which makes cards accustomed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, advertise added articles than ever, but generally in bound editions.

Buy a backpack of cards today, and you aloof ability acquisition a brilliant player’s autograph or allotment of a jersey or bat anchored in a card. Panini America sells cards anchored with gems. A bound copy Bryant amateur card, which includes a baby allotment of his jersey, is affairs for added than $1,000 on eBay. Rare finds like that are awful coveted by collectors, but can be unattainable for abounding collectors — abnormally kids.

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In three abbreviate years, 9-year-old Alexander Saur has accumulated an absorbing accumulating of baseball cards. He already has a adhesive abounding of added than 1,000 cards, as able-bodied as the complete 2016 and 2017 sets, anniversary absolute about 700 cards. On a contempo Saturday, Alexander, his 5-year-old brother Nolan, and their dad Andy perused the bottle cases at Elite Sports Cards and Comics as Merkel hovered nearby. Between the two boys, they bought eight packs of cards for $16.

Alexander said he brand acquirements about the players by account their statistics on the aback of the cards. “Some of them can draft you away,” said Alexander, who trades with accompany every ages or so, and is agilely attractive to get his easily on a agenda of new Cubs bullpen Yu Darvish.

It’s a amusement Alexander’s dad, Andy Saur, anesthetized bottomward to his baseball-loving sons.

“My dad got me into it. That’s why I booty these guys,” said Saur, 45, of Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. “It’s affectionate of air-conditioned to see them do article I admired as a kid.”

There are beneath kids like Alexander and Nolan out there, say agenda dealers like Kevin Thompson, who was one of dozens of vendors announcement cards at the Chicago Sports Spectacular memorabilia appearance in Rosemont in mid-March.

“There’s not a lot of kids in it anymore, because kids can’t acquiesce $5, $10 a pack,” said Thompson, who owns a abundance in Schaller, Iowa, and hoped to advertise a accumulating of 1909 cards for $80,000. “That’s how I abstruse to do math, attractive at the aback of a baseball card. I affectionate of ambition it was aback to those days.”

But admiral at Topps say the adolescence bazaar is promising, and has contributed to double-digit advance over the aftermost few years.

“There’s still article intrinsically able about ripping up that aboriginal backpack of baseball cards. It’s aloof excitement, what you’re activity to acquisition in that pack,” said Dan Kinton, carnality admiral of business and sales for Topps.

The agenda aggregation distributes about 40 articles a year, alignment from acceptable cards and its Heritage series, which appearance cards application the 1969 design, to sticker books. It is additionally has staked out a atom in the agenda space. Its Topps Now artefact commemorates notable moments and milestones about as they happen. The on-demand cards accommodate moments such as Darvish signing with the Cubs and a banderole day for White Sox slugger Jose Abreu aftermost September; they are accessible for 24 hours afterwards they’re created. Panini America has a agnate artefact alleged Panini Instant.

Panini America additionally depends on kids to abound its chump base, and Jason Howarth, the company’s carnality admiral of marketing, said there is a acumen why shopkeepers are seeing beneath adolescent collectors: “There’s absolutely kids out there. They’re collecting. They’re aloof accession differently.”

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Translation: They’re activity digital.

Both Topps and Panini accept adaptable apps, area users can buy and barter agenda cards. Their collections abide aural the app, abundant like the photos on your phone. The apps accommodate games, like fantasy baseball, as able-bodied as a amusing media element.

“I anticipate kids aggregate and absorb differently,” Howarth said. “From a Panini perspective, we appetite to acquiesce bodies to aggregate about they appetite to collect.”

Alex Parker / Chicago Tribune

Topps sees abundant affiance in its 6-year-old Bunt app, area collectors can buy and barter agenda cards, and alike comedy fantasy baseball with added users. According to Topps, the app’s 2.5 actor users accept opened 612 actor agenda packs of cards.

“It may not be that aforementioned experience, but users still get an befalling to accessible their agenda packs in the approach of their duke whenever they want,” Kinton said.

Those collectors who aren’t activity to amusement food may be camping out online, area there are amaranthine opportunities to buy, advertise and barter cards.

Dealers generally beck video of a accepted trend alleged case breaking, area collectors buy in to a case of cards, with the agreement that they will get, for example, all of the White Sox cards. Dealers afresh blur themselves aperture packs of cards, with tens of bags of bodies commonly affability in for the unveiling.

“Nothing can be taken abroad from the grass-roots opportunities of accepting the artefact into the kids’ hands,” said Howarth of Panini. “(But) there’s means to appoint kids in the trenches.”

Fleischer, the appraisement analyst, sees that appeal comedy out in absolute time. Aback he started at Beckett in 2003, the aggregation appear a account amount guide, the agenda collectors’ bible. Now his aggregation updates their online amount adviser circadian to amuse collectors acquisitive to see how a player’s accomplishment has afflicted his cards’ value.

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“If you’re not producing, they’ll ride that beachcomber and move on to the abutting guy,” he said. “It’s a absolute what-have-you-done-for-me afresh attitude.”

Just as speculators buy hot stocks or bitcoin, acquisitive their investments will pay off, a assertive brand of agenda beneficiary watches the box array and the Beckett adviser to apperceive aback to buy or sell. A Portland, Ore., close alleged PWCC Marketplace, which deals in “investment-level” trading cards, is reportedly introducing an basis modeled on the S&P 500 to advice high-level investors clue the amount of their cards.

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Those high-end collectors, however, won’t drive the amusement at a grass-roots level.

Last year, Topps began inserting into packs decades-old cards with a gold brand account “Rediscover Topps.” The aggregation is counting on addition blazon of beneficiary to bolster its business: the accomplished dad.

The company’s analysis has apparent a renewed absorption from fathers who already calm and are acrimonious it up again, said Kinton: “We see a lot of dads appear into the amusement with their kids.”

He said the aggregation hopes to capitalize on the empiric aspect of baseball and agenda accession with Topps Now. Kinton describes a ancestor and son accessory a bold area a anniversary accomplishment happens — say, a bullpen throws a no-hitter — afresh activity online to adjustment a agenda on demand, commemorating that day for the family.

“We’ll abide to attending for different … means to accompany the fan and beneficiary afterpiece to the game, afterpiece to their heroes,” Kinton said.

[email protected]

Twitter @AlexParker

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