Net gain: East Falls club gives table-tennis players a place of their own

Developer/restaurateur/table tennis impresario Ken Weinstein in action at the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in East Falls. Weinstein founded the club 3 1/2 years ago.
Developer/restaurateur/table tennis impresario Ken Weinstein in action at the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in East Falls. Weinstein founded the club 3 1/2 years ago. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 29, 2014

As Herb Hodges explains it, the problem for serious table-tennis players in Philadelphia for years was finding a place to play.

"We moved around the area like nomads," he said as he and his opponent, Hank McCoullum, took a break Sunday afternoon between games at the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in East Falls.

Hodges started playing 17 years ago at the old Waterfront Club in Old City, near where he worked. When the club closed in the late 1990s, he played in a basement in Chinatown and across the river at a club in Pennsauken.

The nonprofit Trolley Car club, which opened 31/2 years ago in the basement of the Falls Center on Henry Avenue - the former MCP Hospital - has given Hodges, McCoullum, and scores of serious table-tennis players a place to play seven days a week.

"I played every day for almost a year," Hodges said, but a new job has cut that to a few hours every weekend.

The club is the creation of Mount Airy developer/restaurateur Ken Weinstein, who started it because he played a lot as a kid in tournaments and had resumed playing seriously after 25 years.

"I think it shapes your life when you are young, and I wanted to give the same opportunity to other people," said Weinstein, who owns the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy and the Trolley Car Cafe in East Falls - hence the club's name.

Weinstein rented 6,000 square feet of windowless basement from Falls Center owner Andrew Eisenstein of Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, enough room for 11 tables after starting with eight.

"If you build it, they will come," he said, adding that "we opened the door, and people flooded in, 20 to 30 a day, so there must have been pent-up demand."

Trolley Car is the only full-time table-tennis club in the region, Weinstein said.

McCoullum, director of science diversity initiatives at Pennsylvania State University, drives the roughly four hours from State College every weekend to play at the Trolley Car club.

"I went to Temple 40 years ago when I was first introduced to table tennis," said McCoullum, who is adviser to and coach of the 50-member Penn State club.

He and his fellow players at Temple found a table-tennis club on Juniper Street "that introduced us to modern technology" - they had been playing with illegal sandpaper paddles instead of sponge ones.

Trolley Car players come from as far away as central New Jersey, paying $5 to use the facilities from 6 to 10 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. weekends, Weinstein said.

Annual memberships - which cost $360 - come with a key to the club and the freedom to play any time, he said.

Players passing through Philadelphia also stop by to use the club. "Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, comes to the club whenever he is in town, and I had one of my best matches ever playing him last year," Weinstein said.

The club is run by seven volunteers - one each day of the week. Three coaches are available for individual players. A fourth teaches groups.

Members raise all the club's money - table sponsorships paid for a new floor with a polyvinyl chloride surface, imported from China, that replaced the "hard-on-your-knees" concrete one, Weinstein said.

There are four tournaments every year with a $500 first prize, he said. The state championships were held at the club in the last two years, attracting more than 100 players at each event.

Weinstein learned to play in Union County, N.J., in the basement of his family's Westfield house. But joining a club a half-hour away, where he could learn from serious players, "really taught me the sport," he said.

His experience is akin to that of Shay Sinha of West Chester, whose parents drive him an hour or more to East Falls "just so I can touch the ball."

Sinha, 16, joined the club two years ago, "learning from the strong players I found here," as well as the coaches. He trains hard and plays almost 50 hours a week in the summer.

He started a table-tennis club at Henderson High School "because there aren't that many kids playing, and I wanted to get them exposed to it to show them that it is a really serious sport."

"You need to be able to prove a high level of dedication," Sinha said, adding that his club attracted five students the first week and had a high of 40 members.

"It's great to do in the winter when there's nothing else," he said.

215-854-2472 @alheavens

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