Most days around lunchtime, Thomas “Pop Pop” Lofaro will kiss Nicoletta goodbye and walk a block down Ellsworth, over to 11th, to open the family baseball card shop. Often regulars will be waiting. Like Ang, on the lookout for oldies like Mantles or Ashburns. Or Debbie in her Fuggedaboutit cap, with vintage to sell.
“You brought the sunshine in,” Pop Pop will tell her, opening the blinds to inspect the goods.
But the vast majority of customers don’t come for baseball cards. Rather, they are kids – some new to the neighborhood, others from far across the city — who come to buy, sell and trade cards Pop Pop knows nothing about. The popular Anime and Manga trading cards, like Yu-Gi-Oh and Cardfight!! Vanguard and Pokémon.
“Peace, brother,” Pop Pop, who is 85, will say as the kids come and go, having long ago adopted a bit of their lingo.
“Peace, Pop,” the kids say back.
Glimpse inside TNT Cards & Memorabilia and it may feel like a portal into the ‘80s, the days when it seemed baseball card shops still dotted every other corner. But the halcyon days are done.
“Once it seemed like there was a hundred shops,” Lofaro said Tuesday at the counter. “But then it dwindled down to us.”
Maybe there weren’t a hundred, but there were too many to remember.
There was Lou’s Baseball Card Dugout on Broad. And J & D Collectibles on Oregon. And MVP on McKean.
Back then, baseball card companies flooded the market with millions of cards. Investors harvested the shelves of shops like TNT dreaming happily of college tuitions paid on Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards.
The market went bust. The shops closed, at least in South Philly, except for TNT, which is owned by Pop Pop’s son, Thomas Jr., 54. Some of the kids call him Pop for short.
The charm of the store is found not only in the stacks of cards and signed autographed and jerseys, much of that gathering dust, but in how it has managed to keep the doors open. The Lofaros have endured by changing along with the change. By embracing it. By becoming a place where, yes, the rare card hunter can still nab a Pete Rose rookie, but also a place where kids like Gil Gonzalez, who is 23 and studying nursing at Community College of Philadelphia, can take a train and a bus from school to meet his friends for weekly Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments.
“It’s a home for a lot of us,” Gonzalez said. He’s been coming since he was 13 and knows nothing about baseball cards. It’s like family, he said of the shop.
“La famiglia,” Thomas Jr. said from behind the counter.
Like so many kids growing up in the 1970s, Thomas Jr. built his card collection on the dime packs he found in corner stores and mall shows.
In 1989, Thomas Jr. opened his first store at 12th and Wharton. (The other owner’s name also began with a “T”, thus TNT.)
Within a few years, he moved over to 11th, into a building his father owned, around the corner from the family home. When the elder Lofaro retired from Boeing, where he was an engineering technician, he went to work to help his son.
“I retired and here I am,” said Lofaro Sr. with a smile and a shrug.
The cards never paid the bills. Thomas Jr. works as a toll supervisor at the Delaware River Port Authority. His dad is often the face of the place. He passes the day making deals, listening to his game shows, chatting up customers.
“It keeps him out of the casinos,” said Thomas Jr.
His friends — Cholly and Tom Pizzazz — used to keep him company on their stools by the counter. “Security,” Thomas Sr. would call them. But they died.
Some days, Thomas Lofaro III, who is set to graduate from Temple and hopes to become a cop, will join his father and grandfather at the counter.
On those occasions, Pop Pop will dish out wisdom along with the cards: “Live life to the fullest and stay away from the casinos.”
He loves the place, the old customers and the kids who call him Pop Pop.
But the only thing is the hours, he said. They cramp his style.
He could be taking his wife out on dates for a meal or to the zoo, he said. With another shrug and a smile he added: “And what if I wanted to go to the casino?”