When Alan Bisson hobbled on crutches into his Spokane Valley Sportscards trading shop following knee surgery in March and discovered his windows broken and collectibles missing, it was immediately apparent the culprit was a regular.
“They knew what they wanted, and they got it,” Bisson said.
Bisson’s fairly certain he knows who stole the favorites of his collection, including several cards featuring the smiling visages of Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle and actress Marilyn Monroe.
But four months later no arrests have been made and none of the cards – priced at more than $30,000 – has been returned. A rash of armed robberies in the Valley that took investigative priority, along with the difficulty of proving ownership of trading cards, has slowed law enforcement efforts to catch the thief.
Meanwhile, Bisson – a Spokane Valley native and self-avowed Redskins and Packers fan – has had to rebuild his inventory from scratch, printing his unique price stickers on his computer and applying them to cards one by one.
It’s no small feat for a small business whose heyday lies firmly in the rearview mirror. But with the help of fellow collectors who may have spotted the stolen cards in Idaho a few weeks ago, Bisson and authorities are hopeful they could see a break in the case soon.
Bisson, 60, started his shop as a side project from his day job as an architectural photographer. He still snaps interior photos of area houses, though after the real estate market crashed he found himself spending more and more time in the converted dwelling on Sprague Avenue. Stacks of opened baseball cards are piled on desks throughout the one-story building, and autographed memorabilia – including a vintage Supersonics jersey signed by Spokane superstar John Stockton – line the walls. Bisson said he started buying cards during the industry boom 20 years ago at the suggestion of his brother.
“I got into collecting in the late ’80s and was too stupid to give it up,” Bisson said.
Though first manufactured in the late 19th century as baseball grew in popularity, sports card trading peaked in 1991, according to industry publication Sports Collectors Digest. That year, as Kirby Puckett sent the World Series into a seventh game with a dramatic 11th inning home run, annual sales exceeded $1 billion. They have since dwindled to below $200 million.
“The advent of eBay killed most of the shops off,” Bisson said. Since he started in the early ’90s, he said, the number of area specialty sports card stores has dropped from 10 or 15 to just two.
The hobbyist community has remained tight-knit, as evidenced by Bisson’s monthly “trader nights” where hopeful collectors tear open new packs in search of a rarity. A few weeks after Bisson’s cards disappeared, one of his regulars noticed a card pasted with his price stickers at a shop in Coeur d’Alene.
“He said, ‘Dude, those are Alan’s cards,’ ” Bisson said.
Bisson quickly deduced a likely suspect from past experiences with the customer, who has not returned to the Valley card shop since the thefts. Bisson said the suspect told police he’d purchased the cards online.
Detective Darin Staley, a Spokane Valley property crimes investigator assigned to the case, said even with the provided information a criminal case will be tough to build.
“Tracking stolen cards like that can be difficult,” Staley said. Owners often don’t keep track of their products’ serial numbers, and there are literally thousands of copies of the stolen property on the market. Add to that a recent uptick in property crime citywide, and the odds mount against a successful search for the cards.
But Staley filed search warrants targeting electronic records that will hopefully lead to an arrest, he said. He urged those with information on the case to contact him at (509) 477-3363.
Bisson grinned off his frustration at his shop Monday afternoon.
“I’m still hopeful,” he said. “We’ve got a warrant in hand.”