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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Model train store sale another nail in coffin of 'a dying hobby'

By Roger Vincent
Los Angeles Times

CULVER CITY, Calif. All aboard! Allied Model Trains is leaving the station.

This week, one of the nation's largest model train stores is closing its longtime home in Culver City a half-block-long replica of Los Angeles' Union Station. And fading along with it, says owner Allen Drucker, is the model train industry.

"It's just a dying hobby," said Drucker, 58. "I always told myself I didn't want to be the old man running the train store."

After 32 years at the miniature railroad hub, Drucker is selling to new owners, who will move the business to a smaller Art Deco-style building he owns across the street. He'll rent the Union Station look-alike to a camera shop.

With real estate values rising and competition from the Internet barking at his heels, he decided it was time to sell his business a favorite stop for local boys and girls and train buffs for generations. Among them were celebrities including Frank Sinatra, who had a building shaped like a train station at his desert estate.

"He had a huge Lionel layout and all along the walls were shelves full of trains," said Drucker, who visited Sinatra's home several times. "He had a real Santa Fe caboose too, as his workout room."

Sinatra's collection was acquired by Canadian business mogul Jim Pattison, along with Sinatra's desert home. The crooner was one of several celebrity train collectors who shopped at Allied. Among Drucker's other customers, he said, are musicians Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen, and actor Donald Sutherland.

Model railroading dates to the early 20th century, when Lionel introduced its first electric-powered train. The business enjoyed a golden age during the 1920s, when heavy metal locomotives and cars were the most prized possessions of many boys.

After U.S. model train production stopped for World War II, the industry boomed again in the 1950s when trains were the No. 1 toy for boys. But now, the industry's fan base is fading.

"It has become increasingly more difficult to run a single store like mine in a major metropolitan area," Drucker said. Among his challenges has been paying electric bills of $3,000 a month to help keep his display trains running.

But the real problem with the model train industry, Drucker said, is that its biggest fans are growing older.

Customer Randy Miller endures gentle mockery from his children. " 'He's 55 and still playing with trains,' my daughter says. " 'I think he's losing it.' "

Miller drove down to check out Allied's closing sale and walked out with $300 worth of Lionel boxcars. He's restoring his late father's old train set, and recently used his skills as a machinist to restore a toy water tower his brother broke in the 1960s.

"My father never got over that," Miller said. "Now it's fixed."