The Cost of Disappearing Hobby Shops


Like orange juice stands in California, the hobby shop has disappeared from the local scene in most cities and towns.  Both were fun to stop by and enjoy. Now the hobby shop is only a memory to reflect upon when you run out of something critical to a project.

So now I go online and order the few parts I need and get to pay shipping and wait a week or less.   When I consider the $8.00 shipping charge for $18.00 of parts, I get a sharp pain in my wallet.  So how did we get here?

There are a lot of reasons why we no longer have a local hobby shop (LHS).   I don’t intend to plow this field.   Many folks have waxed at great length on this topic.   I am sure you have your opinion like me.

The reality is that the hobby today is not the hobby of forty years ago.  An aging population hasn’t help matters either.  My theory is that internet retailing killed the LHS.  The local needed full margins to pay for the brick and mortar establishment.   Changes in retailing channels has affected nearly everything in our lives.   Think about the effect of a new Walmart-type big box store opens in a town.  Within a few years, all of the local shops are gone.   While the big  box store reduced the cost of a lot of things, it did it at a cost to the community.   The large internet retailer had a similar effect on the hobby. The lure of lower prices for hobby items and a large selection brought a lot of customers who used to buy at the LHS.  Those same discounted big ticket items purchased through the internet were the bread and butter of the LHS.  So this left the LHS only the bits and pieces to pay the rent with.   It just didn’t work out for the local guy or gal.   Now we get to pay through the nose for the little things when the shipping costs are factored in.

I lived in Silicon Valley for many years and enjoyed the fact that the Train Shop in Santa Clara to take care of my diverse needs.   The store discounted merchandise and managed to keep their customers buying local.   The store is still going strong under the ownership of Dennis Cole.   It is a success story.

Over the years, I managed to do a great of traveling in my profession and was able to sample the LHS all over the US and in England and the Continent.   I loved the English shops with all of their wonderful bit and pieces liked milled structural shapes and tools.  The English railroads had their own charm and could be modeled to a high degree of fidelity with material you purchased at the LHS.

For some reason, the Sacramento area is devoid of a railroad hobby shop.  I guess that it says something about the market for trains in the state’s capital.  It is the same city that has built a world class railroad museum.   Go figure!

12 thoughts on “The Cost of Disappearing Hobby Shops

  1. Good points, Gene. I would add that the Internet has made it easier for people to model out-of-region prototypes or less popular scales – niches that would be problematic for the local hobby shop to supply. I suspect that years ago, many people who might otherwise consider Proto:48, or S, or On2, or other niche interests would instead stick with HO (and, later, HO or N) simply because it was easy to get product.

    For example, pursuing Proto:48 would’ve required writing for a catalog, waiting for it to arrive, then placing an order for goods that you may never have seen in person. A lot of people would not have the patience, confidence or both to shop that way.

    By contrast, today it’s relatively easy to shop online for Proto:48 supplies. At the same time, someone attracted to a niche scale/gauge combination would not find much on offer at the local hobby shop.

    When my nearest hobby shop closed – to move from downtown to the suburbs – I told the owner I was sad to see him go but I understood completely. I wasn’t keeping him in business with $10 purchases of styrene, paint and glue. But that’s all he could offer to guys like me, because I was not following the local railroads, and not working in a popular scale.


    • Trevor
      Your points on “minority” scales being well served by internet are valid. The “old days” of finding an ad for a supplier in your scale writing for their catalog are gone.
      My complaint was driven by the need for more basic items like paint and few packages of Grandt nut-bolt-washer castings.


      • I agree, Gene. I don’t like that finding basic materials has become so difficult. I understand the business decisions that have led to this. But I don’t like it. And it’s one if the reasons that I do still try to buy such materials through local shops instead of online.

  2. When I started “proper” modelling in my early teens, my home town had four model shops. One was part of a national chain, good for the main ranges, covering all modelling disciplines. A second was trying to compete with the “stack ’em high, sell ’em” cheap mail-order houses who advertised in the railway modelling press but also carried kits and bits, a third was an emporium of bits and bobs, many long since out of production, and the final – and first established but furthest from the town centre – was a general hobby shop, originally just for model aircraft, but now boat, cars, military and railways.

    The last mentioned is the only one still going. The chain was taken over by a larger chain which went bust in the face of changing hobby trends (large chains have large overheads); the would-be major mail-order dealer couldn’t match the stupid cuts being made over here in the late 70s/early 80s over here (over-supply led to the market being flooded) and the bits and bobs emporium owner retired. New owners were found, but they disposed of the it’s and bobs and were not as cheap as the other suppliers.

    I suspect that this not uncommon, and reflects changes in lifestyle, shopping (the Internet, as Trevor notes) and demand.

    Now, if I want materials, I either buy on-line (how else can I buy North American outline S scale from the UK?) or go to a good exhibition – “good” being based on the trade attendance as much as layouts. I suspect I am not alone in this. Upside with mail order is that I don’t have to wait until Saturday: place an order in the morning, and it may be delivered the next day.


  3. Gene,
    I won’t rehash things except to say that it leads us to do much better planning ahead so as not to run short when it is project time. Of course if one has been in O Scale for any length of time, that has been a standard MO.
    There is still a local shop here (15mi) and a partial one (35mi). The closest one is actually trying to improve his stock of materials and paint. It turns out to be more difficult dealing with distributors today. That has the potential to become a deterrent. Another thing I notice is that it is difficult for the shop to buy smaller quantities than a case. It is my opinion that manufacturers don’t help them selves with that practice. Testors didn’t do the hobby any favors but cutting their RR line of paints in claiming they are targeting the craft trade. Interestingly, looking in the craft stores I find Testors to have a very minor presence. Some have left over stock of Floquil and Polyscale, maybe that doesn’t sit too well. The other thing I notice is that neither of the shops above carry hobby magazines. To me that’s a mistake to not have the visual enticement that the magazines provide. It doesn’t bother me personally because I subscribe to the ones that I want, but the only local source of hobby magazines is Walmart and that in turn is quite limited.
    In spite of the frustration, it’s still the best hobby ever.

    • Ben
      I do understand the plight of the local hobby shop and the difficulty of stocking and restocking. The time and money make it challenging for the little around the corner.


    • I do go there if I am in the Roseville area. Little light on Evergreen and Plastruct styrene and no quarter-inch scale parts to speak of.


  4. Gene,

    I think that part of the disappearance of stores is related to how the owners treat there customers. I’m only 15, and it seems that a lot of these stores don’t want to help me, or even acknowledge that I’ve walked into their store. There have only been a few hobby shops that are helpful, and they’re the only ones I’ll go to. Sadly those stores are a few hours away. And it doesn’t help not having any hobby shops in the Modesto area that stock train parts either. It’s a shame too, I love going to the hobby shop and looking through what they have.

    Building an O scale layout
    and a 7.5″ gauge CliShay

    • Evan
      I would guess Fresno would be the closest for you.
      You are right about the lack of assistance in some shops. Finding people who know their stuff is very hard. Your best way to learn is to participate in online forums in O scale. Yahoo has several. Doing Google searches will yield a lot of information as well.


      • Actually, the closest train shop is Rogers RR Jct. in Lodi for me. Only problem is that they don’t carry that much O scale stock. That’s a whole other problem in itself, trying to find O scale. Whether it is 2 rail, 3 rail, On30, On3, any of it is hard to find in decent quantities without driving for hours.

        I do read some of the forums occasionally, most of the forum reading I do now is on live steam.

        Building an O scale layout
        and a 7.5″ gauge CliShay

  5. I am 27 and I live in Sacramento, as was said we still have Railroad Hobbies in Roseville which is the last store in town. Once upon a time I remember a model train store in Old Sacramento, does anyone remember that store besides me? It was below street level, you had to go down stairs to get there and they had a layout as well as their store. I can’t remember the name of the place, it probably closed in the mid-late 1990’s. I must admit I have used online retailers to buy trains a lot, but I collect Marklin so it’s hard to find. Bruce’s Trains was a great store, but they went under a few years ago, that was a very bad sign because they were a great store, Franciscan Hobbies in San Francisco, which was my childhood hobby shop, closed a year ago to my dismay. I think hobby shops have disappeared because they want full retail prices and the service isn’t good, I agree with Evan. The internet killed the LHS, sad but true, when I need something I have to go online and wait a week, I can no longer go to my local store because they’re all gone except Railroad Hobbies. The world changed, the crowd interested in trains is getting older and older, and the internet has changed the industry. Mail order only hobby shops can work without brick and mortar stores, but it will never be the same. The smell, the sights, the ability to touch and hold what you are about to buy are long gone. And the truth is, I don’t think they’ll ever come back.

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