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One man has collected 130,000 pieces of 20th-century nostalgia in 10,000 square feet of Jersey warehouses

Photo By Sgt. 1st Class Jordan Werme | Pallets of Personal Protective Gear and hospital equipment are received, organized, and distributed to hospitals and medical personnel from a warehouse operated by the Connecticut National Guard.

Fran DiBacco’s love for old magazines inspired him to create a star-spangled exhibit of 20th-century American history as portrayed in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals from the past.

“Welcome to the Vintage Magazine Nostalgia Center,” he said, standing at a warehouse door just off I-295 in West Deptford, Gloucester County, where the center will have a grand opening for tours, by appointment only, beginning March 25.

“For now, the tours will be free,” said DiBacco.

A financial adviser who serves mainly corporate clients, DiBacco has in the last decade greatly expanded the footprint of his professional and commercial enterprises in the Mid-Atlantic Corporate Center.

From a single suite in a Grandview Avenue warehouse, he has grown to a trio of adjacent spaces totaling 10,000 square feet of vintage magazines either on display or on sale.

The nostalgia center, with its eclectic array of magazine covers, illustrations, photographs, posters, advertisements, flags, artifacts such as rotary phones, and a soundtrack of oldies like “Those Were the Days,” sets a celebratory, patriotic vibe.

“I was just trying to sell magazines,” said DiBacco, 85, who offers original editions to match birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions for $49.95 each.

“But I got a little carried away.”

For an enthusiast fond of using alliteration — “mountains of magazines, canyons of covers” — to describe his 130,000-piece inventory, “a little carried away” may be an understatement.

Nostalgia in many formats

DiBacco has decorated the nostalgia center with life-size cutouts of historical figures and pop culture icons such as JFK, MLK, Marilyn Monroe, and Rocky Balboa, as well as athletes and military service members.

There’s the America Hall that takes visitors down a Main Street USA, a Veterans Hall with a Patriotic Parkway in the middle, and a third room that resembles a mash-up of a classic Jersey diner and old-school record store.

Every decade of the 20th century — “the greatest century of the greatest country,” DiBacco says — merits its own carefully curated chamber adorned with images and technology from the era.

“I had to pick my jaw up from the floor when I walked into a place like this just 10 minutes over the bridge in a Jersey industrial park,” said Rebecca Goodman, whom DiBacco hired as a publicist for the center.

“Fran is a creative,” she said. “It was his creativity that enabled him to imagine such a place.”

Its appeal ought not be limited to Baby Boomers or older adults, she said.

“The amount of history you can learn at this location is extraordinary, no matter what age you are,” Goodman said. “It’s a time capsule, right here in our backyard.”

Said Deptford businessman Kamal Kishore, who helped his friend DiBacco build the displays in the center: “I tell my friends they can go there and look up American history. It’s a gorgeous place that’s like nowhere else.”

In addition to LIFE and Look, DiBacco has amassed magazines obscure (Delineator) and familiar, albeit, long gone (Colliers). Others, like the Atlantic, continue to publish.

“I have over 100 publications [of which] I have more than 25 copies of each,” he said. “There’s probably another 75 additional publications where I have between one and 24 copies. They’re sorted by month and year, going back to 1900. They require 5,000 feet of shelving. Close to a mile!”

A deep patriotism

A Southwest Philly native who lives in West Deptford, DiBacco, a father of three and grandfather of five, said he has invested “nearly four years and half a million dollars” to create the center as a sales tool that can educate even as it entertains.

He also said his patriotism, along with an appreciation for times before his own, arose from having lost his older brother, Vincent Joseph DiBacco, a 20-year-old U.S. Navy Seaman 2nd Class, who was serving on board the USS Hammann, a destroyer, when he was killed during the Battle of Midway on June 6, 1942.

DiBacco was just 4 years old, and while he can remember his mother receiving the telegram on June 20, “I could never remember any conversation I’d had with my brother,” he said. “But the magazines from when he was growing up in the 1920s and ’30s gave me a feeling of what it was like then.”

DiBacco also has a LIFE magazine from 1943 listing all of the U.S. service members killed in combat until that point. The page of war dead from Philadelphia, his brother among them, is on permanent display at the center.

“I was glad to find it,” he said.

Appreciating cover art

The illustrations that dominated covers in the first half of the 20th century — before photography took precedence — are another reason vintage magazines can be so evocative, said DiBacco.

“The covers conveyed how we thought, felt, and believed,” he said. “There was so much competition among magazines, so the artwork reached a zenith. And the covers were in color, when most lots of printed material was black and white.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of my dad,” said his daughter, Danielle DiBacco, a broadcasting professional who lives in Gloucester County. “I remember him starting to collect magazines 40 years ago, and I would always help with sorting, or whatever.

“It has been his passion and his vision to create something awesome for people, whether they’re interested in magazines or not,” she said.

DiBacco, who plays the sax and performed with the Trilby String Band in the 1959 Mummers parade, said he intends the center to provide what a screen on a smartphone can’t.

“We have the touch and the feel along with the sounds and the scenes,” he said. “Anyone can Google anything anywhere, and it’s easy to go through the internet. But when you flip pages you just get a feeling of what things were like.”

Self-described history lover Rose Marie Yerka, who lives in Woodbury Heights, already has visited the center several times and brought friends, families, and fellow members of the Gloucester County Federation of Republican Women to visit.

“The federation had an ice-cream social there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage,” said Yerka.

“The ladies just loved the center because it makes history come alive,” she said. “It’s like a hidden gem, and it’s not on YouTube; it’s right here. So we won’t forget where we came from.”


(c) 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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