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Canterbury’s Pokémon card traders and collectors reveal a phenomenon still thriving 25 years later

A quarter of a century ago a Japanese cultural phenomenon exploded onto the scene with a series of video games, a TV show and a set of trading cards.

Pokémon - little critters with various elemental powers that battle one another for victory - became the talk of playgrounds across Kent, as children swapped covetous cards and built up huge collections.

Alex Bowness is a prominent Pokémon trader and seller in Canterbury

For many the cards were put away in attics - or in some cases binned - when those inevitable teenage years loomed, but the cultural behemoth never really went away, and now 25 years later people are falling in love with the pocket monsters all over again.

When Alex and Gemma Bowness opened Level Up Games, on Palace Street, Canterbury, a decade ago, they had not even considered the impact selling Pokémon cards could have on their business.

But six year later, after taking a punt on a shoebox of cards on the shop counter for 10p a pop, the pair have become bona fide Pokémon card traders with a formidable local reputation.

Alex estimates the Level Up Games collection sits somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 cards, with the rarest single card being valued at an eye-watering £345.

Alex and Gemma's Canterbury shop has thousands of cards for sale
Alex and Gemma's Canterbury shop has thousands of cards for sale

When the first set arrived in shops back in 1998 he paid little attention.

The business owner said: “The cards bypassed me at that point, which in hindsight, I’m thinking why shouldn’t I have picked some up - but hey that’s the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

After completely selling out of that first shoebox of cards back in 2014, the husband and wife knew they should look to sell more.

Alex said: “A week later they’d all gone, someone came in and said ‘do you want to buy some more?’

“It snowballed from there to the point where we’re now dealing with graded cards, we’ve got a lot of collectors - I’ve just sent a package out to Holland, and the tourists were always really interested when they were here.

Alex and Gemma opened Level Up Games a decade ago
Alex and Gemma opened Level Up Games a decade ago

"So we’ve got a really broad appeal from kids who just want shiny cards right through to very highbrow collectors who will really examine them to make sure they’re just right for their collection.”

The cards have been consistently released by the Pokémon Company since they took over printing in 2003 - and with more than 9,000 cards in the English set and nearly 7,000 in the Japanese set, there’s a lot for collectors to obsess over.

Adding to the vast hobby is the complicated process of graded cards, whereby a professional trading card graded service is provided by US company PSA, who grade cards based on their condition between one and 10.

This can make a significant difference to the value of the card - a first edition holographic Charizard with a near-mint 7 grade could cost you around £9,000, whereas a perfect 10 rating would set you back more than £200,000.

Demand for the first edition cards hit an all-time high when YouTuber Logan Paul and rapper Logic collectively spent nearly $400,000 to get their hands on one coveted holographic Charizard each, a card which first hit shop shelves in 1999.

A rare first edition card, professionally graded as mint condition. Photo: Adam James
A rare first edition card, professionally graded as mint condition. Photo: Adam James

But as someone who sees the joy the trading cards can bring his customers, Alex is conflicted at high-profile celebrities making the market fluctuate with these kind of seismic bids.

He said: “Whilst I do approve of what they’ve done for the market, I don’t necessarily agree with them just waving money around like that…it seems a little self-serving.”

Adam James remembers thinking nothing of trading his Charizard cards with another child when he began collecting the first time around

The 25-year-old from Canterbury said: “I don’t even like to think about it - I had base set Charizards, and I remember trading them like they were nothing.

“Now I’m kicking myself, thinking ‘that was a house there that I just traded.’”

Adam started collecting again during lockdown
Adam started collecting again during lockdown

Like many collectors, Adam’s interest was piqued after Logan Paul dubbed the trading cards a ‘legitimate investment’ when he live streamed himself opening an original base set box of cards he paid $216,000 for.

Since then an unopened base set booster box was auctioned at a staggering $408,000.

But what began as a mild curiosity for Adam over the value of his old cards turned into him discovering a friendly community of fellow card enthusiasts online, which he said went a long way in helping him to get through the numerous lockdowns amid the pandemic.

He said: “I made an Instagram account and found an absolutely wonderful community which has helped me out a lot this year, especially with staying sane being stuck indoors all day.

“It’s a great thing not only for the nostalgia but the community as well, the amount of people I’ve met online without being able to physically meet them is crazy.”

Pokemon cards. Picture: Adam James
Pokemon cards. Picture: Adam James

Adam now has around 1,200 cards in his quickly-expanding collection - many of which he purchased at Alex and Gemma's shop - and plans to continue for the foreseeable future.

He added: “I just really enjoy the hobby and I’ll definitely stick with it, I don’t think I’ll be able to turn my back on it anytime soon.”

Playground memories

KentOnline's very own reporter Sean Delaney fondly remembers his halcyon days obsessed with the little pocket monsters.

He said: "Like millions of other 90’s kids my life consisted of waiting for Pokémon anime on SMTV weekend Live and endlessly playing the video game on my lime green GameBoy colour.

"But playground chatter with friends soon spilled over into an endless cycle of swapping, sharing and comparing our latest haul of Pokémon cards when the trading game came out a short time later.

"There was something tantalising about ripping through those booster packets searching for those elusive “shiny” alternative cards decorated with your favourite Pokémon and was a constant source of distraction.

"It eventually led to the game being banned at my primary school and on one occasion I can remember stuffing some of my collection into my school shorts in a foolish effort to conceal them before a breaktime swapfest.

"The only other thing I can remember about them is they were expensive, or at least that is what my mum had me believe.

"The real trade-off would ultimately be the promise from my parents of more cards in exchange for more productive school reports. Needless to say I never became a Pokémon master."

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