Remember those kids in the late '90s and early 2000s who were obsessed with Pokémon cards, cartoons and video games? Well, those kids are all grown up now, with careers and kids of their own—and, for many of them, their Pokémon obsession never faded.
For Kirill Lavrentyev, 33, Pokémon has turned into a full-fledged business. Like so many, he moved to Sarasota with his wife and kids last year after deciding a double lockdown— one for a pandemic, another due to freezing Minneapolis winter temperatures—wasn’t all that fun. A forever Pokémon fan, he took note when he arrived that there wasn’t a dedicated Pokémon storefront in Sarasota, so he recently opened Poke Ballers Mart near Webber Street and Beneva Road.
“I grew up with Pokémon," says Lavrentyev. "It’s nostalgic to me and was a big hobby of mine. Those of us from about 27 to 35 years old have our own adult money now and are reliving the hobby. There's a lot of new generation kids coming on, too.”
For those of you who don’t know, the Pokémon plot goes like this: The protagonists are pre-teens who strike out from home with their fictional creatures called Pokémon (Japanese for "pocket monsters"). The cartoon series follows Ash Ketchum, a young trainer, and his partner Pokémon Pikachu, the adorable yellow character that has become the brand’s icon. The goal of a Pokémon trainer is to have his or her Pokémon battle against other Pokémon to become stronger. If a Pokémon earns enough battle experience, it can evolve into another, more powerful creature.
There are games, cards, movies, plushies, tournaments and more. One card fetched more than $5 million in an auction. It’s an extensive franchise with no end in sight.
“It's an easygoing, fun hobby you can share with your kids and bond over, even if you know nothing about it," says Lavrentyev. A large part of the appeal of the cards is the mystery of not knowing what you might get when you open a pack of cards. Millions watch online videos of people simply doing just that.
You can find the cards at most big box retailers, but what’s different about Lavrentyev's 400-square-foot shop is that he stocks original Japanese cards in addition to the English language ones, his prices are better and he gets the latest product. “When I was starting out, I’d spend days on Google Maps Tokyo finding shops, then translating my emails to make business connections," he says. "I landed a couple and when they receive the product they FedEx it to me."
His cards are also authentic. Many of the shop's customers have purchased fakes on Amazon. Another reason the Japanese cards are coveted is that “the colors are more brilliant, and they're cut perfectly,” says Lavrentyev. Plus, they fetch higher grades from companies that evaluate the quality of cards. (One local company grades Pokémon cards on a scale of one to 10, at times potentially tripling their value, depending on their condition.)
Before leaving real estate behind to open Poke Ballers Mart, Lavrentyev built an impressive online audience by filming himself opening rare packs and boxes. In less than two years, his Youtube channel, Poke_Ballers earned more than 100,000 followers, in addition to tens of thousands more on his TikTok and Instagram channels. He's also “become a top 5 percent online Pokémon store on Whatnot, which is the fastest growing e-commerce platform in the west," he says. "It's like eBay with live auction trading."
Sarasoa's William Asselstine, a 29-year-old self-professed lover of anything nerdy, found Lavrentyev and Poke Ballers online.
“I saw him on Instagram with a card I wanted to collect a week before it was supposed to be coming out," says Asselstine. "I looked at the location and saw Sarasota and saw he had just opened the shop. I went in and we've been friends since." With a personal Pokémon card collection worth between $20,000 to $30,000, Asselstine, too, has a Pokémon-themed Youtube channel called AlbinoManatee that focuses on connecting with others through raffle giveaways.
"It's a cool way to meet people all over the world and I've shipped cards to the Philippines, Australia, South Africa and Brazil," says Asselstine. "I like to share the cards with people who can't afford to open the packs themselves, or someone I know who says he'd love a card and, if I find it, I love to send it. The cool thing about Pokémon is there are 700 different ones and it's fun to connect over which ones you love.”
To those who don’t partake, it may sound silly, but the flames of Pokémon fandom are being stoked for the next generation both online and at the shop.
“The storefront is about finding a like-minded community," says Lavrentyev. "I'm meeting moms while kids are playing cards. The kids are meeting each other. The parents are bonding with their kids. This has become more of a pillar of the community. Kids come in and say, 'Hey I just saw you on YouTube,' and get excited."
Lavrentyev is working on becoming certified by the Pokémon brand so that, in the future, he can hold tournaments and teach people how to play. Hopefully, "in a year or two, we'll outgrow the space," he says.
Poke Ballers Mart is located at 3575 Webber St., Suite 101, Sarasota. For more info, visit the shop's website.