Well, this post is really my history of card collecting from the early 1970s to today the present. While, I am probably not the typical collector, I think this will give readers a good overview how collectors obtained cards through the years.
The Early 1970s
I bought my first wax pack of cards in the spring of 1972 at a local drugstore. The cards were 1972 Topps baseball. The drug store is still in business but I doubt they have sold cards for more than 30 years. Also, my uncle owned a little grocery store around this time and he began carrying cards. I bought my first pack of hockey cards from him (1972-73 Topps). For the next few years I bought all my cards (for all 4 sports) at his store. I would usually have money to buy a few packs and he would then give me few extra packs free.
In the mid-1970s my uncle and my aunt had marital problems and there went my access to free cards. The first rack pack of cards that I ever remember buying was 1977 Topps football. I remember looking at all the packs hanging on the rack, trying to find the cards of players that I did not have. What a great idea, see through rack packs, I would only buy the ones that I was assured of getting cards that I did not have. One thing I did notice was the price, while you got more cards, the packs cost more, so you had to buy less packs.
The late 1970s
Because I did not have great access to retail Basketball cards in my city, the 1976-77 Topps Basketball set was the first set I bought through the mail. I don’t recall who I bought them from but I pretty sure I saw the ad in the Sporting News. I don’t recall many stores ever carrying much basketball cards in the late 1970s where I lived. I continued to buy all my basketball sets through the mail from then on for about 10 years. I bought my first Hockey set through the mail in 1979 (1979-80 Topps set) and my first football set through the mail was 1980 Topps. I bought most of my sets from Renata Galasso in New York.
Topps had competition in 1981. I originally had planned to collect only Topps but I ended up buying Donruss and Fleer sets. I bought all three sets through the mail. By 1981, I was buying all my cards through the mail except for Topps football. 1981 was also the first time I recalled buying cards at Flea Markets. I remember buying a lot of 1971 Topps Baseball at a flea market for something like 100 cards for $5.00 around this time. I recall going to flea markets from 1981 to about 1985 and picking up older Topps cards. I rarely picked up cards from flea markets after 1985.
Beginning in 1982, I began buying wax boxes to put together my Topps football sets(I did this throughout the 1980s). I bought the cards at a wholesale district near the center city. I continued to buy my Topps Baseball, Donruss Baseball, Fleer Baseball, Topps Hockey (O-Pee-Chee the 2 years Topps did not make cards) and Topps Basketball (later Star Company Basketball) sets through the mail.
I bought my first set of cards at card shop around 1985 or 1986. I remember paying $125 for a complete mint 1973 Topps baseball set. The second set I ever bought at a card shop was a 1986-87 Fleer basketball set for $10 (I wish I bought more). By 1987, I was buying wax boxes of Fleer Basketball, Topps Hockey and Topps Football at wholesale shops and put together my complete sets. I remember for about a couple of years the price of the wax boxes were $10.60. (I won’t ever forget that number). I bought my Baseball sets through the mail, except for 1987 Topps, which I bought a ton of wax boxes.
1989 the beginning of the end
1989 Upper Deck Baseball was the first major set I did not collect. From 1971-1988, I had owned every major Baseball Football Basketball and Hockey set. I did not collect Upper Deck because I thought they were too expensive.
1990s and into the 2000s
In 1990, I went to my first card show and I attended on average about 5 card shows a year through 2007. I went wild (like everyone else) buying cards between 1990 and 1991. I would buy (or put together) 3-4 Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey sets during those years. This was probably the most diverse time collecting. I pretty much stopped buying wholesale wax boxes after 1991 and I scaled back my card shop buying, I began to get most of my cards from the card shows. From 1992 to 2006, I probably got 95 percent of my cards from card shows. Beginning in 1994, I scaled back my card collecting to getting one complete set for Hockey, Basketball, Baseball and Football for that year. Affordability was the key and I would still pick up a few single cards. This was pretty much the way I collected until 2001. Since then I have been basically collecting completes sets every other year or so (for example, the last 4 football sets I bought -2001 Topps, 2005 Topps, 2008 Score, 2010 Score) for each sport. I hardly bought any retail packs of cards during this period.
In 2005, a friend at work told me about Ebay, I joined in late 2005 and since 2006, every single card (or set) I buy comes from Ebay now. I still pick up wax packs occasionally at stores (I have never bought a wax pack or box of cards on ebay).
My evolution of collecting - where I got (most of) my cards from:
1972-1980 – Retail
1980-1986- Mail Order
1987-1991 – Wholesale
1992-2005 – Card Shows
There also has been a lot of lasts in my card collecting career:
2007 Last time I went to a card show.
2004 Last time bought a complete card set from a mail order dealer.
2003 Last time bought a complete card set from a card shop
2001 Last time bought a complete card set from a flea market
2001 Last time put together a complete card set from wax boxes (bought from card show)
1991 Last time put together a complete card set from wax boxes (bought wholesale)
1990 Last time put together a complete card set from retail packs (though I stopped getting most of my cards from retail around 1980.)
I still collect, since 2009, I have bought 87 autograph cards on ebay (about half for 99 cents shipped). The most I paid for an autograph card shipped was $9.86 for a 2007 Topps Prince Fielder. I bid low and if I win I feel like a got a good deal and that makes me a happy collector.