By Ed Morrone
Stepping inside the doors at the Bucks County Baseball Company is like taking a trip through time.
Vintage jerseys from decades ago hang upon overstuffed racks on the floor, while everything from bobbleheads to old pictures to cards to old stadium memorabilia line the shelves and walls inside the space at 234 Mill St. in Bristol. The store has a museum-like feel to it, and the father-son team of James and J.P. Lutz who run the business have tapped into the passion and knowledge of local sports fans by offering striking unique items.
With a focus primarily on vintage sports collectibles and retro gear, the shop combines the nostalgia of yesteryear and a wide-ranging inventory that both hardcore collectors and casual fans alike would find impressive.
“My dad is kind of the ‘American Picker’ in that he really has an eye for unique, dated stuff that’s harder to find,” J.P. Lutz said during a recent conversation at the store. “He has a tremendous amount of experience in this field, while I’ve got the business background working in professional sports with a newfound focus on technology and social media, things small businesses have to pay attention to now where they didn’t before.”
The elder Lutz became a collector of baseball cards in the late 1970s/early 1980s and opened a small mom-and-pop baseball card store on Pond Street back in the early ‘90s. J.P.’s first job was working in the store when he was 12 years old, getting paid in baseball cards. But as technology evolved over the years and interests changed, the business was no longer viable and the family shut the store down.
Meanwhile, J.P. began a career with the Philadelphia Eagles, working in fields like sales, marketing, finance and operations, so while the store was shuttered, his interest in sports and sports as a career remained steadfast. After 13 years, he decided it was time to try something else and left his post in 2011. After giving adjunct teaching a try, J.P. gravitated back toward sports memorabilia, studying trends in the business and selling unique items online. Working out of his basement, he outgrew the space, and around the same time James Lutz had purchased the current space on Mill Street. Father and son decided to go back in for round two.
“We go out and find authentic items, whether it’s clothing, collectibles, game-used materials and bobblehead dolls, which have been a real nice source of revenue for us,” J.P. said. “It’s gone full circle, from me helping my dad as a kid and now working together again.”
Each man brings their own unique strengths to the business, and with young and old both bringing different skills to the table, the Lutzes have carved themselves a niche in what had become a seemingly obsolete industry with the onslaught of the internet and smartphones.
And while trading card companies like Topps have pushed a lot of their business to buying and trading cards on mobile apps on your phones and tablets, James and J.P. have kept the tangible, brick-and-mortar sports collecting viable.
“What people are buying has changed, and how they consume and find goods has also dramatically changed,” J.P. said. “The internet has changed the game in the sense that customers can buy anytime, anywhere, any place, and we’ve had to embrace that. We live in a digital age now, yes, but we offer you that connection to the memories and nostalgia of sports.
“Technology has also really helped us in being able to gather information and take a good, hard look into what people are buying. It helps us know where to look for items, how to find content and just enable us to listen to customers in a way we were unable to do before. We can adjust to their needs and use those metrics to support inventory and purchasing decisions. What fans consume is constantly changing, but the common uniting factor is that anything sports-related will always have a captive audience.”
J.P. said everybody has differing favorite items in the store, and that’s what makes the shop unique. Ask his dad about the two sets of seats from Connie Mack Stadium and he’ll take you on a trip down memory lane recalling attending Phillies games with his father when the park was at 21st and Lehigh. For J.P., nostalgia represents growing up going to games at Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, and any old Philly-related sports items are always immensely popular with such die-hard fans.
The Lutzes also attend sports memorabilia shows in order to both keep an eye out for unique collectibles, as well as promoting their own business. The shop itself has hosted shows and other events like autograph signings featuring former Philly pro athletes.
“The demographic is pretty wide, but our core business is in that 24 to 40 age range,” J.P. said. “We get a lot of kids coming in looking for vintage jerseys of a player they may not have ever seen, but they heard their dads talking about him. They come in and learn about the history of the game, and focusing on vintage items kind of makes that tangible for people. We want to give people the best experience possible when they come in the door.”
At the end of the day, collecting and sports memorabilia is a passion project for both James and J.P. Lutz. They’ve both spent a majority of their lives working in the sports industry and have kept collecting relevant in their small corner of Bristol. The borough’s recent Small Business Revolution victory will only help the shop’s exposure, and hopefully some of the money funneled into the town by way of the victory will continue to grow a business that taps into the nostalgia of sports fans.
“For me, the best businesses are the ones you enjoy running,” J.P. said. “It doesn’t feel like work to me coming here, and I’ve been very lucky in that respect. We work a lot of nights and weekends, but the passion for sports and collecting keeps us going. Dealing with customers and interacting with sports fans is a lot of fun, and if you come into the store, you know you’re going to talk about last night’s game, and you’re going to find a lot of unique items. It’s got a barbershop feel to it where you can come in, hang out and talk sports. Being able to offer people those memories is very important.” ••