Kingsley Barham seems an unlikely candidate for king of crass. The once-handsome 56-year-old sleeps on a sofa bed in a ramshackle Delray Beach, Florida, home from which he barely escaped eviction in 2001. The state of California is after him for more than $75,000 in back taxes. And creditors have won judgments against him for tens of thousands more.
Yet in the last few months, the onetime Berkeley resident has been accused by Britain's BBC of "desecrating sacred memories." France's daily Le Monde cited a "Scandal in New York" after Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg termed Barham's most recent project "disgraceful and despicable." And the Daily Sentinel, a paper in upstate New York, opined that it "symbolizes the worst aspect of the entrepreneurial spirit."
What's it all about? Earlier this month, Barham began peddling "Heroes" -- a set of 202 trading cards featuring victims of the World Trade Center attacks, the firefighters and dogs who searched the wreckage, anthrax, American flags, and Little League. There's even a fifteen-card puzzle that depicts the towers collapsing.
The cards retail at $2.50 for a pack of eight. Collect 'em all, kids.
Most of the larger set, which is available for $32 at Sportscardswholesale.com, depicts people who perished on September 11. The captions aspire to serious homage but generally offer little more than sentimental clichés. Take, for instance, this pearl of prose from the back of a 2.5-by-3.5 inch card featuring a photo of a Trade Center victim in her wedding dress: "Like the Cyndi Lauper song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Florence Cohen retained a zest for life's adventures and pursued them to their fullest. Whether curled up with an engrossing novel or traveling abroad, Florence made sure she had a good time."
It's not just crackpot capitalism, Barham says. Survivors will get 8 percent of the proceeds. "When I first started calling the families of World Trade Center victims and explained I wanted to honor their loved ones in a baseball-card format, six of every seven people slammed the phone down, usually after saying, 'Fuck you' or 'You're an idiot,'" he recounts. "Once they get a look at the cards, though, those people do a 180. They tell me how wonderful the cards are."
Dozens of news stories have been printed about Barham, and he's made the rounds on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and other television networks. Most of these reports have proceeded the same way: "Tasteless and disgusting," say some survivors. "We're honored," reply others. "I don't call it a trading card: I call it a tribute card," Barham himself concludes, "a magazine in a baseball-card format."
On the day after the cards began selling online, Barham's rented two-bedroom house was literally stuffed to the rafters with boxes of the cards. The man whom the New York Post termed a "WTC Card Shark Sicko" welcomed a reporter and a photographer with fresh cookies, and Moose, his black Lab, eagerly slobbered on the visitors. The entrepreneur wore a blue dress shirt and black running shoes. His manner was nervous, his blue eyes intent. "Yesterday was the first day and we sold $20,000 [worth] of the cards," he said after opening the door. "That's how well we're doing."
Soon he was characterizing the anchors and commentators who've assailed his enterprise as "drunk" (the New York Post's Steve Dunleavy), and "idiots" (Fox's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Dan Abrams). "They put you in this little room and then they point a camera at you and then they start attacking," he says. "It's stacked against you. You have to come up with a bright response."
Barham says he was born in Manhattan and grew up all over the world -- in Chicago, Jamaica, and Denmark -- because his dad was a mattress salesman who traveled a lot. He became an Eagle Scout, graduated from the University of Miami in 1975, and then moved to the Bay Area, where he spent most of the next two decades. His company, Chestnut Publications, is named after a street in San Francisco's Marina district where he lived for a time.
It was here, while Barham was working as a stockbroker, that a client named Dwight Randolph gave him the idea of selling unconventional trading cards. Such memorabilia, particularly vintage baseball cards, can bring in millions from kids and collectors. Collectible cards were branching out back then; Barham recalls seeing trading cards of Corvettes, fire engines -- even farm implements. "It was a $2.5 billion business in the early 1990s," he says. "Opportunity!"
Things didn't work out as Barham had planned. He says he and a friend from Houston invested half a million dollars. Though his handsome cards picturing vintage motorcycles such as a 1913 Indian Twin were issued in 1993, sales were disappointing. He says Harley-Davidson double-crossed him after he called the company to report his plans as a courtesy. "They put together their own cards and sold 400 million cards in no time," he fumes. "It really put a damper on my business."
Indeed, San Francisco court records show that his landlord at the time, the Woo Family Trust, sued to make him pay $900 back rent in June 1993. Though the dispute was settled a couple of months later, Woo won a judgment of $6,818 against Barham in 1995. Barham says the Woos were after him because he led a rent strike over poor living conditions and "I just walked away from it."
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