Daily Herald features Mr. E’s

The Daily Herald published a close-up story on Mr.E and his shop

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A collector’s treasure trove

By Mark Johnston/Daily Herald/June 8, 2009

MARK JOHNSTON/Daily Herald  Collector Robert Austin, right, of Provo, opens a pack of newly released Topps Legendary baseball cards as store owner Rodney Eastman, left, watches at Mr. E's in Orem Thursday, June 4, 2009.

MARK JOHNSTON/Daily Herald Collector Robert Austin, right, of Provo, opens a pack of newly released Topps Legendary baseball cards as store owner Rodney Eastman, left, watches at Mr. E's in Orem Thursday, June 4, 2009.

Many sports fans might consider Rodney Eastman’s job one of the toughest in the world.

“I slap my hands and sit in a chair and try to stay away from the cards,” said Eastman as he sits behind the counter of his sports memorabilia and collectibles store, Mr. E’s, in Orem.

The small 20-by-50-foot room is a crowded but well-organized treasure trove of collectibles — everything from sports cards and autographed memorabilia to comics, Beanie Babies and kids card games. Every wall is covered, every shelf space filled and every display case overflowing with collectibles that Eastman started gathering himself many years ago and is now sharing with others.

As a young man Eastman served in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy and then went on to work for the Postal Service for 35 years. Over the years he kept up the hobby of collecting sports cards that he’d started as a kid in the 1960s for different reasons.

“A nickel a pack and put them in your spokes and make [your bike] sound like Elvis’s motorcycles.”

In 2001 Eastman was driving to work when his car was hit head-on while driving on Orem’s Center Street. The accident landed him in the hospital with serious injuries for more than nine weeks and he then required weeks of rehab to learn to walk and talk all over again. After recovering, his mind was made up.

“I had enough cards so I could open the store and retire,” said Eastman who never thought of running Mr. E’s as work. “I’m sharing my hobby and people are sharing their hobby with me.”

Customers are fellow collectors. Eastman shows interest in their hobby and shares in the excitement when a rare card is pulled from a pack in his store.

“When it comes to be that it’s no fun anymore, I’ll quit,” Eastman said.

There’s not much chance of that happening any time soon as the sports card industry is continuing to grow, change and appeal even more to collectors. Interest declined in the hobby for a time as during the 1980s and ’90s when the main manufacturers of trading cards greatly overproduced their product to take advantage of a growing demand.

“They just made millions of them so everybody has them,” Eastman said. “But now they’re putting autographs in them, they’re putting one-of-ones in them, they’re making cards that are worth $25,000.”

The excitement is back and growing as manufacturers Topps, Upper Deck, Donruss and U.S. newcomer Panini issue rare, limited edition cards. Swatches of a player’s game-used jerseys, a single autograph or even two, three or up to six autographs on cards has brought life back to the industry as sports fans hope and pray for that “big pull” every time they open a pack.

It’s not just sports cards either as shoppers can pick up cards of classic and current movie and music stars and celebrities. Buyers have a chance of pulling a wide range of signatures including John Wayne, Funkmaster Flex, George H.W. Bush, Julie Newmar and John Travolta, or maybe a piece of Elvis’s pajamas.

Even though packs start out rather cheap at $3-4 each, more serious collectors won’t flinch to spend hundreds of dollars on boxes or even packs of cards that promise rarer treasures inside.

Ten or 20 years ago, those in the hobby could never have imagined collectors spending close to $300 for a box of cards that only contains two packs with a single card in each. But, obviously, the chances of pulling a card displaying the autographs of four NBA stars or a large, autographed swatch of an NHL star’s jersey are much greater in high-end packs.

“You don’t need to go to Wendover to gamble,” joked Eastman’s wife, Michele, referring to the excitement that opening packs of sports cards brings to many collectors. Many collectors, being very superstitious, have a hard time picking a single pack or box from a shelf full of possibilities, sometimes making their lucky spouse or friend pick for them.

Eastman recalls various moments when customers, young and old, have pulled rare and highly priced cards from packs while in the store. The excited exclamation when the autograph of a favorite player is revealed beneath the foil wrapping is just why Eastman continues to enjoy his hobby on a small-time level. That face-to-face interaction with fellow collectors is just as important to Eastman as making a sale and one reason why he doesn’t want to grow too much or sell items over the Internet.

“I enjoy coming to visit with him and getting to know more about the cards,” said customer Robert Austin, of Provo, who has been frequenting Mr. E’s for the past few months. Just recently Austin pulled a dual autographed card with the signatures of basketball star Lebron James and basketball legend Julius Erving from a pack.

Collectors from as far as Richfield, Vernal and Ogden make the trip to Orem to enjoy a wide selection and friendly interaction at the store, which is hard to come by in many places.

“They know he cares about the cards as much as they do,” Michele said of her husband, who doesn’t hesitate to throw in free protection with purchases of cards. “He doesn’t care what it costs him to make sure that if a kid has a good card that it’s protected.”

Both Eastman and his wife work to teach new customers the importance of protecting and preserving their collections in the hope that it carries over to all their other belongings.

“I want to take a 2-year-old, 5-year-old, 10-year-old or 80-year-old and I want to teach them to take care of their cards so they can get the best value for them later in life,” Eastman said.

Even as a young collector Eastman went to great lengths to protect his growing collection. Before leaving to serve in the Navy he stored boxes of his treasures between the floor joists of his parent’s home, only to return years later to find that his family had moved and his collection was buried, and still is to this day.

Eastman has recovered from that card-collection tragedy just as he recovered from his auto accident. His collection is thriving and has grown to uncountable numbers, including priceless rarities well-protected and stored in various locations, one of which is Mr. E’s, where he spends his days sharing his hobby and furiously fighting the temptation to open every box on the shelf to discover the treasures waiting inside.