TAMPA — Growing up in Savannah, Georgia, John Osterweil often visited the DeSoto Hotel at nearby Tybee Island with his grandfather.
Inside was a slot machine — a racehorse-themed 1937 Buckley Track Odds model.
Osterweil longed to pull the lever, not so he could gamble but so he could set off the machine’s bells, whistles and lights.
His grandfather was a stickler for the law, though, and would never have allowed the lad to gamble.
Years later, a grown-up Osterweil happened across one of the same slot machines for sale in Chicago. He snapped it up, had it restored and finally got to play it.
“If you find something you like, you had better buy it right away before someone else does,” Osterweil said.
The 72-year-old Tampa man has turned that philosophy into a lifelong avocation.
His business is Memorabilia Magic, a West Tampa storefront filled wall-to-wall with vintage things from sports, entertainment, politics and history — all for sale and available on consignment for charity auctions.
Hundreds of charities across the country take advantage of his offer every year.
Selections from his collection were recently on display at a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Tampa Bay. In July, you can find some of them up for auction at a benefit for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.
“I’ve been working with him for 10 years,” said Janice Davis, CEO of Tampa’s Ronald McDonaold House. “He has such a unique collection that offers something for everyone.”
She said at her last event his items on display were as eclectic as dental devices from the early 1900s to baseballs signed by Hall of Famers.
In his home office, Osterweil keeps more-cherished personal items — including a hand fan given to guests at the 1891 opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel, now part of the University of Tampa. He knows of only three left and thinks his is the only one in mint condition. Featuring an image of the hotel and its pointy minarets, the artistry of the object still draws a gasp from its owner decades after he acquired it.
Then there is his collection of spoons from the hotel; maps detailing the layout of the city in its early years; musket balls from Egmont Key’s Fort Dade; and a host of Ybor City and West Tampa cigar labels, signs and boxes dating to the area’s days as cigar capital of the world.
His collection tells the story of Tampa’s earliest years.
“It’s a remarkable collection,” said Cynthia Gandee Zinober, executive director of the Plant Museum, which tells the story of the former Tampa Bay Hotel. “His material on the hotel is in many ways superior to what the Plant Museum has in its own archives.”
The slot machine, though, remains his crown jewel. He fawns over it like a boy.
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“Smell this,” Osterweil said as he opened the slot machine, which he keeps in his storefront’s back office. “The inside smells the same as it did in 1937. That is history you smell. It never ceases to amaze me.”
Osterweil doesn’t work in collectibles for the money. He said he is financially comfortable.
He does it for the fulfillment he gets helping charities and to see the faces of fellow collectors when he produces something they long have sought.
He also does it to support his addiction to collecting.
Osterweil is so consumed with the hobby he can’t do business at a bank without asking the teller for change in half-dollar coins. He tells the bank employees his grandchildren are coin collectors — a half-truth, he later admits.
He actually is looking for rare coins. On a recent bank visit, he walked out with a coin worth $10.
“I got 20 times its face value,” he said. “To me that is really exciting.”
His collecting started with coins in 1955, inspired by his grandfather.
He next turned to autographs, from minor league baseball players in Savannah in the beginning.
Osterweil’s parents owned a toy store in Savannah and offered him the chance to start his own small business. They gave him a corner of the store to sell his coins and autographs.
In those days before the Internet, he would search newspapers for garage sales and collectibles shows. Autographs from minor leaguers gave way to more famous names.
Osterweil arrived in Tampa in 1972 and worked as a city planner through the Model Cities program, which used federal grant money to tackle problems facing Tampa’s inner city.
He later founded a security company.
And all the while he continued to collect memorabilia, mostly coins and sports and entertainment items.
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In the 1970s Osterweil lived next door to Tony Pizzo, one of Tampa’s best-known historians. A statue of Pizzo stands in Ybor City at Ninth Avenue and 17th Street, placed there after his death.
Pizzo fired Osterweil’s passion for tracking down items of historic significance to Tampa.
He introduced Osterweil to a series of postcards from the early 1900s depicting scenes from throughout Florida. Twenty-three of them are from Tampa, such as the Ballast Point Pavilion and the domed Hillsborough County Courthouse on Franklin Street, both now gone.
Each image has an alligator border.
Pizzo challenged Osterweil to find the entire set of postcards, all 164 of them.
“I do things to the nth degree,” Osterweil said. “When I get started, I cannot stop.”
He crisscrossed the country for 15 years to complete the collection, visiting large memorabilia shows and calling fellow collectors whenever he heard a rumor.
“I don’t think most people can understand the excitement of tracking down something like the gator borders. It’s a rush,” he said.
In time, his memorabilia collection grew too large to contain in his home.
He sold his security company in 1998, and his wife suggested he turn his hobby into a second career.
“She suggested I call it ‘Gems and Junk’ and she would help me,” he said, and then quipped, “She was the gem, and I was the junk.”
He took her advice, but not on the name of the company.
He continues to scour the country for collectibles. The Internet has made it easier, as long as he does his due diligence to ensure authenticity.
And though some items are closer to his heart than others, every piece he owns is up for sale for the right price — even his beloved slot machine.
“I used to say I would never sell it. Then I realized two things: That is bad business, and never is a long time.”