Allen Drucker measures the appeal of model trains he sells by counting the smudge marks on his front window.
In the window of his Allied Model Trains store in West Los Angeles is a large layout of his hot-selling German-made LGB trains. Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week during the Christmas season, the engine--which is about the size of a loaf of bread--pulls two cars and a caboose. It emerges again and again, headlight glowing, from a long tunnel nestled against a wall.
A Little Forgotten
"You come here at midnight on a Saturday and people from the restaurants will be pressed up against the window," he said. "It makes me wish someone would invent smudge-proof glass."
Perhaps a little forgotten in a toy market dominated by dolls that come with their own adoption papers and robots that change into cars, model trains will nevertheless chug around many Christmas trees again this year, highballing into the hearts of both children and adults.
"Generally, the average kid today does not ask for a train for Christmas," Drucker said. Usually, it is a parent who will bring the youngster into the store and talk him (or increasingly, her) into wanting a train set, he said.
Although the usual explanation for this phenomenon is that the parent really wants to play with the train, Drucker said the seemingly endless expandability of train sets is a big reason why parents are so keen on buying them for children. "People will buy a train for their children or grandchildren and say 'I've got birthdays and Christmases taken care of for the next 10 years,' " he said.
In the 1940s and early '50s, millions of parents were doing just that. Then came the long decline of model railroading. Drucker has a theory on what went wrong.
He thinks the 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union triggered a slump in the sales of model trains that lasted nearly 20 years. "The whole world went crazy with technology, jets and rockets and that kind of thing," he said.
Then, about a decade ago, "Old things began becoming popular," he theorized. Prices increased for old Lionel, American Flyer and other old trains that had been going to Goodwill or in the trash. "It got to a fever pitch four or five years ago" and has remained steady since then, he said.
For the last several years, an increasing percentage of model train buyers have purchased the LGB, whose initials stand for Lehmann Gross Bahn or Lehmann Big Train. At 1/32 scale, it is much larger than the HO (1/87) or N (1/160) scale trains that have been popular for a number of years.
Drucker said that one of the LGB's strongest selling points is that even the most ham-handed hobbyist can put together a layout of trains, tracks and accessories.
"We get a lot of upscale professionals," he said. "They are very good at what they do. But with mechanical things they are often klutzes. They are so amazed when they can put this together."
The LGB is also reliable, he said. The trains in his window run 60 to 70 hours a week year-round and can go a year before needing a new motor. "We put them around the (Christmas) trees at Wells Fargo Banks," he said. "They just let them run and run."
Drucker's upscale customers show an affinity for European trains, a taste that appears to have developed over the last decade. In the mid-'70s, Drucker said he cut the prices of his European-style trains in half, but still found few takers.
Today, they seem to sell better than American trains. "I think what happened, especially on the Westside, is that a lot of people have been to Europe," he said. Many Americans, he guesses, have ridden on European passenger trains, but never on an American one.
He also caters to high-tech model railroaders. One such piece of equipment is the Pacific Fast Mail Sound System II. Thirty-two knobs and switches control a triple tape deck, replicating not just the chug-chug-chug of a steam locomotive, but also the more esoteric sounds of the blower, generator and couplings. It costs about $1,000.
It is the sort of thing, Drucker said, that the beginner should not be railroaded into. "If he's never had a toy train before, we don't want to sell him this," he said. "It's important not to sell the beginning hobbyist anything too exotic."
It is in a model railroading shop's interest for its customers to be happy with their equipment, Drucker said. Satisfied customers are likely to be buying accessories for years--perhaps decades--to come.
"People like to come in each year, get a new car or some more track," he said. Although his shop does 30% of its annual sales during December, Drucker said expansion-minded customers may make January the shop's busiest month in terms of foot traffic.
Some hobbyists plan a grand layout, but never follow through. "What happens is that a lot of times this stuff just stacks up," he said. "Some people have the equivalent of a hobby shop in their garages."