Friday, April 01, 2011

Nanticoke: The Card Shoppe

Last week, as I took my mom on her weekly trip to the supermarket, we stopped at the card section.  A cousin's son was turning sixteen, and we wanted to get birthday cards.  Despite having a fairly extensive selection of cards at the supermarket, we were provided with exactly two options specific to a sixteen-year-old boy.  This seemed fine, until I pointed out that lots of other relatives and friends would probably be looking for cards there too, and he might end up with numerous copies of the same two cards.

At another birthday party the next day, I talked with my cousin's husband about this, and he agreed that even at large stores, the selection of cards is limited to either the same two or three major lines, or a random assortment of cards with inside text that appears to have been written by lobotomized non-English speakers trying to crank out cleverness using Babelfish. "It's too bad Al Bohinski isn't still around," I said, and he agreed.  "Yeah, then you'd have fifty or sixty years worth of cards to choose from."

Al Bohinski seemed like an old man the first time I met him.  He was from my grandmother's generation, maybe half a generation earlier, and always and forever he had been the owner and proprietor of The Card Shoppe.  It was a dark and odd place, with the floorboards blackened by years of heavy use.  Mr. Bohinski would sit behind the counter near the front and greet you as you came in, WNAK playing from a small radio next to him.  You could tell him exactly what you were looking for, and he would rise up wheezily from his stool and walk along the creaking floor on bandy legs, his pants held up with black suspenders, and tell you precisely where the selection of cards you were looking for would be.  And what a selection:  cards reaching back at least into the 1960's, maybe earlier.  And not just cards, but little statuettes and other knicknacks.  Prayer books, bibles, crucifixes, stickers of the sort teachers would use at school. I picked up a golden-eyed white porcelain Triceratops there, ostensibly for my mother or grandmother, and later got the matching Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus.

(What, you thought I was making this up?)
Mr. Bohinski would always discount whatever he was selling you.  If a card was marked 35 cents, he would charge you 30.  It didn't matter to him that a similar card elsewhere would cost five times as much.

I could never leave the store without Mr. Bohinski telling me some story.  How, back before they were even courting, my grandfather would point to my grandmother as she passed by and tell his friends "That's the girl I'm going to marry!"  How in-store design-a-card kiosks were killing the card business. (Such things turned out to be a passing fad, themselves done in by design-at-home programs.) He delightedly showed me a self-tying bow manufactured by a ribbon factory in Berwick. Those moments were priceless.

He died a year or so before my grandmother.  He had been dying for some time, and had had to give up working at The Card Shoppe a few years earlier.  I remember walking in there one weekend to see someone else sitting at the counter, someone unfamiliar with the layout of the cards.  And instead of WNAK playing on the radio, one of the local college radio stations was tuned in.  Letters to Cleo's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" was playing.  It was...odd.  Disconcerting.

Eventually the store changed hands, but it's still open.  It's now known as Maria-Anna's Card and Gift Shoppe.  Mari-Anna has kept much of the store the way it was, though it seems a bit brighter, and the floorboards may be a bit less grimy.  I stopped in today to pick up a confirmation card for a friend's son.  She led me right to them, to a selection of cards that looked to be at least forty years old.  I selected one with a stained-glass image on the front, which I thought would be a nicely personal touch.  It didn't have a price marked that I could see, but she charged only 85 cents for it.  It would have cost three or four times that much anywhere else.

After I gave her my dollar and got a shiny nickel and dime back in change I looked at the stuff around the counter and under the glass display case.  Like the rest of the store, it was filled with artifacts of bygone eras - artifacts that might command high prices from interested buyers.  Could my eighty-five cents have been all that she made for the day?  How many eighty-five cent cards does she have to sell each day just to keep the place open?

I don't know how much longer a store such as this can continue to exist, even a store nestled in a pocket of unreality like Nanticoke.  If you're interested in buying cards from decades past, or strange statues and trinkets from a time long gone, stop in and visit the place.  It's located at 129 South Market Street in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.