Anyone who’s ever walked into my office at saratoga living will immediately notice the two framed items leaning against my window: A professional photograph taken of the celebration following the Boston Red Sox’s historic 2004 World Series win, with my man David “Big Papi” Ortiz in the center of the frame; and a copy of the 1967 Thunderball soundtrack from my favorite James Bond movie. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find two sets of framed liner notes signed by one of my favorite musicians, Jay Farrar (he of Son Volt/Uncle Tupelo fame). I also have a bobblehead of Red Sox star Xander Bogaerts on the windowsill, and a stack of hand-cut-out file cards from the G.I. Joe toys my brother and I used to play with when we were kids. (Fun fact: One of them was penned by world-famous horror author Stephen King.) Any space I inhabit eventually becomes a miniature museum. I’m a collector; I can’t help myself.
Collecting has been a major part of every era of my life. When I was growing up in Saratoga, I spent a decent chunk of my allowance money at Caroline Street collectibles hub, The Vault (see below). I had a go-to place in New London, CT, when I was in college (Joydon’s House of Leisure, which is, sadly, gone). Then, when I was living in New York City, post-college, I bought mostly private collections. I’d have to take the subway out to far reaches of Queens or Brooklyn to make the deals happen. But I got a hold of some pretty incredible stuff. Some of the loot I acquired: a 1964 Topps Sandy Koufax, 1980 Topps Larry Bird/Magic Johnson rookie card and a number of sealed complete sets from the rare Topps Tiffany run (a dealers’ incentive in the ’80s/’90s).
Nowadays, I’m back living in the Capital Region, and I must say, I’m surprised at how many shops there are up here to satiate my collecting needs. (Many, many more than there were in the city, for example.) So for all you collectors jonesing for your next big “find,” here’s a list of the top shops to geek out on in the Capital Region.
The Vault – Saratoga Springs – I have to give props to the OG. I first started visiting The Vault circa 1988-89, and ever since, I’ve been buying baseball, football and basketball cards there. Owner Dennis Nye and his longtime righthand man, Mark Mihalek, have an array of collectibles for sale besides cards, including collectible toys, sports memorabilia, comic books, stamps, rare coins and antique jewelry. Every time I set foot in there, it’s like catching up with old friends. Nye still likes to joke about the time he hired me to write eBay descriptions for him back in the day (it was one of my first paid writing gigs!). I took it super seriously, and would always use the same tagline for his jewelry posts: “Buy this one for your loved one.” He still ribs me about how stupid that sounds—and in hindsight, I can’t help but agree. Hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?
Al’s House of Sports Cards – Schenectady – I covered Alex Itskov’s Schenectady shop in last year’s 20th Anniversary Issue of saratoga living, and I’ve been back a bunch of times since reporting the story. Every time I go to Al’s, I dig deeper into Itskov’s ocean of collectibles, last time bringing home some sealed packs, a few sets and a gaggle of single cards. The great thing about Itskov is that he’s constantly purchasing collections and bringing in new inventory, so there’s a good chance that he’ll have a new store’s worth of stuff available every time you drop by. Speaking of which, the last time I was there, he was like, “Do you read books?” And before I could answer “yes,” he handed me two from a recent collection he’d purchased. For free.
Excellent Adventures – Ballston Spa – I’m a huge fan of this place. HUGE. Excellent Adventures has a wonderful, wide selection of vintage and rare comic books from all the major series: Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man. The best part? You can find affordable vintage comics, medium-range back issues, astronomically expensive key issues and all the latest issues, too. My favorite section? The shop’s always purchasing collections of vintage sci-fi/horror paperbacks (yes, books), which are on sale for super cheap. I picked up a copy of the original Planet of the Apes book there and a few vintage issues of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a trove of early sci-fi dorkery. Last but not least, Excellent Adventures has a decent collection of vintage toys for sale, and over the past few years, I’ve picked up some great ’80s/’90s G.I. Joe stuff there. (If you take a trip to Ballston Spa to visit Excellent Adventures, I’d suggest also stopping for food at either the nearby Whistling Kettle or Iron Roost, both amazing brunch spots.)
Matt’s Baseball Cards & Supply – Watervliet – Matt’s is located in a seemingly impossible-to-find building in the back of this old industrial park behind an unmarked door. It reminds me of The X-Files. When you finally locate Matt’s, though, it’s like discovering collector gold. Owner Matt Wheeler and his small, white, fluffy lap dog hang out there all day, every day, filling orders for collector supplies and sealed boxes of sports and non-sports cards. In the supplies department, if you’re in need of plastic cases to protect your most prized possessions, postcards, comic books, magazine covers and pretty much any other type of ephemera, Wheeler’s got you covered. He’s also got bulk cardboard boxes to organize your collections. In terms of sports cards, he has an enviable collection of sealed boxes for sale that dates back about 40 years and ranges from the not-so-pricey to the astronomically expensive. Additionally, Wheeler has a number of single cards for sale for dirt cheap, up front, near the cash register. Be forewarned, though: Matt’s is only open for a tiny window of time per week: 9am – 3pm on Saturdays (though you can make an appointment with him to pick up purchases during the week). So make sure you carve out the time. It’ll be well worth it.
The Collector’s Friend – Rensselaer – The shop’s purveyor, Mickey, always has a smile for you, always remembers your name (if you’re a repeat customer) and is absolutely brimming with stories. The times I’ve gone to The Collector’s Friend, I’ve spent more time shooting the breeze with Mickey than actually spending money at his shop. (He’s a voracious reader, and the last time I was in, I leant him my copy of Card Sharks.) The Collector’s Friend is a card set-builder’s paradise, and Mickey has an insanely large, random collection of singles, all of which he prices at about 50 percent of book price in his shop. Mickey’s also got a robust online store, on which I purchased a hoard of cards after the Red Sox won last year’s World Series. I picked up obscure issues of World Series MVP Steve Pearce, future American League MVP Mookie Betts, my man JBJ (i.e. Jackie Bradley, Jr.) and a number of other Sox stars. If you’re a vintage card nut, Mickey’s got a mountain of them, tracing all the way back to the early 1900s. He also sells coins and a mix of other stuff such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering cards. If you get over there, tell Mickey I said “hey.”
The Comic Depot – Saratoga Springs – Several years ago, when I was looking to sell some of my heaps of comics, so I headed over to The Comic Depot. The owners informed me that they paid more than most dealers did in the area—and I walked away with a nice stack of greenbacks. Of course, these days, I’m regretting my decision; I had some really great stuff in that box, including some early Deadpool books and War Machine’s first appearance from an Iron Man run. During my childhood, the comic shop of record in Saratoga was in the Saratoga Marketplace on the ground level: Spa City Comics. It’s long gone, at this point, but The Comic Depot does a standup job in its place. You can get all the latest issues, and they have a mess of back issues and expensive rarities. They also sell toys, Magic: The Gathering cards, games, figurines and a bunch of other great items. Time to geek out, Saratogians.
Finnigan’s Sports Cards – Albany – Fancy yourself a Red Sox fan, do you? Owner Jeff Finnigan will put your loyalty to absolute shame. I’ve never not seen him wearing some type of Sox flare, and he’s always got a Sox game on in the shop, whether it’s from spring training or the regular or previous season. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the team to boot. Like Al’s House of Sports Cards, Finnigan’s is an absolute tsunami of cards hither and yon, but the righthand wall, right when you walk in, is immaculate, because it’s all newer, sealed packs from all the major sports card companies. Jeff’s also become a player in the “case break” world, a relatively recent innovation in card collecting. A “case” is basically a factory-sealed crate of sealed boxes, each with sealed packs inside them. He’ll have a bunch of the shop’s patrons buy in on the boxes at a flat rate per box, and they’ll “break” the case’s boxes together, ripping open the packs and seeing what sort of treasures lie in wait. For some collectors (including me), case and pack breaking has become a major spectator sport; shops with presences on social media, like Jeff’s, will shoot live videos of their breaks to entice collectors into buying into a future ones. Last August, one such company, Vintage Breaks, did a live pack break of an ultra-rare 1955 Bowman pack at The National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland and pulled out a Mickey Mantle card, which, once graded, was valued at $50,000. Buy-in for each card in the pack? $500 a pop. You do the math.
The Locker Room 78 – Cohoes – When I first tracked down Locker Room 78 in Cohoes, I was surprised to find Owner Scott Santelli behind the counter. He looked super familiar. Turns out that we went to Saratoga Springs High School together. Santelli’s been building his inventory steadily by purchasing collections, but mostly deals in newer cards, which have seen a resurgence in recent years because of young baseball stars such as the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s pitcher/designated-hitter Shohei Ohtani. He’s also a “breaks” guy, and I’ve been caught watching his live feed on Facebook more than a few times. There’s something meditative about watching a set of hands, seemingly unconnected to a body, meticulously opening pack after pack after pack, flashing each card in front of a camera before stacking them up in neat piles. Namaste.
Heroes Hideout – Albany (Colonie Center) – I recently sought out Heroes Hideout in Colonie Center because I wanted to see, with my own two eyes, the shop that had been making a stir in the Capital Region collector world. Heroes Hideout’s been setting up tons of autograph signings with celebrities and sports stars of yesteryear. (You may remember my story about an appearance by former New York Mets/Yankees star Dwight Gooden at the shop recently.) It’s a smallish store, which sells mostly professional wrestling items and memorabilia, but I noticed in their front case a few boxes of baseball cards, too. Of course, the real attraction is all the live signings, though. (On April 27, New York Giants great Rodney Hampton will be doing an in-store there.) So if you happen to be out on a shopping trip with your significant other and have some time to kill, I’d suggest popping over to Heroes Hideout. Who knows? You could walk out with something autographed by Hulk Hogan. Or just a giant smile on your face.