Sometimes shopping on-line can be a hit out of the park

I'm back at my hotel after a long, good day on the road. I plan to have some dinner, work out a bit if I can find the fitness room, and then settle down with my notes for tomorrow morning's meeting. Then it hits me. My father's birthday is the day after tomorrow, and I've no gift, no card, no nothing. What do I do? Call down to the desk and see if the hotel can whip up a nice basket of disposable razors and cardboard sewing kits that I can tie a ribbon around and ship overnight to him? Too impersonal. Besides, where would I get ribbon?

And then inspiration strikes. I've got my laptop computer, the local access number for my Internet service provider and Web browser, and at least an hour and a half before the real shops close on the East Coast. I've got an idea that's a long shot, but it's time to see what mettle the Web is made of. I'm going on-line. I'm going shopping for Dad.

I'm not searching randomly for any old thing. Some time ago as a lark, after I'd written a piece on baseball-card collecting for a now-defunct Inc. competitor, I'd given my dad a 1966 baseball card of Steve Ridzik, a major-league pitcher with whom my father had gone to Saunders Technical and Trades High School, in Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1940s. My dad, being the inveterate collector he is, was hooked. He set out to collect every Steve Ridzik card ever issued. And he's had some luck. But the final two cards on his list--the 1953 black-and-white Bowman and the 1954 color Bowman, the first two cards on which Ridzik appeared--have eluded him. Both '53 and '54 were vintage years for baseball cards, before the major manufacturers printed millions. With every passing year, cards from the 1950s have been getting harder to find. They mostly change hands at card-swap shows run throughout the country and are publicized in collectors' magazines like Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and Sports Collectors Digest, which also track and publish the latest book value of major-league baseball cards.

You might think otherwise, but the number of shows and available stock of vintage cards are particularly sparse in Grand Forks, N. Dak., where my dad lives. So he's taken to carrying around an index card with the numbers of the two final cards he needs to complete the Ridzik oeuvre--a 1953 Bowman b&w No. 48 and a 1954 Bowman No. 223--along with their current book value, just in case he happens on a mother lode of Ridzik memorabilia in his travels. Seasoned philatelist that he is, my dad refuses to pay book value for anything he collects. His hunt is not only to get what he needs but also to get it at a good price.

Dad had sent me a copy of the index card as well. After all, I'd gotten him started on this quest. I carry the card in my wallet--which is exactly where it is when I take out my wallet in this hotel room on the night I have to get a gift.

I log onto my Web browser and call up my favorite search engine. How many Ridziks could there be among the millions of Web pages referenced, I wonder. I type in the name and hit "submit." Back comes a sparse number of references, four in all, but one of them pops out: "Mike Wheat Cards. Miscellaneous Baseball Cards (1948­1960), 294 West Steuben Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15205, (412) 920­0760, Fax: (412) 920­0860,,"

Bingo. I hypertext to the referenced page and find a listing of 1953 Bowman black-and-white cards available from that small dealer in Pittsburgh, and there among them is this entry: "48-Ridzik, Phillies, excellent condition, $19."

It is now four o'clock in the afternoon Pittsburgh time, so I call Mike Wheat Cards. I could place an order over the Internet, but I want to talk to the man who is about to make my father's day, to make sure he still has the card and that I can get it to my father in time.

We talk for an hour. It turns out that Mike Wheat owns the small shop in Pittsburgh and has been in the business since 1988. For the past three years, he's been running auctions, for which he prints up lists of cards. He also sends out direct-mail catalogs each month. Last June he got onto the Web and posted a modest series of pages. He also posts his lists of cards to news groups and E-mails them to customers whose E-mail address he has. He figured it was worth what little effort it took to get up and going, even if it only publicized his shop and didn't result in big sales.

As it happens, he sold $20,000 worth of cards to new customers alone during his first three months on the Web. Not bad for a shop with about $700,000 in annual revenues and two full-time employees besides Wheat himself.

It turned out to be surprisingly good luck for me that I found Wheat. Not only did he have the 1953 card to sell me; he also had the 1954 Bowman in near-mint condition. I gave him my credit-card number, and he packed up the cards and sent them overnight to me, in enough time for me to send them on to my father so that he could spend his birthday with his former classmate. (Wheat would have shipped the cards directly to my dad, but seeing that I had one day to play with, I decided to personalize the gift by enclosing a thoughtful note.)

At the last minute, on the road in a strange city, I had shopped the Web and easily come up with the most personal of gifts. My dad's reaction? "You're kidding!" he said when he saw the two cards he needed. Then he paused..."Did you get a good price?"

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an editor-at-large of Inc. magazine.