Kevin Riordan: The man's got issues - thousands

DiBacco looks through a Liberty magazine from Dec. 3, 1938. "There's so much tremendous stuff in these magazines!" he says.
DiBacco looks through a Liberty magazine from Dec. 3, 1938. "There's so much tremendous stuff in these magazines!" he says. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: July 02, 2012

Fran DiBacco has more than a century's worth of reading to catch up on.

"I've got 100,000 magazines," says DiBacco, who runs a West Deptford financial consulting firm when not curating his impressive collection of hard copy - and hard-to-find copies.

"The oldest is the Literary Digest, from 1894," says the Southwest Philly native, who now lives in Mansfield Township, Burlington County. "The artwork and the pictures and the color in these magazines is just amazing."

DiBacco bought his first batch of vintage periodicals in 1984. He's got a 1962 issue of Life that could fetch $200 - not because of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the cover, but for a Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris baseball-card promotion inside. He also owns an ultrarare 1947 copy of Laff magazine featuring cover girl Norma Jean Dougherty, better known as Marilyn Monroe.

"There's so much tremendous stuff in these magazines!" DiBacco, 74, exclaims. "Do you want to see them?"

As someone who remembers when Life and Look brought stunning images of the astronauts, the Kennedys, and civil rights demonstrations into my family's home each week, I certainly do.

DiBacco has 60,000 copies of Life, along with 19,000 of Time and 5,000 Saturday Evening Post magazines. He's also got Leslie's, a pioneering, beautifully illustrated magazine from the 19th and early 20th century; Harper's; Esquire; Collier's; Scientific American; and National Geographic.

There's even a 1959 publication called Mummers, along with covers from Rolling Stone, Newsweek, People, and others, meticulously arrayed, gallery-like, at his firm's offices in an industrial park near I-295.

History marches across the walls and is archived in the stacks. An entire century of popular and political culture - leading ladies, Beatles, presidents, heroes, villains, fads, and fabulousness.

"The idea is to sell them and make a lot of people happy," says DiBacco, who is preparing promotional materials and also plans to set up a website.

The longtime nostalgia buff is also a lifelong entrepreneur and has dabbled in joke-writing (Rodney Dangerfield used one of his gags on The Tonight Show), selling hot dogs, and playing saxophone in a band.

DiBacco regarded his collection as inventory from the beginning. He started selling magazines as birthday or anniversary gifts by mail in 1987, and estimates he's sold about $500,000 worth.

DiBacco's interest waned after his wife, Linda, died in the crash of a small plane in 1992. But having recently reorganized the collection, he plans to revive his dormant "Memorabilia & Nostalgia Unlimited" business.

"You can't get these magazines as an e-book," observes Sallie Murphy, who owns Murphy's Loft, a printed-word emporium in the heart of Mullica Hill's antiques district.

She notes that while many contemporary magazines are stuffed with forgettable images of the Kardashians and similarly tedious celebrities, earlier publications often featured "astounding" graphics and original drawings.

Not to mention, large-format photographs to which no smartphone or tablet screen can do justice.

"There's a depth to these old magazines," Murphy says. "The advertisements, the artists - they're on a different level."

The appeal isn't necessarily about nostalgia for one's youth. "I wouldn't categorize it as an age thing," she adds.

Holly Ellison, 28, agrees. The Cumberland County, N.J., resident, who is a financial analyst at DiBacco's firm, describes herself as "not a very big history person."

Nevertheless, she is fascinated by the publications. "They're definitely awesome," Ellison says.

Emotionally powerful, too. DiBacco's framed copies of Life include an issue that features a list of young men killed during World War II.

Among them is DiBacco's brother, Vincent, who was killed in the Battle of Midway on June 6, 1942.

"I was only 4, but I remember when my mother got the telegram," DiBacco says.

The memory left him with a lasting fascination with earlier times. Including those captured in ink on paper, between front and back covers.


Kevin Riordan:

Fran DiBacco shows off his amazing magazine archive, at www.philly.com/magazine


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq .

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