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Mudville: April 13, 2024 6:25 pm PDT

Into the Poole

BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Baseball cards and kindness have helped define Greg Poole for much of his life.

The cards have been a passion since he was child growing up in southern Illinois and the kindness, well it was always there, too. It wasn’t until his story nearly took a tragic turn that he turned his compassion for others into something special, combining his love of cards and his genuine desire to help to create quite a unique and selfless venture.

Poole, 39, runs Can’s Can in the small town of Benton, Ill., some five hours south of Chicago and about 90 miles east of St. Louis. It’s a sports card and memorabilia store, a community center and one-stop shopping spot for those in the region who need a helping hand. He calls the 1,500-square foot space a resource center, selling cards and memorabilia out front while setting aside rooms in the back for teachers, social workers, foster families and anyone else in need of free books and other school supplies, car seats, diapers, socks, underwear and anything else you could think of that will make someone’s life just a bit easier.

“It’s a pretty full-time job, honestly,” said Poole, whose actual full-time job is an IT manager for a local special-education cooperative. “If I’m not in the shop, I’m restocking it or buying other things just to have stuff there. It’s close to a 40-hour-a-week extra job. One day can be taken up being on delivery routes, once a week a social worker comes in to pick up a car seat or something. We have an assisted-living facility down the road and we let them come in and pick up stuff for free, toilet paper, shampoo, stuff like that. It’s a full-time volunteer gig.”

The sports memorabilia, well that pays for all of it. Every dime Poole makes in the store gets reinvested into the resource center. Then there is all the money he has put into the venture himself for more than two decades, including the last four years in his current location. However, this altruistic venture, which he undertakes with help from wife Courtney and both his her and her parents, almost never was.

Poole was abused as a child by someone in his community. While it wasn’t his parents or anyone else in his family, it was something he never shared, bottling up his feelings until he was 16. That was when he decided to commit suicide.

“I tried to kill myself,” said Poole, who added that his love of baseball cards and the time he spent at a local card shop provided an escape. “There was just a lot of trauma and a lot of abuse. I had some things happen that I couldn’t handle anymore. Honestly, I have always been really guarded with that portion of my story but in the last few years I started to open up and be fully transparent.

“It got the best of me when I was 16 and I made plans not to be here anymore. One of the things I wanted to do as one of my last acts on Earth was to sell some of my cards. I had done Meals on Wheels and purchased meals for people [on the route] who needed them. What I had tried to do [suicide] didn’t come to pass, though. Then I looked at the boxes of cards in my trunk and I thought that I was here for something. So, I tried to do what I could do and that’s kind of where it all started. It blossomed from there.”

Poole started out slowly, going to baseball card shows and doing online sales on sites such as eBay. Slowly, his venture evolved and now he has a storefront – which is the only sports card shop in his area – at which he sells cards mostly from his collection. He said that at one point his inventory seemed finite but he restocks his supplies through out-of-pocket purchases and donations.

“We have general cards but we also have some 1933 Goudey cards all the way through current cards,” said Poole, who began collecting cards Donruss and Topps cards in the late 1980s. “We are really the only shop in the area so we try to be as fully stocked as we possibly can.”

While Poole carries cards for all sports he is a “baseball guy” first and foremost. He has been a Cardinal fan his whole life, growing up with an affinity for Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith before former St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright took over his top spot.

Poole is hopeful of having Wainwright or some of the other Cardinals at his shop, which is officially open from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturdays, to sign autographs at some point. He said he has begun the process of putting such a program together after the Cardinals reached out to him last year. Poole also added that he would someday like to get into a formal partnership with a card company or a retailer to “allow for the margins to better”.

“The bigger we get, the more people we can help,” said Poole, whose children [9 and 6] also help at the store. “So far, the response has been good on both ends. We have gotten to a point where will have regular shoppers come from St. Louis. It’s been good and as far as teachers and social workers, they come from as far as an hour and a half away. It’s been interesting and steady for it just being a weekend store.

“We have a lot of needs in our area and the shop has to do good for us to keep trucking. We’ve brought a lot under our umbrella and we never say no to a need. The shop has allowed us to not say no to something we ever need. My daughter says it is a terrible business plan because we don’t make any money. Everything that comes in goes right back out.”

Can’s Can Ministries, which is a 501c3 charity, can be found at canscanbenton.org, on X [Twitter] and on Facebook.

Poole’s story that almost wasn’t continues to be a bright spot not only for the small community in which he lives but for the lives of those who can relate to his journey.

“This has allowed me to do the good that I could with it,” Poole said of his failed suicide attempt. “The people moved on and that situation resolved itself. The situation ended but the trauma remained and this has been very therapeutic.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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