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Thunderzone Collectibles capitalizes on surging popularity of NASCAR

‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’

PEARL — When Dale Jarrett returned to Victory Lane in the Winston Cup champion and won NASCAR’s biggest race last week for the third time in eight years, Robin Propst was a very happy camper.

As owners of a NASCAR collectibles store, she and her husband, Louie, like the old adage in motor racing: win on Sunday, sell on Monday. The story of the cash register tape shows that performance is the equivalent of collectibility.

“We have trading cards, die-cast collectibles, T-shirts, jackets, window flags and bumper stickers,” she said. “I’ve got Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s AC Delco quarter panel from his car at last year’s Texas race. If you name it, I can get it.”

The Propsts inherited The Thrift Shack in Pearl several years ago after Louie’s dad, Earl Propst, died unexpectedly. At the time the couple took over, the inventory consisted of “anything and everything,” she said. “You name it, he carried it.”

After the young Propsts started carrying NASCAR die-cast cars and changed the name of the store to Thunderzone Collectibles, business boomed, she said.

“We just kicked off NASCAR Virtual Racing, where we have three monitors set up in back, with steering wheels, gas and brake petals where you can race on any NASCAR track except Daytona,” she said. “It’s like simulated racing at $5 an hour where up to three drivers can race each other at the same time. The first few times most people try it, they crash and burn. Men love it, ladies enjoy it and kids have a ball.”

Running the store hasn’t come without bumps in the road. Robin Propst began managing the store in October, after staying at home since the birth of the couple’s four-year old daughter, Katie, who often greets customers with a smile as they walk in the door and bids them good day as they leave. The couple has a 12-year old son, Chad Propst, from Louie’s previous marriage. Even though she has long been a NASCAR fan, she had to do a quick study on die-cast collectibles.

“I was kinda scared because I knew we had regular customers,” said Robin, who had worked for homebuilder Tommy Harkins for 10 years before the birth of her child. “I didn’t know what their take would be with a lady running a NASCAR store. I’ve truly had a tremendous response.”

Robin Propst excuses herself, places her hand over the phone while she informs a customer that Jeff Bodine had a major wreck.

“I love it, even though I’m an unpaid employee,” she said, with a laugh. “That comes with the territory.”

The space in the 800- to 1,000-square-foot store is so packed with daily deliveries and consignment items that the racing chairs used by customers who like to chat are constantly rearranged.

“In fact, I’m getting another UPS shipment in right now,” she said, juggling the phone with one hand and signing a delivery ticket with the other. “Bless you,” she said automatically to a customer that sneezed.

“A lot of people have been pulling consignment items to post them on eBay because 80 million NASCAR fans on the Web outnumber the fans we have in a small town of Pearl,” she said. “Those collectors have older pieces that are hard to find. But that’s the trend with all collectibles these days.”

The most requested items? Everything Dale Earnhardt, she said.

The Propsts have several ongoing promotions, such as the die-cast club that meets the second Saturday of every month. A $10 joining fee entitles members to a 10% discount on all items in the store with the exception of consignment items.

Cards are sold at “half a book,” she said.

“If I have it marked $4, then it’s $2,” she explained. “One guy calls at least once daily looking for a Jeff Gordon card that hasn’t been received yet.”

For every $10 spent, customers receive tickets that go into a drawing the first Saturday of every month.

“Customers have to come by or call in to see if they won,” she said. “If the die-cast isn’t claimed, we draw again the following Saturday. Customers seem to love it.”

Radio remotes have drawn fans to the store, and Thunderzone Collectibles sponsors “J.T.’s Track Talk,” a radio talk show on WFMN-97.3 FM Super Talk Radio on Tuesday nights from 6-7 p.m. A store Web site is under construction, she said.

Shortly before his death, Earl Propst had purchased the adjoining tobacco store, Tobacco Discount Market in Pearl, which his wife, Peggy Propst, now runs.

“Since then, she’s purchased another tobacco store, The Reservoir Smoke Shop, which she is going to call The Tobacco Market, and is doing very well in the tobacco business,” Robin Propst said.

In part because of competition from the Internet, two Jackson-area collectible stores have recently closed.

“You have to enjoy the heck out of this business, and we do,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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