Omaha collectors flip over playing cards.
The Omaha woman collects playing cards, and she’s tucked away more than 12,000 so far — each of them unique, each from its own deck.
Which means that Mary Nastase is responsible for ruining 12,000 decks of cards.
And she isn’t a bit ashamed of herself.
“We’re wreck-a-decks,” Mary says, grinning.
Wreck-a-decks from all over the world met in Omaha this weekend for the national Chicago Playing Card Collectors convention, just to share and swap playing cards. Mary and other local card collectors were among them, expecting to each take home as many as 5,000 cards.
Collectors spent two full days at the downtown Doubletree, flipping through playing cards and hoping to find something new.
Or something really old.
It’s the back of the card that collectors care about. Nowadays, playing cards tend to be casino-style or Bicycle brand — the generic red and blue. But cards used to be pocket-sized works of art. Artists specialized in them, people bought them as souvenirs, companies gave them away as promotional items …
I met with three of the women in Mary’s seven-person Omaha collectors club. All three first started collecting playing cards as grade-schoolers in the 1940s and ’50s. It was the thing to do, said Jan Uryasz of Bellevue. Girls would bring the cards to school in boxes, then trade them over the lunch hour.
Once you’d raided your family’s card drawer, said Kathy Griffith, Mary’s sister, you’d ask the neighbors for cards. People would usually give you the jokers, she said, because you don’t need jokers to play bridge.
Back then, you also could buy an assortment of blank playing cards, with no numbers or suits, at Woolworth’s for about 15 cents.
Card collecting was a good hobby for kids who didn’t have much, or any, pocket money, Kathy said.
“It wasn’t that we were poor poor — we were probably poorer than we thought — but we didn’t have a lot of toys.” When they weren’t trading the cards at school, she and Mary would lay their cards out and just admire them.
All three women set their playing cards aside as they got older.
“I got into high school and discovered boys,” Jan said, “which were way more interesting than cards.”
“And now we’re back to cards!” Mary laughed.
When they came back to playing cards as adults, they came back hard.
Each has more than 10,000 cards now. They comb garage sales, antique stores and thrift shops for fresh decks, then meet once a month to swap.
“We’re obsessed,” Kathy said.
Some playing cards are more desirable than others, and most collectors have a favorite type. The women I talked to love the portraits of stylish ladies from the first half of the 20th century. Kathy loves the ’50s dogs and cats — “That’s what we had when we were kids.” And they all like to find cards promoting long-gone Omaha businesses, like Herzberg’s department store or Omar Bread.
When they find a new deck, they snag a card for their own collections, share the deck with the local club, then set the extra cards aside for the next convention.
Jan was bringing a large briefcase and two boxes full of cards to this weekend’s swap meet. Everything the out-of-town collectors don’t take will probably end up in the trash. Thrift shops won’t take assortments of playing cards, she said; sometimes they won’t even bother with decks. (They’re a hassle to count.)
In the end, all you can do is finish wrecking the deck.
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