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.
Born in London, Ontario, Stubbs, 67, grew up in Michigan. Out of college, he moved to the East Coast, landing a residence and a job in Marblehead, where he taught art at Bell School for eight years and raised two sons with his former wife.
As a kid, Stubbs had a passion for model trains, “and admiration for the real railroad.” His family started building up his electric train collection with new cars, new tracks and new engines every Christmas. He’s run trains for most of his life — but he doesn’t expect his customers to know anything about them.
It’s part of the store’s appeal that Stubbs will take the time to explain and give tips. Keeping model trains running isn’t as easy as it looks. “There’s a lot of learning to it.” That’s where Stubbs’ experience as a teacher comes to the fore. He gives all comers detailed instructions on how to keep the rolling stock rolling.
The store includes all model gauges, but the traditional O scale predominates, with HO not far behind. Stubbs explains that the market has changed considerably over the years. The price boom for ancient Lionel trains has evaporated. If trains are an investment, he indicates, they should be thought of strictly as an investment in fun.
The O scale lines that once featured names like Lionel and American Flyer on the sides of toy locomotives have given way to trains featuring the names of actual railroads: the Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, Boston and Maine. And these new trains are often carefully and realistically detailed. Lionel trains still run on the traditional three rails (a middle rail carries the electric charge), but if you want realism, you can get that middle rail in a dark, less visible metal.
Prices vary. A Great Northern locomotive in exquisite detail, constructed of metal, can cost nearly $1,000. For the kids, a starter set runs from $185. But Stubbs notes that in real dollars, that’s probably less than your dad or granddad would have paid 50 years ago.
For his part, Stubbs seeks out trains that inspire nostalgia. He has a generous stock of Boston and Maine cars and engines, and for the kids, you might find Thomas the Tank Engine, Harry Potter or the Polar Express.
Despite the importance of the Internet, it still matters that North East Trains is redoing its window display, a carefully constructed train layout. Recently, North East’s layout drew oohs and ahs at the Topsfield Fair. But while this might attract customers who stop and stare, there’s a lot going on outside the window as the city is remodeling the downtown.
Main Street is being transformed from four lanes to two. Drivers are expected to slow down. Pedestrians will have an easier time crossing the street.
The idea is to encourage more people to stop and visit Peabody shops. Stubbs is skeptical.
“Some people will just avoid the area,” he worries. Yet he adds, “My building’s landlord sees an improvement in the downtown.” An influx of new retailers is possible, Stubbs believes, with boutique shops drawing people to the area and into his store
And that can only help to keep the trains rolling.