Do you ever get that adrenaline rush coursing through your body right before something’s going to go down? It could be a car accident. It could be people moshing a little too roughly at a concert. It could be an unexpected meeting with the boss. Your body is psyching yourself up for confrontation. It’s screaming “Let’s Do THIS!!!!!!!!”
I had one of those moments about a month ago when I saw my first pack searcher. I was on my lunch break with a co-worker picking up an unpurchased item from the wedding registry at Target. Of course, I had to stop at the card aisle. Bowman had just come out that week, but I was hoping to find some NBA Stickers or something else relatively cheap.
As I turned the corner, I saw someone already looking at cards. Moving closer, I could tell he wasn’t just looking at cards, he was searching them. My first thought was of disappointment. My Target isn’t clean. It’s been tarnished. Zombies have taken a bite out it’s arm. The horse broke its leg. Old Yeller’s gone rabid. How can I trust it anymore? My second thought was about how naive (and melodramatic) I am to think that any retail area is “safe.” We’re in a war zone, people. Grab your pith helmets.
He had a retail box of Gypsy Queen in his hands and he slid his fingers along each wrapper quickly and efficiently. I bypass the Twighlight and Pokemon cards to reach the sports area and this guy not only doesn’t stop, but he doesn’t miss a beat. He doesn’t care if anyone sees him. You would think there would be a modicum of embarrassment in getting “caught” doing something that a decent percentage of collectors find despicable or at the very least unfair. Nope. Not this guy.
I must talk to him. For science.
I know that some of you would have let that adrenaline take over and you would have brow-beaten the guy. Take him outside and make him taste the curb — verbally, of course. I didn’t want to take that approach. I wanted to get in his head. I was prepared to battle, should he take it in that direction, but mostly I wanted to get his perspective since you don’t typically hear that.
I asked him what he was looking for and he told me that he was looking for the GQ relics, but Topps made them tougher to locate than A&G. You aren’t able to shake these. I watched him run through a couple, carefully watching how he manipulated the packs and I really have no idea how he does it. He took the pack in his hand like a deck of cards. I think he was putting some pressure on the bottom with one finger and slid the other fingers along both sides. It took all of 2 seconds. And that’s considered tougher, I guess.
I asked him what he’s looking for and he said he can tell the difference when he fans them out this way. It didn’t look like fanning to me. Although, to be honest, it didn’t look like a destructive practice either. He wasn’t scraping fingernails or bending corners or anything like that. A less than sensitive 12 year old rummaging through the box to grab a pack at the bottom is probably doing just as much harm as this guy, if not more. Granted, that’s not to say that other pack searchers aren’t harsh or that his technique wasn’t damaging the cards, but it didn’t appear to be bad from my vantage point.
I did ask him point blank if he was damaging the cards like that, and he said he wasn’t. I don’t know why he would answer anything else, but that transitioned into him discussing that he’s been doing this for over a decade now and that he doesn’t do it for the money. I wanted to get into that more, but I really didn’t have the time. The lunch hour was ticking away and I had a confused co-worker standing to the side waiting on me.
Still, I had time for a couple more questions. Where did he learn to do this stuff? He mentioned that there are message boards and forums and websites dedicated to it, but for the most part the techniques carry over from one year to another.
He’s looking through Gypsy Queen, so do you have a way to find the on-card autos? He said that he didn’t bother, but that he knows some people that bring in scientific scales so they can measure that minuscule weight difference caused by the ink. Talk about shameless. Can you imagine bringing such a precise scale into a Target or Wal-Mart just to get a Gio Gonzalez auto? He also said that some products do have ways to tell even if they are on-card. My mind immediately thought of Topps Chrome and how some of the inserts and refractors were backwards. I imagine if someone notices a pack-0ut pattern with autos, it’d be open season.
Out of the blue (well, not really, since we were talking about searching), he told me that he wouldn’t buy loose packs at retail if he were me. They’re most likely all searched several times over by the time I see them. He says he only trusts the blasters, since they’re sealed (although I personally would imagine the scale bringers could get to those too) and not manipulate-able. He also pointed to the Bowman box which was full. He said that he doesn’t “know how to do those yet.” I probably would have grabbed some, and hopefully karma would have given me a Harper auto, but I didn’t buy any. I’m not a Bowman guy. Anyway, it was time to go. I “searched” for something I wanted and couldn’t find my stickers or cheap packs that interested me enough.
I walked away empty in that respect, but overall the experience left me full. Full of introspection. Full of amazement. Full of questions. As I went to the checkout, I had the honor of explaining pack searching. As I was describing all the negative aspects of it, it felt strange to put a face to it all. He came off as a normal dude. That was his way of collecting. That actually made a little bit of sense to me after that interaction.
I’ve never been the type of guy to get all up in arms about pack searching in general. I would never do it. I still don’t necessarily like the practice, but I accept that it is a part of the hobby and that there are varying degrees of it going on. I met someone on the low-end of the spectrum. I think. Maybe if I had the opportunity to spend more time with the guy, I would have found out otherwise. Regardless, there are people that thrive on selling “hot packs.” Hobby shops that sell loose packs do it, too. You have to be skeptical of anything that isn’t a sealed box anymore.
The argument that it’s taking the chance of getting a hit out of a kid’s hands, and that it creates an uneven playing field, is a valid one. I understand that viewpoint. But I also think that’s symptomatic of a much larger malady infecting the hobby. Most hits have become virtually meaningless. Sure, five or ten years ago those jersey cards would be going for big bucks. Now you sell them for $.99 if you’re lucky. Autos and jerseys have become watered down to the point of no return. Yes, it sucks that kids have little chance of a hit from a loose retail pack, but hopefully parents can teach them that the other cards have value, too. And if you’re talking about ebay, usually the same $.99 value.
I said I was full of questions. Some of that would be all the unanswered and unasked questions for the pack searcher if I had the opportunity to do a proper interview. But most of them were actually about how the companies could change the card culture. Can anything actually be done to deter the searching, since we know dummy cards don’t do the trick. I’m not going to pretend like I came up with a solution, but I’ll continue to think about it and bounce any ideas off of you guys before we take it to the big guns.
There are a lot of negatives to be found in the hobby. In the next few months I want to delve into some of that and offer up ways to fix it. Something tells me this will be revisited in the future. I have ideas, because card collecting is supposed to be a positive experience for everyone involved. I still think it largely is, but sometimes you have to search a little harder.