The mere mention of Southern California conjures up images of the lights and cameras of the big studios, tourists strolling past the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, starlets making purchases at the chic shops of Rodeo Drive, and a million dollars worth of vehicles in the driveways of the multi-million dollar estates of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Malibu. What the mention of Southern California doesn't necessarily bring to mind is sprawling horse ranches and rural hills that serve as the home to red tail hawks, mule deer, mountain lions and coyotes. It is, however, the latter that you will in fact find just a short 40-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles in a quiet little community known as Chino Hills.
Located in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, Chino Hills has been called one of California's greatest secrets. A few years ago, it was ranked 68th by Money Magazine as one of the best places to live in the United States and the city of a little over 80,000 residents boasts the nation's sixth highest per capita income.
It is there, on Schaefer Avenue, just a stone's throw from the Chino Valley Freeway, that you will find Honabach and Sons Sports Memorabilia and Custom Framing, owned by Jim Honabach.
"While we're a custom frame shop, we specialize in sports and celebrity memorabilia and autographs," said Jim, who was born in Ohio and moved to California with his family when he was 10-years old. "We first lived in Fontana and then settled in Chino Hills where I spent the majority of my youth."
While never a collector of anything as a kid, Jim was very much into sports. "When I was in high school, I played everything you can imagine - baseball, football, basketball. I was also a Lakers fan and a Dodgers fan although, as I got older, I have become more of an Angels fan."
While school and sports took up most of Jim's teenage years, he also worked for his family's business from the time he was 12-years old. "My family owned service stations and mini-marts - up to 20 stations at one time," said Jim. "I started working at the stations when I was very young, cleaning up and things like that. Then, after I graduated from high school, I began managing one of the stations and, as I got older, I became the general manager of the company, running the day-to-day operations of all the stations."
So how does one make the transition from running service stations to operating a successful sports memorabilia company? Jim said it was a rather odd situation that brought about the change. "At the time, we had some of the largest service stations and mini-markets in Southern California," he explained. "We were one of the largest accounts for a big wholesale company who supplied us with dry goods. This was back in the 1980s and big wholesale companies were major suppliers of wax packs. Because we were such a large account, I could pretty much get whatever I wanted. So, while other retailers were limited to buying one or two boxes or maybe a case of cards, I was able to order an unlimited amount. I could order 20 cases with no problem."
During this time, a friend of Jim's father had left Ohio to become a card dealer in Chicago. "We would see him when he would come out to California to do a show," said Jim. "He was always telling us that we had to get into selling cards - that we could make a fortune. So, one day, I ordered four or five boxes of 1989 Hoops Basketball cards. I put them on the shelf and, after five or six weeks, they were all still sitting there. I got frustrated and started thinking that I didn't want to mess with cards anymore so I gathered them up and took them over to a local card shop. Well, to my surprise, the guy at the card shop offered me more than I had paid for them. That's what got me hooked on selling cards. From there, I started buying more and more boxes, began doing shows and started to really enjoy it."
In 1990, Jim's family was rocked with bad news when his father was diagnosed with cancer and given only one year to live. "After we got that news, we started to sell off the stations," said Jim. "I was fine with that because I found the work to be very boring. All I did was push numbers all day. So, when we finally sold the last station, my father gave me an option. He said he would offer me either a chunk of money or we could take the money from the stations and invest in opening a new business. At that time, I had been doing the card shows on weekends for a couple of years. I figured that I liked the work and knew there was money to be made. I also knew that if we opened a store, it would give me the opportunity to spend time with my father."
Deciding that a new business venture was appealing, Jim partnered with his father and brother and opened a card business. Amazingly, Jim's father beat all the odds and doctor's prognostications and went on to live another 14 years. "The real reason I thought it was a good idea to open the store was just to be able to spend more time with my father," said Jim. "But, then it evolved into being our livelihood."
When the Honabachs first opened their shop, they were just dealing in cards. "We were strictly cards for a while and then eventually we started carrying autographs," Jim explained. "When I went to the shows, I would see the athletes signing and I figured we could sell plaques with signed photos. That worked out well and it proceeded to the point where autographs became a large part of our business."
As the 1990s moved along, Jim said that the business saw a marked downturn. Most business people would view that as bad news, but, just as with the news of his father's illness, Jim turned a negative into a positive and expanded his business. "We had moved from our first store into a very large store before things slowed down," said Jim. "Soon after that, I had gotten the name of a guy who was in the framing industry from a friend of mine. We talked, and to make a long story short, we ended up getting into the framing business. The framing work became our savior because, during the time when cards and sports memorabilia had slowed down, it was the framing work that carried us through. Today, we have come full circle. We are again very strong with cards and autographs and we also continue to do framing."
Today, Jim specializes in sports autographs and also handles celebrity and political material. "The reason I deal primarily in sports material is because that is what is accessible," Jim explained. "It is difficult to find large quantities of celebrity material that is any good - that is authentic."
Jim said that PSA has been a big help to him and to his customers "There is just no doubting the fact that PSA has helped the hobby tremendously," said Jim. "When I buy autographs, I only buy from people whom I know. I don't buy randomly. I am very cautious of who I will buy from. So, even though I have a great level of confidence in the people I deal with, I am by no means an expert. That is where PSA comes in. PSA protects me, which in turn protects my customers. As far as the value PSA offers to a piece - well there is just no question. You take a raw item signed by anyone from a current player to Babe Ruth - if it has been authenticated by PSA, it changes the value tremendously. As for my celebrity material, I have spent a lot of time talking with PSA/DNA's authenticators Steve Grad and Kevin Low. On the sports end, I would say about 90 percent of what I offer comes through signings with the exception of very high-end things such as a Babe Ruth check. The high-end vintage material comes from getting out there and working, searching for it or being contacted by someone."
When asked if the current economic climate has taken its toll on the autograph hobby and his business, Jim said that while he has seen a slow down, there is still a very solid demand. "I would say that many people are sitting back right now," said Jim. "I don't think that is because there is an issue with the state of the hobby. I just think that the average person is having problems financially and, if your choice is to buy an autographed item or pay the rent, most reasonable people are going to make the choice to pay the rent. But, that said, there is a large segment of the population that has not been affected by the bad economy. Now, a percentage of that segment may be holding their money, and they may be more cautious about what they spend it on, but I have found that the segment of the population that is working and has not been affected by the economy is actually still spending."
According to Jim, the items that are in the greatest demand today are those that are unique and of good quality. "From what I have seen in my business and overall is that the higher-end market is doing well. But those who collect higher-end material are looking for specific things - something different and something unique. I think that is why we have done well. We offer things that are unique. An example would be with the NBA 50. We have gotten an autographed card from every one of the NBA 50 players and we frame them. We have sold three of them this year. These are not inexpensive items. We had one sell for $29,000. We do a great job in the presentation of a piece like that and that is where we have carved out our niche in the market. I have found that people are willing to spend money for something that is authentic, of good quality, and unique."
On the topic of quality, Jim said that higher-end collectors are attracted to signatures that are fully representative of the way an athlete or celebrity typically signs. "If a player is known to sign good, clean examples, then that is what people want," said Jim. "They will not accept a scrawl that is not typical of the way the player usually signs. But, if a player does not have a signature that is particularly nice, then they are willing to accept what is available. I mean, if a collector wants a Manny Ramirez autograph, there are not many examples on the market of a nice looking Ramirez signature that is real. So, if you want a Ramirez signature, you have to take what he gives. Where in the case of say Mickey Mantle, they are not going to accept anything but a nice quality signature because that is the way he signed the majority of the time."
When asked what direction he sees the sports collectibles hobby taking over the next five years, he shrugs. "I have no guess as to what may be the next big thing in the sports memorabilia hobby," he said with a laugh. "I have never been good at being ahead of the trend. I have always been the type of dealer who has gotten in late on things that I see an interest in. But, what I do think is that the sports memorabilia hobby is going to continue to grow and be strong. Even during this bad economy, I have increased my inventory by at least double over last year. I am currently spending every dollar I have in buying quality memorabilia because I believe within the next three to five years the market is going to be extremely strong."
One of the things that does bother Jim about the hobby is when he deals with collectors that are too value oriented. "I really do believe that it is a major problem that so many collectors are concerned about the future value of an item," said Jim. "I deal with people all the time that ask what something is going to be worth in five years. Well, unless you are a true high-end collector, and I mean extremely high-end, perhaps someone who is truly an investor, what something may or may not ever be worth should not matter. I feel that if you are buying something, it should be for your own personal enjoyment. Now that doesn't mean that you should go out and buy a Joe Montana signed photo for $1,000 when it is not worth that kind of money and most likely never will be. You have to be smart and understand what it is that you are buying and what is a fair price for the item. But, I always tell people they should make every purchase based on what they like. If you buy an item that you like because of the player or the team or the memory it brings you, you bring it home and display it and it brings you the value of enjoyment. When someone comes in and they are obsessed with future values, I always ask them when they go out to buy a lamp do they ever ask how much the lamp may be worth in five years. When you buy a lamp, you buy it because you like it, because it fits into the décor of a room, because you enjoy it. If you buy anything based on having made an educated purchase, on knowing the fair value, and based on the enjoyment it personally brings you then you can never go wrong. If you buy something that you are proud to own, and that you enjoy displaying in your home, it should make no difference if the value of it goes up or down."
Jim said his typical day starts when he gets into his shop around 8:00 am. "I like to get a handle on what we are currently working on and get my employees going for the day," he said. "I will then normally put in a 12-hour day. We specialize in custom framing and conservation museum quality work. We have clients all over the country that we do a lot of framing for so that means we do a lot of shipping. We do work for Johnny Depp, Rod Carew, the Los Angeles Kings, and a lot of sports agents."
Outside of work Jim enjoys spending time with his wife, Robbi, and the couple's four children, Melissa, Lauren, Rachel and Nathan. "We really enjoy taking family cruises," said Jim. "We recently did a Caribbean cruise and we also travel a lot on houseboats. I want my kids to experience as much of the world as possible."
Jim also enjoys following the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. "Most people just thought I jumped on the bandwagon with the Angels when they started winning, but that wasn't the case," said Jim. "I was at the National in 2002 in Cleveland and the Angels were playing the Indians at the time. We went to the game and I was so impressed with how well the Angels played as a team - how they worked together as a team. My son was five-years old at the time and he had just started to play T-ball. When I got home from the National, I told my wife I wanted to take Nathan to an Angels game and show him how baseball should be played. I wanted him to see a team that went out there and loved the game and had fun with it. So, now I'm an Angels fan. But my number one love in sports is the Ohio State Buckeyes. I live and die by them. My wife knows if the Buckeyes lose you should stay away from me. I'm a real diehard. I am also a diehard Lakers fan. As for pro football, I'm from Southern California, so I used to follow the Rams but now I don't follow any specific team, just football in general."
While Jim has made a good living thanks to collectors, he is the first to admit he has never been much of a collector himself. "I never got caught up in collecting cards but I do collect some autographs, mainly those of the players I have done signings with. The business has been very good to me but I don't have a lot of spare time or money to work my own collection while I am putting two girls through college. My collection has really become my son's collection. Nathan is 12-years old now and whenever I get athletes to do a signing, I always have them personalize something for him. I've been involved with well over 200 signings. I've done a half dozen or so signings with Magic Johnson and Elgin Baylor. We do a lot with Lakers and Dodgers players on a regular basis. I've done signings with Joe Montana and Troy Aikman. I've also done signings with Frankie Rodriguez, Garret Anderson, Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn. One of the things that I enjoy most about doing the signing is that it makes these players - these legends - really human. I love hearing their stories. I have heard so many great stories and I really enjoy that part of my business."
Always happy to fulfill a wish list, Jim is also open to doing a consignment if a piece is rare or unique. If you would like to contact Jim, you can reach him by phone at (909) 590-3713 or, if you are in the Southern California area, stop by and say hello. Honabach and Sons Sports Memorabilia and Custom Framing is located at 3857 Schaefer Ave., Suite G in Chino.