Bernard Gollotto unloaded his boxes of baseball cards onto folding tables in the gray Black Friday morning. Ninth Street in South Philly was quiet. People were home slumbering through food comas or elbowing it out in the big-box stores along Delaware Avenue.
Bernard, who is 79 and has been selling sports memorabilia in the Italian Market for 17 years, doesn't offer Black Friday sales. At his tables, every day is Black Friday.
Cards he sells for a buck go for five times that much at Walmart. He once had a sports memorabilia store in Center City, but who could afford the rent?
Now he sells out of store space owned by Di Bruno Bros., stacking his cards next to the kitchen equipment. His wife, Gloria, helps.
These days he mostly sells for something to do, happy to sit and watch the market crowds and occasionally make someone's face light up - adults, too - with a baseball card.
("They all have the little kid in them," he says.)
But Bernard can remember well what it's like to gut out a holiday season one small sale at a time.
"It's a tough life," he said.
I have nothing but respect for people like Bernard, small retailers who bring color and character to a city in a time of ever-increasing corporate blandness.
My mother owned a discount boutique on our corner in Brooklyn: Patsy's Pushcart. She always wanted a little shop. She sold everything from baby clothes to Nike T-shirts and Champion hoodies. Jewelry, tchotchkes, wrapping paper. For the opening, a family friend painted a sign with an old-fashioned pushcart.
She broke her back at it.
She and her friend Rel ran the store, with their worker, Tony, who drove a big Lincoln and had an enormous white pompadour. They bought everything from Earl, a wholesaler down the street on Quentin Road. On weekends, my mom would lug it all to street fests or flea markets held in the schoolyards and auditoriums of neighborhood churches.
My job was to stand by and keep an eye out for thieves. I never caught one. Sorry, Mom.
My mom loved her shop. But Patsy Newall's heart is made for charity, not capitalism. She gave away at least as much as she sold.
Some days were fun for Mom, but it was always a struggle.
So I felt a flash of recognition Friday when Mary Ann Cardellino, owner of Blendo, a gift shop on Antique Row, looked down the quiet street and said with a shrug: "Black Friday? This is it."
In her shop, vintage clothing and jewelry share shelves with "Greetings from Philadelphia" lamps, votive candles emblazoned with John Lennon's image, and heat-sensitive Climate Change Mugs that change colors when you add tea.
After Black Friday comes Small Business Saturday, when shoppers are encouraged to patronize the little places, the ones that give a city its charm. You should visit one.
This is Cardellino's 18th Black Friday.
The stresses of it all - the big retailers, internet shopping, the changing landscape - can bring a person to tears, Cardellino said. Then people will come in and share a story about something they had bought from her. Like the man who told her the other day how special the Last Supper lunch box he had bought his sister nearly 20 years ago was to his family. How his mother got such a kick out of it, and how his sister now keeps little keepsakes of their mother in it.
"I'll hear that and say, 'Even though I'm old and tired, I can't quit,' " Cardellino said with a smile, ringing up the first customer of the day.
Perhaps the customers weren't busting down the door. But they came. And she was there for them.