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Industry Interview

Portrait of an artist as The Wrapper publisher

Dec. 8, 2003

In the summer of 1978, Les Davis had been a junior high school teacher in west suburban Chicago.  He had been active in the area's organized sports card hobby for several years and also in his spare time developed a hockey collectors' newsletter.

Today's Wrapper is the oldest trading card publication of any kind under sole continuous ownership.  The paper, however, did not start as the non-sport card journal and advertising outlet for which it is known.  As Davis recounts, he initially believed the art work displayed on vintage boxes and wrappers of both sports and non-sports would grow into a considerable hobby of it own merit.

In January 2004, The Wrapper's publisher and dedicated subscriber base celebrated the paper's 200th issue.  It followed the publication's 25th anniversary, which had been observed the previous October.  

Here is the complete interview with Davis as it appeared in the Hobbyist for three installments beginning in the winter of 2004.

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Q:  Some people may not be aware that you engaged in art and photography as a hobby prior it becoming your vocation.  What is your background?

Davis:  I've always been interested in art and also design and layout.  It runs in the family.  My sister is an artist and my younger daughter wants to be one, too.  

All the work I have done ties in with all the photography which I did on my own; I had my own dark room at home which I later put to good use with The Wrapper.  Also, when I taught junior high, I made different types of (8 mm) movies with all the kids becoming actors.  Some of the subjects were historical -- I taught American History -- and we did movies on the Civil War, for example.  We also came up with our versions of movies at the time -- Grease, Star Wars -- whatever was popular then.  It was just a ball.

Q:  How many years did you work as a junior high school teacher and what other projects did you work on with your students?

Davis:  I was at Benjamin school for 13 years.  I always enjoyed teaching English, especially writing.  The kids kept journals, wrote poetry, participated in plays.  Anything with drama.  That led to the movies.

Our kids also came up with dioramas.  Dioramas are three-dimensional representations that are about the size of a desktop.  Some were of an important Civil War battle with soldiers, buildings and fences.  One I remember clearly was on John Wilkes Booth assassinating Lincoln at Ford's Theater.  The kids came up with a lot of imaginative scenes.

Q:  In the mid-1970s, you created a hockey collector newsletter called Hockey Forum.  In the five-plus years you printed it, how did Hockey Forum prepare you for administering a publication and keeping up with its bookkeeping?

Davis:  I just enjoyed doing publications and wasn't looking for any long-term profit.  I'd been doing paste-up work and enjoying writing since I was 15-years-old.  (Hockey Forum) was basically just a paste-up and layout thing where you get everyone involved and make it more personal, which is what The Wrapper became.

Q:  How many Hockey Forum subscribers did you have?

Davis:  Not that many, maybe 150 at its height.  But that was good because there weren't many hockey publications at that time -- and here I had the nerve to be a guy near Chicago putting out a hockey publication, which was more risky than being a Canadian (hobbyist).

Q:  For a time, you were working on Hockey Forum, which was more established, and also The Wrapper, which had just started to build interest.  How long did you do both?

Davis:  It was only a few issues of each that they overlapped.  I was still teaching, too.

Q:  What fired off your imagination into conceiving a newsletter that the early Wrappers became?

Davis:  My brother-in-law saved the boxes, the wrappers, cards, everything from the early '50s of non-sports as well as baseball.  There were things I couldn't remember myself, and he was only a few years older than me.  He had cards and wrappers from Freedom's War (Topps, 1950).  As a kid, I could only recall Look 'n See (Topps, 1952) and Wings (Topps, 1954).

When I saw the art work on the wrappers and boxes, it just hit me that I really enjoyed looking at all that.  So that is why I first went into the sports and non-sports material with the early Wrapper.  It was not a leap into non-sports specifically.  The collecting of boxes and wrappers I thought would take off as a hobby.  But it never grew significantly in numbers, it was always a small group.

Q:  When did Wrapper #1 come out?

Davis:  In October 1978 at a Chicago sports card convention.  I had people sign up (as subscribers) and gave away about 40 copies of #1.  There were 100 printed.  I'd be very surprised if perhaps 30 of them still exist.

Q:  In looking back, what do you think were some of the turning points of The Wrapper's emergence into a non-sport card journal?

Davis:  It took about two years along with the constant urgings of real big names such as Sal Visalli and Chris Benjamin to push it over the edge.  The baseball people were good people, but they weren't as dedicated as far as boxes and wrappers.  It was a peripheral thing for them.  The non-sports people really wanted to have something -- Martin Ballistreri, Roxanne Toser -- they really pushed for it.

I think the earliest influences were Jim Trevor's article about Mars Attacks (Topps, 1962) in Wrapper #4 and also Bob Nolan's story on Horrors of War (Gum Inc., 1938).

Q:  What hobby publications served as your inspiration in developing The Wrapper's content?

Davis:  Back in July 1980 I wrote a letter to Dan Dischley who was the editor of The Trader Speaks.  Part of it read, "Your publication is the model of style and integrity my publication strives toward."  Although I liked The Trader Speaks, which was primarily a baseball card monthly, my real love was for the Comic Buyers Guide.  

The Buyers Guide was a weekly publication on newsprint.  You never knew how big it would be.  Some people would take out 10-page ads.  Others would submit hand-drawn ads.  Oh, it was a mess, but in a very positive way -- a lot of fun.

It was a true collectors' paper until (editor) Alan Light sold out to Krause Publications.  It was a pop culture potpourri where you could read not just about comic books, but also movie and television collectibles, among others.  And there were a lot of good writers who contributed.

Q:  From the beginning, The Wrapper boasted several insightful writers of its own.  What did Bob Nolan and Chris Benjamin bring to your paper?

Davis:  When they started, it gave The Wrapper credibility, along with Trevor's article on Mars Attacks.    

Bob Nolan was consistent and appeared in every issue for several years.  He started with stories on sets from the late 1940s and early fifties which were key at the time.  He examined Topps' Freedom's War (1950), Bowman's Wild Man (1950) and Horrors of War (Gum Inc. 1938).  Plus, Bob's humor was so down-to-earth and his writing displayed a lot of humanity.  Each article allowed readers to open their eyes to these cards.  I'd only seen a few of these cards myself.  Plus, he worked at Topps in the 1970s which gave his articles so much legitimacy and authority.

Chris was excellent at convention reports and pricing information.  His satire was on the mark as well.  The first article he did for me was called "Green Slimeys" which was a send-up of the supposed find of 18 unopened Mars Attacks boxes back in 1979.  Chris' (Sport Americana) price guides gave the hobby a boost in the 1980s.

There are three things that give legitimacy to a hobby.  First, publications, which The Wrapper served in some way; second, conventions where people can get together; and third, some kind of guide book.  The fact that we don't have price guide books is really a shame and it's one of the great losses for non-sports --  not just for prices and values, but for general information about old sets and cards that are rarely seen.

Q:  You were a junior high school teacher when The Wrapper came into being.  What circumstances led you to switch careers?

Davis:  In 1980, I began to have medical problems and it coincided with having a family, holding down a demanding job.  I was taking on too much; I was losing a lot of weight.  My wife wanted to work full-time and we talked about changing arrangements.  Finally, in the summer of 1983, I retired from teaching.  I still enjoyed it, but teaching is very much a young person's profession.  I did it for almost 15 years and by the time I quit I felt very old.  But doing The Wrapper full-time really revived me and I enjoyed being a Mr. Mom type homebody with my two daughters.

Q:  When The Wrapper became your full-time vocation, did you consider publishing the paper more often?

Davis:  Some people suggested The Wrapper going monthly.  But on the other side of the coin was the dedicated collector.  A lot of collectors waited six weeks to build up a nest egg to buy cards.  Most people didn't have enough money to jump in every month.  Furthermore, I could see dealers saying, "Oh, another deadline already?"  I think it was wise to keep releasing every six weeks rather than every month.

Q:  Some observers may argue The Wrapper could reach a broader readership through expansion of topics.  Would that not be a useful option?

Davis:  I've had a few dealers suggest putting some baseball in there or try reaching out to movie collectors.  A lot of other publications in the past have tried potpourri.  With the exception of The Buyers Guide, it just doesn't work.  People know The Wrapper is just below the radar and it's just one thing.  I wanted to keep it for the collector and keep it affordable.  The only luxury people have to pay for is the first-class mailing, which is necessary due to the time sensitivity of the ads.

Q:  The Wrapper gained its reputation through articles on pre-1960s gum card issues and vintage material offered by advertisers.  In terms of new products, what was the hobby like during most of the 1980s?

Davis:  There were a lot of lean times where only a few sets were made throughout an entire year.  You need to have sets come out every once in a while to keep up interest.  The biggest thing in the Eighties was Garbage Pail Kids.  It was the 800-pound gorilla in the living room of non-sports.  It received more negative publicity than we would have liked.  A lot of parents were upset, along with teachers.  Some schools actually banned them.  

But then, in the early Nineties, (production) was at the other end of the spectrum, which was even more frightening.  There were just too many releases -- every kind of art set, comic art.  But some great cards did come out at that time.

Q:  Hobby veterans recall the incredible activity of non-sports during the 1990s.  What was The Wrapper's high point in circulation?

Davis:  Issue number 117 (released in August 1993) was 3,300 in circulation.  It was so big because I had Diamond Distribution and also Capital City up in Madison, Wisc.  I was sending them hundreds of issues.  It was really crazy dropping off bags full of copies at O'Hare Airport.  But later on Diamond couldn't make enough money or could resell enough.  And Capital City went out of business when interest dwindled in the mid-Nineties.  Losing Diamond was a blow because that was 400 copies each issue.

Q:  How did you initially view the burgeoning growth of eBay auctions?

Davis:  When I got my first computer and Internet line and discovered first-hand what was going on, it was all very frightening.  It seemed very much like Wal-Mart against the mom-and-pop store down the street in comparison.

Q:  Do you still feel that way?

Davis:  Non-sports is still about people and many come back to my publication.  Some dealers advertise in The Wrapper and still do eBay.  I have no problem with that -- it's what ever you can do.

Now it seems the hobby is much stronger because of the attention auctions have received, along with the practice of card grading, whether you agree with it or not.

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Interview with Inkworks president Allan Caplan

 

 

 

 

Les Davis began The Wrapper in October 1978

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The article inside Wrapper #3 is titled, "Wrapper Collecting--Why Not?" by S.J. Visalli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the first issues of Comic Buyers Guide (June 1971).  Note the column "Mess" on left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Benjamin, future author of the Sport Americana Non-Sport price guides, at the 1983 National Sports Collectors convention in Chicago.

 

 

 

 
 

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Copyright June 2010 by Scott Thomas, all rights reserved.