For 31 years, Ray and Susan Stonehouse have made a living from “ifs.”
And with the biggest “if” of all hanging over their heads, they’re not inclined to stop until they absolutely have to.
The Stonehouses opened their Great Canadian Sportcard Company at the corner of St. Johns and Moody streets in Port Moody in 1989, just as the hobby of collecting sports cards was transitioning from childhood pastime to big business, with rare cards being bought and sold by adults for tens of thousands of dollars and new shops looking to cash in on the craze opening almost every week on every street corner and in every suburban strip mall.
In fact, the boom came so fast, Ray said, he quickly doubled the size of their shop to occupy the entire ground floor of the two-storey cinderblock building to accommodate the demands of customers who sometimes lined up 20-deep to get in the doors.
By the mid-1990s, the sports card boom had largely gone bust. Traveling trade shows that brought together sellers and collectors convened less frequently and the shops started disappearing. The advent of the internet that allowed hobbyists around the world to connect and conduct commerce with each other hastened their demise.
But the Stonehouses persevered.
Ray said his shop has survived because he never lost sight of collecting’s fundamental principal: that items will increase in value only if people have the foresight to hang onto and preserve them while human nature dictates most won’t.
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way as a kid when he let the collection he’d amassed of 325 rookie cards of his favourite baseball player, Mickey Mantle, diminish as he traded them away or marked them up in some way.
“Nobody told me they would be worth thousands,” Stonehouse said.
While those cards didn’t end up making Stonehouse wealthy, they did spark his passion for collecting that endured into adulthood, through his career in the auto industry and on into his decision to set up shop with his wife.
Now in their seventies, the Stonehouses’ eyes still alight when a father brings in his young son for a tour down memory lane of the hockey cards of his youth and a possible introduction for the next generation of collector.
And make no mistake, hockey is king at Great Canadian, occupying most of the glass display cabinets and wall space, as well as 99% of the transactions at the cash register, Ray said. Those cabinets hold just a fraction of the vast treasure squirreled away in boxes stacked on shelves and heaped on tables in a warren of storage rooms at the back.
Because while catalogues and internet classifieds might put a monetary price on certain cards, you never know what might hold sentimental or collectible value to a visitor to the store, like a vintage card of Orland Kurtenbach from the Vancouver Canucks’ first season to a stylish limited edition contemporary card embedded with four diamonds of sophomore star Elias Pettersen.
Stonehouse said being able to provide that personal interaction is precisely the reason he’s never pursued online trading. In fact, his shop doesn’t have a website or even a social media account. Customers have to drop in, or make their enquiries by phone.
“It’s a mom and pop store, and we really don’t care,” Stonehouse said.
But with development pressure increasing in the area around his shop, Stonehouse is under no illusions he’ll be able to carry on forever.
Great Canadian Sportcard is just a couple of blocks from the Moody Centre SkyTrain station, right on the edge of the neighbourhood Port Moody has targeted for high-density development to take advantage of its ready access to transit. So far, Stonehouse said, his landlord has resisted the offers by developers that have already bought up several other properties in the area. But that could change any day, if the right number of zeroes appear on a cheque.
Until that time comes, though, Stonehouse said he and his wife will continue to fuel the dreams of customers looking to make a connection with the sporting heroes of their youth and, almost daily, gently deflate those anticipating a windfall from a box of musty cards found secreted in the back of a closet.
“I’m still like the eight-year-old kid,” Ray said. “I haven’t outgrown my enthusiasm to open a new batch of cards and see if there’s something special inside.”