PandaPops & Collectibles owners Jose Velez (left) and Kevin Gerena. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

RAVENSWOOD MANOR — Two friends who share a lifelong passion for trading cards and pop culture have opened a Ravenswood Manor shop specializing in collectible figurines.

Kevin Gerena and Jose Velez opened PandaPops & Collectibles, 4668 N. Manor Ave., in August next to the Francisco Brown Line stop. The shelves are lined with hundreds of vinyl Funko POP! figures inside their original packaging. 

Each box has a handwritten price tag. Other collectibles — such as action figures of Foot Clan ninjas from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — sit behind the counter. 

Many of the items cost $20-$80, but the rarest collectibles, such as limited edition Pokémon packs, top out at $1,500.

“I genuinely enjoy this and have a ‘Supernatural’ collection and a bunch of Ninja Turtles at home,” Velez said. “We’re all collectors here, and we can talk to you from that aspect.” 

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The duo grew up watching “Yu-Gi-Oh!” and “Pokémon,” which got them started on collecting trading cards based on those shows, they said. 

“I started off opening base set [card] packs when I was a kid,” Gerena said. “Looking back at that now, God I ruined those cards, like first-edition Charizards. I didn’t just bend them, but I’d throw them down on the concrete or wrap cards up with a rubber band.” 

When Velez started playing the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game with friends, they based their rules around what they saw in the cartoon. Once they started attended local card tournaments, they realized the rules they had made up weren’t correct, Velez said. 

“My friends joked … because on the TV show you just summon a big old dragon like nothing, but we realized you can’t just do that like that,” Velez said. “We need to learn how to actually play this game, how to develop and learn different decks.” 

Velez started to travel for card tournaments across Chicago and then across the United States. He realized he could turn his interest into a career, he said. 

The same was true for Gerena, who realized Chicago shops were still carrying Pokémon cards and hosting local tournaments, he said. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, Pokémon is still a thing, and people are so welcoming.’ It’s just a cool community,” Gerena said. 

A few of the unboxed Funko POP! figures on display at PandaPops & Collectibles. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

Gerena and Velez met while working at a trading card shop in Irving Park and hit it off. Last year, while grabbing beers at O’Donovan’s in North Center, the duo had the idea to open their own shop, they said. 

“Before we officially opened, we started selling toys out of Jose’s apartment for almost a year. Like Facebook deals saying, ‘Hey, come to the house. We have XYZ or what have you,’” Gerena said. “It was kind of like a garage sale where we had lots of shelves at his house.” 

Those impromptu events were successful enough for the pair to realize their dream and start shopping for storefronts earlier this year, they said. 

The name of the shop is a nod to Velez’s interest in pandas, they said. 

“I’ve always liked pandas. They’re just these clumsy animals. One day, I got a little intoxicated, as one does, and even got a panda tattoo on my back,” Velez said. “I thought about the name forever, and when we talked about Panda Pops & Collectibles I figured we should do it.”

Velez jokes that like a panda, his perfect day is hanging around living life and eating. When he pitched Gerena the name, his partner agreed the alliteration would would be an advantage, he said. 

“I really just like this name because we’re just like them. We like to hang out goof around,” Velez said. 

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