I love baseball card shops. When I was a kid living in Chicago, I would beg my dad to let us stop at a store on the way home from a Cubs game. We would sort through stacks of rookie cards, autographed baseballs, bobble heads and all other sorts of memorabilia, hoping to find a hidden gem. I loved it all – comparing the style on the Topps and the Upper Deck cards, reading the stats and facts about the players and talking with other kids and families about our favorite cards there. There was a strong community feeling in these stores: customers with a shared love of sports and owners who did everything they could to support that.
I could sense the same kind of atmosphere when I walked into The OC Dugout, a sports memorabilia store in Anaheim, California. The walls of the store are covered with jerseys, figurines, and autographed baseball gear. There were large boxes in the center of the store filled with baseball cards: I felt a gravitational pull towards them. The owner, Brian Nicalek, greeted me instantly and gave me a heap of information about the store.
“We’re OK with people just coming and looking around,” Nicalek said. “No pressure to even buy anything, even just coming in to say ‘Hi.’”
The store has many loyal customers and in turn pays homage back to them. Many returning customers have particular interests within memorabilia that focuses on a certain player or team. Nicalek makes it a point to cater to them.
“If there’s something we get in that we think somebody might want, we’ll show it to them right when they come in,” he said.
The exceptional customer service and a dedication to the client make The OC Dugout a worthy visit for sports fans. The customers’ age can range anywhere from four years old to those in their seventies, Nicalek said. The store ships to Europe and Japan as well and sells pieces on their website and eBay. Nicalek stressed the importance of each individual buyer’s experience.
“It’s not just a transaction for us,” Nicalek said. “We focus and make sure they get exactly what they’re looking for.”
Of course, however, a store can only be as strong as the products it sells. The OC Dugout carries a mix of modern and classic memorabilia, and not just baseball pieces. There’s an autographed Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey, multiple posters and props signed by acting legend Gene Wilder, and even cardboard cutouts of characters from Frozen, signed by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell.
But the most unique feature and ultimately the best selling point, of the shop are the events it hosts – in-person autograph signings by professional athletes and celebrities. As a kid in Chicago, I had to wait outside Wrigley Field and chase down players’ cars to try and get any sort of autograph. It would’ve meant the world to me to attend just one such signing and for a small independent store, The OC Dugout has a strong reputation for delivering these experiences.
In 2010, only a year after the store opened, they held their first signing with Angels right fielder and Hall of Fame member Vladimir Guerrero. He’d never done a public signing prior in his 14-year career, but through a connection with Guerrero’s driver, The OC Dugout was able to bring him in.
“It went well; we actually did one every year with Vladimir for the next four years,” Nicalek said.
Guerrero’s positive experience led to the store gaining a positive reputation among athletes, leading to more signing opportunities.
“We treated that athlete right and word got around the clubhouse. His representative and agent had other clients they were able to bring in,” Nicalek said.
On my way out of the shop, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia. Baseball and baseball cards were such a big part of my youth; to visit a store with so many incredible artifacts and a deeply passionate owner meant a lot to me. I drove home, blasted “Centerfield” by John Fogerty and gave my dad a call to reminisce over the store and talk about the Cubs’ playoff chances.