You can never go back…

When I was a kid in the late 1970s – say, 11 or so – my parents decided to move from Toronto to St. Catharines. Being 11, I was devastated: I was going to miss my friends and I was going to miss my regular visits to George’s Trains on Mt. Pleasant Road.

But in the back of my Model Railroader magazine, there was an ad for a shop in St. Catharines called Niagara Central Hobbies. One day, we met with the real estate agent over sundaes at Diana Sweets* on St. Paul Street. This was the same street on which Niagara Central Hobbies was located, and I asked the agent how far it was from the restaurant. “Only a few blocks.” “Can I go, mum?” “Sure – but be back here in an hour.”

I ran east – almost the entire length of St. Paul Street, it turns out. And discovered a magical hobby shop. In the end, I think my parents and the agent had to pick me up at the hobby shop. There was just so much to see. With apologies to George’s, this was way better. Maybe St. Catharines would be okay after all…

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Niagara Central Hobbies was the place where I graduated from playing with trains to a railway modeller. The owner, Ray Lounsbury, was a bit gruff but also incredibly patient with a young kid who had a ton of questions. His wife, Marie, was always wonderful, and the staff were always friendly and knowledgeable.

What’s more, the product selection was fantastic. This is where I first encountered brass locomotives… and narrow gauge… and garden scales like LGB. It’s where I first learned about photo-etched detail parts for military models, and brass fittings for boat models – both of which I’ve incorporated into my projects in the railway modelling hobby. And it was always a terrific place to discover long out-of-production kits (often at original retail prices) and long out-of-print magazines. Spread across two adjacent storefronts and covering two floors, Niagara Central Hobbies offered more than 7,000 sq. ft. of trains, planes, armour, crafts, and other hobby supplies.

Niagara Central was close enough to my high school that I would drop in often at lunch hours to pick up magazines. Ray had a clever marketing trick: If you “subscribed” to a magazine, he would set aside each issue as it came in, and he would discount the tax from the cover price. It was a loss-leader, but it guaranteed that regular customers would drop in a couple of times per month – and nobody ever left the store with just their magazines.

I moved away from St. Catharines in the late 1980s to go to university. But every time I went back, I’d make sure to stop at the hobby shop. It’s been a few years since my last visit, but yesterday my wife and I felt like a drive to the Niagara Peninsula and since we were going to hit the excellent St. Catharines farmer’s market I decided to drop in. I had a shopping list, of course.

And while I knew that it would have to happen sometime, I still wasn’t prepared for this:
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(Sign in the window of the left-hand side of the store. This is where I first encountered Niagara Central Hobbies. Years later, the Lounsburys would buy the adjacent building to the right. The hobby shop has now been consolidated here – but the train and plastic modelling departments have suffered as a result)

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(Still in the front window of the old store – left side of the lead photo – passers-by could activate this LGB train by touching a brass hand-print mounted to the inside of the window glass. It was there the very first day I visited, as a kid. And as I have dozens of times in the past, I put my hand to the glass yesterday – and it still works)

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(The old store, stripped and available for lease)

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(A close-up from the previous photo, focused on the train department near the back of the store. The image below is labelled with key features that every visitor will remember)

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(The back entrance – used by those in the know)

I’m part of the problem, I know: I’ve been drawn to, and working in, niche scale/gauge combinations for years now and my focus has been on prototype modelling, so my contribution to the health of hobby shops is minimal. I buy CA, styrene, and the occasional package of scenic material from hobby shops. Sometimes, I’ll grab a book or DVD. But for specialty items (and in 1:64, almost everything is “Specialty”), I’m buying direct from manufacturers more often than not. Or, I’m scratch-building what I need.

I’m fortunate to have two decent hobby shops within striking distance of home: George’s Trains is still around (although in Markham – not downtown), while The Credit Valley Railway Company is in Mississauga. In fact, since I failed to find what I wanted at Niagara Central I stopped at CVRCo on the way home to pick up some things I needed (and some things I did not).

I’m not posting this to blame the new owners for the downsizing (Ray retired a few years ago) – but as a reminder of yet another way in which the Internet has changed the hobby.

For some hobby shops, the web has been a tremendous opportunity. Those who found a specialty (for example, Colorado narrow gauge, or live steam, or books) and embraced the Internet have been growing and prospering. But for many hobby shops, it has been devastating.

Obviously, Niagara Central is one of those that could not compete. The hobby shop still exists, but most of its smaller space is dedicated to art and craft supplies. The train and model department is a fraction of its former self and that’s only going to get worse as more hobbyists discover that one of the greatest stores of its time has faded into the shadows. I walked out yesterday, sad and empty-handed – and I doubt I’ll be back. Again, it’s not entirely the hobby shop’s fault: It’s just the way it is.

I’m sure that new hobbyists will continue to find information and inspiration – sometimes, at the few hobby shops that remain, but more often online. For me, though, I have to thank Ray and Marie and the staff at Niagara Central Hobbies for the wonderful inspiration and help over so many years. I’m still in this hobby – and will be for my lifetime – in large part because of you.

(*Diana Sweets is also long gone – closed in 1996 – except that it isn’t. Furnishings from this downtown St. Catharines institution were saved and are on display in a Harley-Davidson dealership in Niagara On The Lake)

23 thoughts on “You can never go back…

  1. This is a sad, but expected piece of news. Over the years I would make a pilgrimage to St. Catharines specifically to visit Niagara Central, always anticipating finding something that I couldn’t find elsewhere. Kits that were not carried by mainline hobby shops, details parts, and exposure to products that nobody else carried. The last couple of visits were disappointing. The variety lessened, the product on hand became more of what everybody else had, and the reason to make the trip became less enticing. My last time there was last year, and I left, also empty handed. Truly a sign of the times.

  2. Trevor
    I think many of us in North America can relate to your experiences. Market forces have changed the retail experience for most of us. Fortunately, the desired products can be obtained via the web.
    The sensory experience is lacking today without the presence of a well stocked hobby shop. Cruising the isles and counters always created ideas and impulses. Younger modelers are missing this aspect of the hobby.

    Gene

  3. I was a fan, too. My first visit there (from Ottawa at the time) I bought an HOn3 LaBelle passenger car), and my last. sometime last year, I heard they were closing out most of the narrow gauge in the basement and I picked up a few kits, an assembled Grandt Line Porter that had been there for years, and the pieces of flex track they had used to display On3 all this time. When I made the transition to On3, I took my pile of freelance HOn3 models to Ray, he took them up to his office in the back corner and came back with a generous trade-in figure. He must must have managed to sell my stuff, because I never saw them out on display. Gruff, yes, but in the end encouraging! In our narrow-gauge group, we’d often recognize things we’d picked up at Niagara Central that were formerly owned by other members. Also, on one layout tour, I got to visit an incredible rambling HO layout upstairs that snaked through all the rooms and hallways in a most fantastic manner. It was definitely more interesting than any place in Toronto, worth the drive, and I lament the trend away from these Mom and Pop places with all the fascinating nooks and crannies of stuff from all the bygone eras.

  4. Sad indeed. They always seemed to have what you wanted, especially for scratch builders. The used equipment that passed through that store, particularly narrow gauge was remarkable. It is the sign of the times. A well stocked hobby shop is the exception these days.

  5. I suspect there are twin issues.

    One is the alternate of internet (and train shows). The other is the greater variety, even in mainstream scales and subjects. Other than the latest new releases, I suspect it is tough for a shop to stock a variety of smaller products and still make a profit. Clearly not impossible, given Coronado Hobbies) but difficult especially on a local clientele.

  6. The Vic’s Hobby Shop in Portland Oregon in 1956 and 1957 and the Engine House on El Camino Real in Palo Alto1958 were my first exposure to “real” model railroad shops versus department store train displays. Over the years I have shopped at a multitude of train stores around the country — some good some bad many now gone. I now live in a beach side resort community with a funky little place that can satisfy your Lionel wants and needs from most any era and provide Kalmbach magazines and a couple of tubes of glue. After that it is hit the internet . Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t been at this hobby for almost 60 years I would give it up.

    That said, it is blogs like yours and Gene’s that keep me motivated. Now I need to get the RR room built out so I can get back to model railroading.

  7. “-passers-by could activate this LGB train by touching a brass hand-print mounted to the inside of the window glass.”

    My first encounter with a “serious” hobby shop was back in the 60s when I discovered Hub Hobby Shop in New Orleans. They had one of those hands on the window that one could launch an HO scale train circling around inside the display.

    Great stuff!
    -Jack

  8. a shame, but as you say we are part of the problem as we specialize and deal with ever-more narrowly focused vendors whose offerings don’t work well with the retailer model. I always give my excellent LHS (Dennis Cole at The Train Shop in Santa Clara) first crack at anything I want but we both know that a lot of things I want for my nearly-complete layout don’t fit his business model.

  9. Thanks for the walk down Memory Lane re Niagara Central Hobbies. I started at Brock in the summer of 1971 and discovered Niagara Central Hobbies when it is was in its former location – closer to the downtown portion of Saint Paul Street. We had just left the movie theatre (Lawrence of Arabia) and while walking down the street, my eye caught the glimpse of a CP Royal Hudson in the display window! It was too late to check in plus I had a bunch of university friends with me with no regard for the hobby. Needless to say I was back the next day. At that time, the non-rail stuff was on the main floor while the basement had the hobby shop, including a small layout. Needless to say, I was in the heaven; it was the biggest display of equipment – especially Canadian equipment – that I had ever seen (we had a modest hobby shop in my home town of Brockville for which I was quite grateful to the owners). For the next 4-years, I was a regular pilgrim to the store – mostly buying magazines which was all that I could afford on a limited student budget. Fast forward many years and with sending one child to Brock and with another in rowing big time, there were a number of trips to Saint Catharines and the occasional pilgrimage back to Niagara Central – schedule permitting; a number of pieces of rolling stock from the used equipment case are on my layout. I was always surprised that such a large inventory could hold on for as long as it did. Thanks for the update and I am glad that they are able to hold on in one form or the other.

  10. Hi Trevor,
    Thanks for sharing your memories of the Niagara Hobby Shop. I bought my first brass HO engine from Ray in 1975, a Van Hobbies E-Ten CN Mogul. In those days I drove a truck for Sutton Wholesale out of Simcoe and delivered to a store in St. Catharines. It took weeks to save the $250.00 needed and I remember leaving my truck in the loading zone a bit longer to run the few blocks to Ray’s and back.
    It was always a great trip to journey over the escapment to visit the hobby shop especially to break the monotony of a long winter’s day…
    I am sure I speak for many modellers when I say that we miss the excitement and ambience that was Niagara Central Hobbies.

    Monte Reeves

  11. The trolley bar in the rear of Niagara Central Hobbies was built by my good friend WE{Bill} Blaine from Grimsby On. just after Ray’s move to the new store. In fact, a lot of the local area modellers helped out with moving, construction and electrical work. Bill passed away in 1991. Some customers came to the store, saw the trolley and asked where the trucks were and often laughed at that answer. It’s sad to see how that place has gone, I purchased most of my collection there. Jim Ellis

  12. I too, would wander down to Niagara Central Hobbies once a year or two. Like many, just looked at all the stuff, and of course bought a couple of items I thought I could use in the future; but are still in the closet waiting their turn.
    It truly is a sign of the times with the downsizing or closing of hobby shops.
    Thanks for the update, Gord

  13. Thanks for that piece. In 85 in my early 20’s I left working in one of the UK’s premier shops and, after working three jobs in one day for six months to get my travel funds together, headed west. I turned up in Grimsby Ont., after backpacking across the midwest and spent the summer there, working on the fruit farms and drinking Aardvarks … One of the things I did was find Niagara Central, and I still have two Roundhouse hoppers in HO that I bought there. In 85 it was an Alladins Cave, that’s for sure! Two years ago I was back in Grimsby, this time with my kids in tow but didnt have the opportunity to visit. I did find an excellent shop though, just outside Grimsby on Hwy8 at Beamsville. I’ve no connection with them apart from being impressed that they had a really good quality shop with all sorts of ‘stuff’ from RTR to superdetailing packs and decals. A place where you get the enthusiasm and passion as you walk through the door. Their website is here, if its allowed to put it up http://justtraincrazy.ca/contact.php and from my experience they’re well worth a visit. Really helpful friendly owner, I don’t doubt I’ll be dropping in next summer. I hope its ok to plug a good shop!

    The hoppers mentioned above are here http://albionyard.wordpress.com/albion-yard-images/ scroll down six images. I know what you mean by ‘You can never go back’, but sometimes you can. Every time I get these hoppers out, I go back. Back to a brilliant summer, making friends, traveling, working hard, playing hard, seeing and experiencing living in a new country. Next year I’ll be catching up with friends that have lasted 30 years. If I go out to the workshop now I can lay my hands on those hoppers in a minute. To anyone else, my kids, wife, they are just two freight cars, they ‘mean’ nothing. To me however they are a time machine, and yes I can go back, and sometimes, it really is worth the journey.

  14. I have been a customer of Niagara Central Hobbies since 1958 when they were located on King Street. Ray actually was working there for his father in law and when he passed away, Ray and Marie took over.
    I’m still very active scratch building in 1:20.3 scale. But I’m a dying breed and NCH couldn’t keep scratch building parts in stock just for me, so their inventory just kept decreasing. In order to keep modelling, I had to turn to the internet for parts.
    Young people today are not into trains, let alone scratch building. They would rather play video games or spend all their free time texting. It is very sad to see such an icon disappear, but unfortunately it’s a sign of our changing world.
    R.I.P.

  15. No, You Can Never Go Back.
    Remembering “The Hobby Shop” for me goes all the way
    back to store #1 on King St. about 1950.
    Little did I know as a young boy of 11 that my relation with Niagara Central Hobbies would last for 63 more years. Without a doubt The Hobby Shop,
    in its prime, was right up there in the top 10 of its kind in North America.
    For me and many friends, and other model railroaders, the place to be in the late 60’s and the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s on Friday nights, was Niagara Central Hobbies, however, nothing lasts forever.
    To Ray and Marie Lounsbury, a job well done.

    Mike

  16. Niagara Central gave out free cardboard scale rulers with HO on one side and N on the other. Brilliant marketing! Twenty-five years later I’m pretty sure I still have one around here somewhere.

    • Barry – I had one of those rulers too! Now I wonder what box in the basement that is in … Thanks for bringing back that memory!

  17. Yes …it is a shame that time, the economy, life, and other things can change a situation. I worked at Niagara Central for 7 years in the train dept. ( the guy with the moustache) and missed it a lot when I left. While there I tried to help all my friends and customers with their needs. Ray was somewhat “gruff” yes, but down deep I think a nice man. He relished in making trades with guys who came in to change scales or unload certain items. He made his bread and butter that way really. As it stands now the shop is in re-invent mode and for the sake of some of the staff still there, and the train hobby itself, I wish it well. I still order items from there from time to time and have to wait forever, it seems, to get it…however that’s the price you pay to be a model railroader. I wish them well and hope this hobby never dies. Keep on with the trains guys…it’s a passion I share with all of you…….”going to the end of the line”…Dave.

  18. I live in Thorold and stop by here once or twice a month, but after my last visit Jan 2015, I will be buying the majority of my modeling stuff online or at Micheals with the 50% off coupons.
    I’m More in to the model car hobby, and the prices for a revell kit here are 40-50$ everywhere else 20-25, 30 at most. And only under 20 online from Amazon free shipping!

    Sadly I don’t expect this store to last another year with these marked up prices

  19. UPDATE (July 15, 2015): I’ve now learned that Niagara Central Hobbies is closing for good.
    The store’s Facebook page notes that the owners are selling off its fixtures, etc.
    This is sad, but not surprising.

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