PEABODY — They say there’s a kind of magic in model trains, in the way a miniature world can be contrived and then seem to come alive at the flick of a switch. It’s probably this kind of magic that entices some to open the shops that sell model trains.
The magic soon ends for most of them. Hobby shops face the fact that even those who love model trains can grow weary of them, can decide during times of economic distress that there are better uses for their money, or can pack up that miniature world and banish it to the attic when space gets tight.
That is why maintaining a shop selling model electric trains — keeping it open and profitable — is so difficult. So there seems to be a kind of magic in Don Stubbs’ North East Trains in Peabody Square. It’s a business he opened in 1982 almost as a hobby. It has been thriving despite moving twice since then.
“It was a struggle,” Stubbs says of those first years. And he adds that these days, with the economy creeping along, “it’s a very, very tough business. ... In the summer, it gets very lonely here. People are out golfing and sailing.”
But Stubbs has prospered through customer service — “You might beat our prices but not our service” — and canny marketing that over the last six years has included Internet sales sending his products out to customers as far away as Montana, New Zealand and Indonesia. Such people are unlikely ever to browse a hobby shop, but they can linger over the North East website.
“Online is a pretty big part of our business,” Stubbs says. “With just walk-in traffic, we wouldn’t be here now.”
That statement might betray some modesty. In fact, Stubbs survived more than two decades without the Internet. He makes a profit, for example, on some of those people who lose interest in trains by buying and reselling their collections. Diversification is also a factor — in addition to trains of all types, he points to a huge collection of models in the back room.