A new large social media Pokémon store recently opened in Sarasota

“I grew up with Pokémon,” Lavrentyev says. “It’s nostalgic for me and it was a big hobby of mine. Those of us from about 27 to 35 years old now have our own grown money and are reliving the hobby. There are also a lot of new generation of kids joining in.”

For those of you who don’t know, the Pokémon plot goes like this: The protagonists are pre-teens who strike 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 who has become the icon of the brand. The goal of a Pokémon Trainer is to make his or her Pokémon fight against other Pokémon to become stronger. When a Pokémon gains enough battle experience, it can evolve into another, more powerful creature.

There are games, cards, movies, stuffed animals, tournaments and more. One card fetched over $5 million at auction. It is an extensive franchise with no end in sight.

“It’s an easy, fun hobby that you can share with your kids and build a bond even if you don’t know anything about it,” Lavrentyev says. A big 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 just doing that.

You can find the cards at most major chain stores, but what’s different about Lavrentyev’s 400 square foot store is that he stocks original Japanese cards in addition to the English ones, his prices are better, and he gets the latest product. “When I started, I spent days on Google Maps Tokyo looking for stores and then translating my emails to make business connections,” he says. “I got a few and when they received the product, FedEx sent it to me.”

His cards are also authentic. Many of the store’s customers have bought counterfeits on Amazon. Another reason the Japanese cards are so sought after is that “the colors are more brilliant and perfectly cut,” says Lavrentyev. In addition, they get higher marks from companies that assess the quality of cards. (A local company rates Pokémon cards on a scale of one to ten, with the value sometimes tripling, 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 has also become “a top 5 percent of online Pokémon store on Whatnot, the fastest-growing e-commerce platform in the west,” he says. “It’s like eBay with live auction trading.”

William Asselstine of Sarasoa, a 29-year-old self-proclaimed lover of all things nerdy, found Lavrentyev and Poke Ballers online.

“I saw him on Instagram with a card that I wanted to pick up a week before he was due to come out,” says Asselstine. “I looked at the location and saw Sarasota and saw that he had just opened the store. I went in and we’ve been friends ever since.” With a personal collection of Pokémon cards worth between $20,000 and $30,000, Asselstine also has a Pokémon-themed YouTube channel called AlbinoManatee that focuses on connecting with others through giveaways.

“It’s a cool way to meet people all over the world and I’ve sent cards to the Philippines, Australia, South Africa and Brazil,” Asselstine says. “I like to share the cards with people who can’t afford to open the packs themselves, or someone I know who says they’d like a card and, if I find it, I’ll be happy to send it. Pokémon is that there are 700 different ones and it’s fun to connect about which one you like.”

It may sound silly to those not participating, but the flames of Pokémon fandom are stoked both online and in-store for the next generation.

“The showcase is about finding a like-minded community,” Lavrentyev says. “I meet moms while kids play cards. The kids meet. The parents bond with their kids. This has become more of a community pillar. Kids come in and say, ‘Hey, I just saw you on YouTube’ and get excited.”

Lavrentyev is working on getting certified by the Pokémon brand so he can run tournaments and teach people how to play in the future. Hopefully “we’ll outgrow space in a year or two,” he says.

Poke Ballers Mart is located at 3575 Webber St., Suite 101, Sarasota. For more information, visit the store’s website.

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