The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
What if you never had to say goodbye to your childhood fascinations? What if you could find a way to make the hobby you started at the age of 10 into a living?
Andy Albert pondered these questions for nearly 30 years, until he finally found the answers in December 2016. It was then that he assumed ownership of the Indy Card Exchange (near the intersection of 86th Street and Westfield in Indianapolis), trading cards and exchanging lifelong passions with the devoted crowd that fills his shop.
He calls it his “hobby of relationships,” and we recently met to discuss where his fascination in collecting trading cards began, why he left his long-time sales job to run such a vintage business, and how to instill an interest in future generations.
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Joe: Give us the scoop on who you are, what you do, where you come from, and where you’re going.
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: Well, I am a father of four, married for 15 years now. I love my wife, my kids, my church. Love God. I grew up in Northern Indiana and went to school in South Bend, Indiana. Graduated from Taylor University back in 2001. And I’ve lived in Fishers for 15 years now.
Joe: And you’re the owner of Indy Card Exchange.
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: That’s right.
Joe: But I know you haven’t been doing that since college, so what were you doing before that?
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: When I graduated with a degree in business, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. But thankfully through the network at Taylor University, a friend of mine was able to help me get a job in the Healthcare Lab Diagnostics industry. I did sales and business development for a pathology lab here in Indianapolis for 13 years, before we got acquired by one of the big corporate giants in the lab industry. I then worked for them for another 2-3 years before going to a small startup laboratory. So I worked in Lab Diagnostics ever since college—the past 16 years.
But I kept collecting sports cards and memorabilia throughout that whole laboratory career.
Joe: How did you get first connected to this store?
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: I walked in as customer when I first moved to Indy and met the owner. He and I struck up a friendship, and I became a regular customer. A good customer, at that!
Joe: Were there any other shops like that around Indy at that time?
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: Back in the 80s and 90s, there were card shops then like there are Starbucks now—on every street corner. And then the hobby busted back in the late 90s. Card manufacturers had overproduced everything, and the collectors realized there was no value to the stuff that they were buying. So basically, the card shops just fell apart and they closed down.
And so now, card shops are the dinosaurs because the industry has changed so much. But there’s still that desire for people to want to come to a physical location, sit down, look through stuff that they’d collect, and feel that old vintage experience of going to a card shop.
Joe: Talk a little about the industry. How has it changed?
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: The industry’s definitely gotten better. The manufacturers that make all the products decided that what they did 20 years ago was stupid, and so now they keep everything limited—creating more demand than supply. And obviously, as a collector, you want something that’s more rare.
Joe: For sure.
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: That’s the nice part about the hobby now. There are many products that have that appreciation opportunity. And so the cards for guys like Lebron James and Steph Curry and Mike Trout—all the big names in football, basketball and baseball—now have value because there aren’t a million of them in the market.
Joe: And don’t certain card makers only produce certain sports too?
Andy, Indy Card Exchange: Right. They’ve kept the industry limited in that way too. So now, Topps only has exclusivity to baseball. They’re the only maker of MLB-licensed products for baseball. Panini is the other big player, and they have exclusive licensing to make NBA products and NFL products. And then Upper Deck has exclusivity to make NHL.
It helps keep things limited. It used to be kind of the wild west where everybody made something and cards just kept getting spit out everywhere.
Joe: Tell me about your thought process when you first started imagining taking over ownership of the store.
Andy: That’s a good question. Well, I officially bought the shop in 2012, but I still worked my other full-time job for five years before doing this full time. So I would say back in 2010 or 2011 is when I started gradually talking to him. “What are going to do in the future? What are your plans for this shop?” Not pressuring him in anyway, but just talking.
That led to a casual conversation about a year later where I mentioned to him that I would love to talk to him if he was ever willing to sell the shop. And then that’s what led to the point of looking through his inventory, negotiating a price, and buying all the assets of the shop in May of 2012.
It just seemed like a seamless transition because we had a friendship. He knew that he wasn’t going to do this forever. And the opportunity struck where he could make some good money and move on. He actually worked for me for three and half years too after that, so it really was seamless for him. He didn’t have to be the owner, but he could still make some income.
Joe: What precipitated the move from laboratory sales to owning and running the shop full time?
Andy: I was becoming much more unhappy in my business development role at the small start-up lab where I was working. And they were having some pretty big financial issues with Medicare/Medicaid and getting paid by the government for certain testing. Plus, the role had changed quite a bit from business development to account management, and I didn’t feel very challenged. I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
So that turned into a heart-to-heart conversation in December of last year with my boss. I asked him to give me some clear direction on where my job was going. Then in mid-January, they decided to lay off about 20 people, and they just added me to the list. They knew I was already questioning and wondering what my role was. So God put me in that place, saying, ” You know what? Now’s the time.”
And the rest is history now.
Joe: How do you make money in this business?
Andy: Well, I’m very realistic when it comes to this because I know that it’s a hobby. And if the economy tanks, people stop spending money on their hobby. Thankfully, the economy is fairly strong at the moment and people seem to have some excess money to spend.
But some people see this as an investment too. The stock market fluctuates just like the sports card market does. A perfect example of that is a guy named Aaron Judge—right fielder for the Yankees. Four years ago, his first ever card sold for $30. That same exact card today, sells for a minimum of $1500.
Andy: I mean that’s just nuts. It’s because he’s hit 20 home runs in his first two months of the year, and the fact that he’s a New York Yankee. It’s like the perfect world for him.
Joe: At the beginning of the season it was worth..?
Andy: At the beginning of the season, it was probably about $150. It already appreciated because he was going to be a Yankee and he was going to be in the starting rotation.
Joe: And can it fluctuate down just as quickly?
Andy: His won’t go down that fast because he has so much potential still. But there certain players you invest in who look like big booming stars at the beginning, but turn into big busts.
Joe: Mm-hmm. Beyond card sales, tell me about all the services you offer?
Andy: We have our brick and mortar business—our walk-in business. People buy single cards. They buy unopened wax boxes and unopened packs. They buy plastic supplies to hold the cut cards. The unopened boxes are still our biggest generator of revenue, but it’s a small margin business. You have to do a high volume to make it really work. With the single cards that people buy—like an old vintage card, there’s definitely more margin in that because you try to buy it at a reasonable rate and still make a good percentage margin—way above what you make on the unopened boxes.
Another major part of our business is the grading service for customers. We’re a middleman and a certified dealer for the big grading companies. Cards can get graded on a 1 to 10 scale. People want to know how good their cards are, and so we do that for customers.
We also do a ton of eBay consignment for customers who don’t want to spend the time and effort selling everything online. So, they’ll bring 30, 40, 50 cards in it at a time and give them to us. We sell them on eBay for them and take a percentage of the sale. And since we have a big eBay presence, there’s a better buyers market through our site.
It’s a big part of the business, and it’s growing. We have a good local and regional presence, and people respect us. They trust us. The trust factor is huge in this business.
Joe: And who are the people that come into your shop and do business with you?
Andy: I have people who spend hours a day in the shop just to hang out. It’s like a barbershop with that atmosphere. We just talk sports or whatever.
It’s probably the most diverse shop that I’ve ever experienced personally. I’ll have people who come in off the street—quite literally sometimes—to sell me a card for five bucks, and I’ll have a multi-million dollar income CEO who wants to collect cards with his son. I can have a six-year old kid collecting next to an 80-year old man who’s building a 1955 Topps set. And they could all be in the shop at the same time. And I just love it. It’s so much fun!
Joe: And how’s your shop designed to serve this diverse crowd?
Andy: We designed it to cater to the right people. So, when kids walk in who want to spend their $5 allowance, I’ve got a section where there are $0.50, $1, $2 type of cards of rookie players or jersey cards. I’ve got an entire wall full of cards that are just $0.10 apiece. And kids love that because they can find a player, like Steph Curry, in a $0.10 box and feel like they just hit the lottery.
Then we have our vintage baseball displays, which are for the high-end collector who is looking to build an entire set for their personal collection. And then I’ve got a wall of unopened boxes for those who want to spend a hundred bucks and pull a $500 card out of it. It’s fun to have people belly up to the bar, so to speak, and cut an unopened box.
Joe: Go back to your childhood. How did you get personally connected to trading cards? What’s one of your first memories associated with that?
Andy: I’ll just go back to my first ever card swap. I was 10 years old, and my grandma knew that I loved sports. I loved basketball back then—it was my passion. And she bought me a full, unopened box of 1988 Fleer basketball, and I got to open the whole box—my first ever box. And I still have the original Michael Jordan cards from that box in my own personal collection. I’ll never get rid of them. They got me hooked.
I loved it. I was 10 years old. I’m 38 now, and I’ve never stopped collecting. I collected through high school and college. Most kids kind of grow into their teenage years and cards become an afterthought, but…
Joe: Most people grow up, but…(laughing)
Andy: Yeah, I’m the exception. I didn’t grow up. (laughing)
But I come from a family of collectors. My Dad is an antique collector. My Mom collected bears. And so I wanted to pinpoint something that I could have fun collecting. And being the sports fan that I am, it was just a natural transition to sports cards.
Joe: You talked about that first box. I bet those Michael Jordan cards weren’t worth a whole lot. What was the first item of value that you got?
Andy: Oh wow, that’s a tough question. Yeah, those cards are only worth about $20 apiece.
I would say my first big card came in 1996. My parents were at a tradeshow in Wisconsin, and I had them drop me off for two hours at a little card show in a hotel. I found a Kobe Bryant card that the guy had marked for $15. It’s his rookie card, but it was one of the refractor cards that was more rare. I knew that it was 10 times the value.
And so I asked the guy, “How much do you want for this card?” He goes, “15 dollars, but I’ll give it to you for 10.” And I couldn’t get my $10 out fast enough. I literally gave the guy $10 and immediately left the show. I never even walked around because I felt so guilty that I bought a $150 card for $10. I ended up keeping that card for five or six years before I finally sold it for $200-300.
Joe: What does your family think of your fascination with sports collectibles? Do they get it?
Andy: My son’s not a sports fan as much. But he likes the Pokémon cards, so we started carrying things like that. I think I did it just to have that connection with my son. And he likes it. I bring packs home, and we talk about them.
Joe: Is that a similar industry?
Andy: It’s a whole different demographic of people but it’s still collectibles. You’re trading, buying, and selling. So yeah, it’s in the same industry, for sure.
Joe: As you know, I have a three-year-old. I wasn’t a heavy collector growing up, so how would you suggest I introduce him to the hobby?
Andy: While we’re sadly a society consumed with material possessions, we’re also a society intent on trying to find ways to connect with people—whether it’s our kids, our parents, our friends. So I would say to try and figure out a way to bond with your child through it.
We see a lot of that in our shop on a daily basis—fathers shopping with sons, mothers with sons, grandparents with grandchildren. Having real conversations with each other. I see it all the time. And to me that’s a safe, fun way to do it. It’s more than just having a physical piece of cardboard. It goes deeper than that.
Joe: You mentioned your angst with material goods. Do you feel a tension, knowing that you work in an industry that exists because of the purchase of material goods? How do you process that?
Andy: I struggle with that sometimes because I’ve seen people spend too much on cards, to the point where it causes some financial hardship. I do feel responsible for that. And I feel like I need to be that accountability partner—even though I’m still trying to be a businessman and make money. There’s a fine line when it comes that.
Over the years, I’ve actually had to have at least three heart-to-heart conversations with people and say, “You need to stop.” It saddened me. I had to call them out on it because I could see how much it was impacting their families.
Joe: Oh wow.
Andy: I mean, I’ve got my top 10 customers who equate to 75 percent of my business. And I want those strong business relationships. But if it causes them to have marital issues or financial issues, I’m much better off telling them to walk away from this.
I care about their well-being. This is a hobby of relationships too.