It Was in the Cards

All you used to do with sports cards was stick them in your bicycle spokes. Today, Red Barnes makes millions with 'em.

Having just hit 40, Red Barnes can pretty much say he's reaped the best of life. His sales manager, Alex Payton, expects Barnes' Norfolk, Virginia-based Baseline Sports Inc., a master distributor of trading cards, die-cast collectibles and supplies, to hit 2000 sales of $24 million. Last year's $19.5 million mark was accomplished without strain. And somehow, with all that money, Barnes, his wife Darlene, and twentysomething sons Bret and Blane, manage to live modestly, remaining active in their community. Heck, Red still drives a pickup.

Good-Luck Charm

Pickups are lucky for Red. It was in his '63 Ford that he hauled a shed-full of trading cards he'd bought in Fresno, California, with a $500 bank loan. The year was 1987, and the Navy had just moved him from Hawaii to Lemoore, a small California town "with about 12,000 people and one traffic light," says Red. Bret and Blane had gotten into card collecting back in Hawaii, and Red, looking for a way to bond with the boys, began collecting as well. By the time the family arrived on the mainland, they all had the bug. Too bad there was nowhere to go to add to their sets. "We were searching for card shops in the area," says Red, "but you'd have to drive an hour, and the guys weren't friendly."

All it took to convince Red to fill the void in the trading-card business was unloading some cards for "$63 and some change" at a flea market. "I rushed to where Darlene was working [as a marketing manager] and told her, and she just couldn't believe it," he remembers. "We were in seventh heaven."

Red was going out to sea days later, so his family did the work of organizing the rest of the cards, in hopes of setting up shop when he returned. And they did-in the back of a craft shop. "We had our own entrance, which was big for us," remembers Red. The rent was a whopping $100 per month. When Red was gone on duty, Darlene would take charge of the store. And in the early days, the doors wouldn't open until school let out so eldest son Bret could help out, too.

R&B Sports quickly outgrew its tiny space and moved to a larger location. Then, amid success, the news came. Says Red, "I called Darlene from Hawaii and said, 'The good news is, I'm coming home early. The bad news is, we're leaving, so you need to sell the house and the business. I'll be home in 30 days.'" Red had been restationed.

"Neither of us wanted to leave, nor did the kids, for that matter," says Red. But they packed up for Lorain, Ohio-home state of Red's favorite baseball team, the Cleveland Indians.

The family had no plans to open another store once they'd reached their new home, but the opportunity proved too great to pass up. See, football trading cards were in great demand on the West Coast, but they were fairly easy to obtain in Middle America. And Upper Deck's Ken Griffey Jr. baseball rookie cards were big everywhere-so Red swapped football cards to the West Coast for baseball cards, bringing a new sports-card business model to life-wholesale.

In such a small town, the grand opening of the Barneses' new retail store, called Baseline Sports, was big news and brought the local press, swarms of people and success-for a while.

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This article was originally published in the November 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: It Was in the Cards.

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