A teenage boy strolls into Savy’s Store in Boyle Heights and stares thoughtfully at packed rows of neatly organized cards displayed on the walls.
After about 15 minutes of intense concentration, he finally buys five packs of Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards for $20 with the hopes of getting cards that he can later sell for $25 or more each.
Other customers gather around him as he opens the packs; they, too, are looking for cards to add to their collections.
The room stays quiet until he pulls a shiny, holographic Number C107: Neo Galaxy-Eyes Tachyon Dragon (Número C107: Neo Dragón Taquiónico de Ojos de Galaxia) that has the entire group in awe, yelling in excitement.
Suddenly, another teenager, Luis Reyes, 18, whips out a binder full of cards. “Got any trades?” he asks, eager to begin negotiating deals and exchanging cards.
Fiction-based trading card games such as Yu-Gi-Oh have a loyal fan following in Boyle Heights, where two card shops provide enthusiasts a chance to socialize and establish close networks through an addictive, yet potentially profitable, hobby.
Like many Yu-Gi-Oh followers, Reyes was introduced to the Japanese anime television series at the age of five and has been a devoted fan since. He has over 5,000 cards in his collection and has spent thousands of dollars on the game.
Reyes, a recent graduate of Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights, dedicates 30 to 40 hours a week to this game. He frequently visits Savy’s, where focused teenagers cram around portable picnic tables and small chairs to play and exchange cards.
“When you have these sorts of rivalries, you gain these friendships,” Reyes said. “There are no words to explain what causes it.”
Savy’s is located inside the iconic El Norteño de Savy clothing store at 2036 César Chavez Avenue, next to discount stores, carnicerias and fast food restaurants. Since 1980, the store has sold Tex-Mex clothing, such as cowboy hats and leather boots. In 2003, the cramped store condensed its regular merchandise to make space for collectible comic books, baseball cards and eventually, the latest craze, Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
The other Boyle Heights shop specializing in trading cards is D. Card Collector, located in El Mercado de Los Angeles.
Savy’s Card Shop and D. Card Collector are two of the few card shops left in Los Angeles. According to workers in both stores, people come from around the county, looking for rare and valuable cards.
Collectible cards that promote major sports leagues have been popular since the early 1900s, where card manufacturer Topps dominated the market. But 25 years ago, the card industry introduced a new way to trade and play battle games with these cards.
In 1999, Konami Digital Entertainment started producing Yu-Gi-Oh cards, based on the Japanese comic books and animated TV series. The creation quickly became the best-selling trading card series in the world.
In 2008, Yu-Gi-Oh made 51 percent of the trading card industry’s $800 million profits, according to Superdata Research Inc., a company specializing in online trend analysis. By 2011, the company had sold more than 25 billion cards globally.
Yu-Gi-Oh has two players start with “life points.” Tracking with a calculator–and many times, mental math–players use different types of cards to deplete their opponent’s life points. The game requires players to predict each other’s actions and act strategically to win. The payoff: bragging rights, pride and sometimes a prized card.
Individual Yu-Gi-Oh cards may vary in price from cents to hundreds or even a couple thousand dollars. The price depends on the demand and condition. Over time, the value of each card fluctuates.
Card games like Yu-Gi-Oh attract mostly 16-24-year-old males but Jonathan Sánchez, a 23-year-old worker at D. Card Collector, says “I’ve gotten surprised. I never know who is going to come by that door.”
Jaime “Bubba” Rovero, the 45-year-old manager of Savy’s, says his customers are “mostly kids, people in the ‘hood. They’re aged from 8 to probably my age. I’ve even seen fathers and grandpas come in with their kids.”
An addictive hobby
Reyes knows what that feels like and says it’s an addictive hobby. He once paid his way across the country for a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament in Ohio, where he claims to have beaten one of the world’s best players.
He also joins dozens of participants in local weekly tournaments sponsored by Savy’s for a small fee and eagerly attends “Sneak Peek” events, where up to 100 people may line up hours before the store opens.
Rovero isn’t so concerned with the addictive following of Yu-Gi-Oh. He sees the shop as a benefit to the neighborhood and a positive environment for the youth. A card collector himself since childhood, he has witnessed the rise and fall of baseball cards and comic books. “Yu-Gi-Oh is just a game. These cards can die tomorrow.”