In August of 1997, my girlfriend (at the time) and I went on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to the Wisconsin Dells. For those who have never been there, “The Dells” is a touristy area about an hour or so north of Chicago that has tons of fun attractions like water parks, mini golf courses, go kart racing, boat tours, and indoor attractions too, such as the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museum. Basically, good, cheap fun that 20-somethings could afford. One time, I even found some long-needed hockey goodness for my collection.
Wisconsin Dells also has an abundance of “Antique Stores” or “Antique Malls.” I use the quotes deprecatingly because antique is a bit of a stretch. Sure, you might come across some World War II-era trivets or early 20th century tchotchkes. Maybe not actual antiques, but old stuff nonetheless — and not really what I’m looking for.
The cool, newer stuff usually tended to be overpriced. Star Wars figures from the 1980s with paint wear and without weapons for $10 each. No thanks. A 1990 Score Baseball card set for $20? Stop, you’re killing me. Many times, though, the shops don’t set those unreasonable prices; rather, the owners of said items set the prices on consignment, with the shop getting a cut.
Anyway, I’m looking at a glass case full of vintage Star Wars figures, drooling over a 1985 Yak Face figure, near-mint, complete and well above what I could afford, when something on the back wall behind the register caught my eye: the unmistakable black-and-bright-blue stripes of 1989-90 Panini Hockey sticker packs.
Even though I collected Panini Hockey stickers from 1988-89 to 1995-96, at that point in 1997 I still had not completed my 1989-90 album. I missed my opportunity to buy the last 30 or so stickers that I needed from Panini via mail order. I could never find old Panini hockey stickers at shows or at card shops, and I didn’t know other hockey collectors to trade with. So this could finally be a chance to finish my set. Remember, folks, this was the 1990s: before the conveniences of online shopping. If you needed cards or stickers for your collection, you had to go out and find them.
I quickly forgot about the $300 Star Wars figure and hurried over to the counter.
“How much are those?” I asked the store clerk, pointing to the stack of Panini sticker packs behind her.
“Ten cents each,” she replied, picking up a pack and handing it to me.
Ten cents? Wow. These sold for 30 cents back in 1989-90, so 10 cents in 1997 was a steal. Apparently, whoever owned these packs didn’t have unrealistic expectations of their worth.
“How many packs do you have?” I asked.
“A hundred,” she replied.
“I’ll take them all.”
She looked at me incredulously. “You want…ALL of these packs?”
My inner voice wanted to say Dammit, lady, I’m 22 years old, and if I want to buy 100 packs of stickers, I’ll buy 100 packs of stickers.
“Yes, please,” I replied.
The store clerk seemed genuinely surprised that someone would want to buy more than one pack — but completely floored that someone would want one hundred of them.
Later that night, I opened some of the sticker packs in our hotel room, trying to remember which ones I needed. I knew that I needed the sticker of Chicago Stadium, but wouldn’t know what other ones I needed until I got home in a few days.
When I got back to Chicago after the weekend, I opened the rest of the packs, and sure enough, I did finally complete my set. Out of 100 sticker packs — 600 stickers total — I actually got the 30 or so that I still needed. You may laugh, but Panini sticker collation is terrible. I also eventually built a second complete 384-sticker set to have and NOT stick in an album, because I’m weird like that.
There’s really no moral to this story, other than that sometimes you find items that you need for your collection in unexpected places – like seven-year old hockey sticker packs in an antique shop in a state without an NHL team. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.