Carl Henderson was a stainless steel salesman for nearly two decades before he decided to scrap it all in 1995 to try to make a living out of his childhood hobby — collecting and selling baseball cards.
While trading anything — especially a career — for baseball cards can be tricky, this trade worked out in Henderson's favor. In this sports-ravenous region, Henderson has made a niche for himself by hosting the area's biggest sports celebrities at his Havertown store, Carl's Cards & Collectibles, for autograph signings.
Eagles center Jason Kelce was in Henderson's store for a signing just one day after his epic Super Bowl parade speech rocked Philadelphia. Charlie Manuel, the manager who led the Phillies to a World Series win in 2008, has stopped by three times. And Bernie Parent, former Flyers goaltender, started it all off as Henderson's first celebrity guest.
In all, Henderson estimates that he's brought at least 600 of Philadelphia's sports stars to his store to meet fans, who often wait by the hundreds in lines that wrap around the outside of his shop.
For a kid who grew up in Southwest Philly going to baseball games with his dad at Connie Mack Stadium, it's sometimes hard for Henderson, 61, to believe he's rubbed elbows with Philly's biggest sports celebrities.
Today, every inch of Henderson's store is brimming with bobbleheads, helmets, jerseys, baseball cards, hockey pucks, footballs, and every other type of sports memorabilia imaginable. At the center of it all is a giant working Dubble Bubble gumball machine.
"I don't think there's an ounce of space to bring anything else in here," Henderson said.
Given that the baseball card market can be volatile and many collectors are searching for vintage cards, Henderson decided to keep items affordably priced and focus on celebrity signings.
"I try not to load the store up with expensive stuff. It's not a museum," he said.
It's the kind of shop where dads take their sons after a Little League game to buy them a pack of cards or where people come just to talk about their favorite teams.
For signings, Henderson will typically pay sports figures a flat fee, say $2,000, for two hours of time. Some celebrities do a "piece deal," which means they agree to sign a certain number of items for a fee. Henderson then sells tickets to fans in hope of turning a profit.
Henderson said the most expensive fee he's paid was also the worst signing he's hosted — former Eagles player DeSean Jackson.
"It didn't go well, and he was not a very nice person," Henderson said. "And we paid him a lot of money."
But Henderson has been blessed with great celebrity visitors, too — like former Phillies player Hunter Pence, who agreed to sign 250 pieces but stayed all night and signed three times as many. Henderson counts his idol, former Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton, among his favorite guests.
"He walked in and put his hand on my shoulder," Henderson said. "To have him in the store was — it was just beautiful."
The wildest signing, though, was for Kelce and teammate Beau Allen just a day after the Super Bowl parade in February. Henderson estimated there were 1,000 fans and five television crews.
"There was one guy who had the bed of his pickup truck loaded with Bud Light and he wanted to have beers with Jason Kelce in his pickup truck," Henderson said. "He's handing Kelce cases of Bud Light and Jason's like, 'I can't take it, but hopefully one day I can come back.'"