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Electric Train Outlet running out of steam

Electric Train Outlet owner Bob Jacobson (right) speaks with customer Warren Ferber, 68, of St. Louis on Friday, July 13, 2019, as a model train zips by. Ferber stops by the outlet every few months to purchase for his collection and speak with shop employees. Photo by Griffin Fletcher, gfletcher@post-dispatch.com

One worker at the Electric Train Outlet straightened boxes, tiny engines and rail cars and cabooses and freight cars buried under cardboard. Another pressed discounted prices on green and pink sticky notes to shelves throughout the Overland store. The only thing missing was customers.

To be fair, the shop doesn’t normally open on Mondays. To be honest, the shop hasn’t seen a good year since 2009. At least, that’s how Bob Jacobson, the owner of Electric Train Outlet, described it.

The store will end its 25-year run in mid-August, the victim of slowing business and Jacobson’s decision to retire.

The shop, he said, is no longer worth maintaining.

“That’s what I thought — I’d just do this till I croaked.” Jacobson said. “But it’s to the point now I just don’t feel like coming in anymore.”

The shop started a five-week going-out-of-business sale on July 5. And the building itself — all 5,000 square feet of it built by Jacobson himself — is for sale as well.

Losing a hobby

Jacobson opened the Electric Train Outlet in the mid-1990s on Page Avenue and moved to its current location in Overland in 2005. In a 2006 profile of the store, the Post-Dispatch called it home to the Midwest’s largest inventory of model trains, drawing customers from coast to coast.

With almost 70 years of model train experience and a reputation for fixing trains when no one else can, Jacobson is a model-train enthusiast’s dream. The problem is model-train enthusiasts aren’t what they used to be.

“This hobby, it’s an old hobby,” Jacobson said. “All the grandpas are dying off.”

He said he’s lucky to have five customers under the age of 50, adding that kids would rather play with drones or tablets. Long gone are the days fathers and grandfathers passed on a love of model trains to children, now distracted by screens of all sizes.

Tom Brown has worked at the train outlet for more than a decade, watching the train hobby fade in popularity.

“I just hate to see it go,” Brown said. “I feel it’s their loss.”

Customers who still visit the shop are treated to a model-train buffet as well as the company of like-minded individuals.

Warren Ferber, 68, of St. Louis, has been coming to the outlet for most of its 25 years. Talking with Brown and Jacobson is part of the attraction.

“I’m gonna miss Bob,” Ferber said, adding that customer service is always top-notch at the outlet.

Without the Electric Train Outlet, Ferber said he will not resort to buying online. He doesn’t trust it.

Art Ames, 76, brought his train hobby to St. Louis when he moved here from Cleveland nine years ago. Electric Train Outlet became one of his destination spots.

Ames has been a train fanatic since his introduction to the hobby in 1948, and he still has trains he received in the 1950s. But he realizes trains have lost their cachet in an increasingly technology-obsessed era.

“I’m not sure it caught on with my kids,” Ames said.

He said the “hands-on” nature of model trains is likely to blame for its decline in popularity. A train “doesn’t move as fast as a video game.”

Modern model trains feature computerized functions such as recorded whistle sounds and Bluetooth compatibility, but Jacobson is skeptical these advances are saving the hobby, despite model-train manufacturers touting higher numbers than ever.

“Banner years and all that — pbbt,” Jacobson said. “I ain’t believing it.”

The train store is at least partly a victim of the digital revolution — much like Creve Coeur Camera, which is closing its last shop because of competition from online retailers and camera phones.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The executive director of a nonprofit dedicated to model trains called World’s Greatest Hobby claimed all is not lost in the world of trains. Dave Swanson, who runs the suburban Chicago organization, said the brick-and-mortar appeal of trains may fade, but working with model trains teaches STEM skills — and that could create future train hobbyists.

“We’d like to get the next generation to be as comfortable using their hands as using their phones,” Swanson said.

Sponsored by model-train manufacturers such as Lionel, Bachmann Trains and the Atlas Model Railroad Company, the nonprofit organizes train shows across the country. Shows during the summer tend to average 1,000 to 2,000 people; he said attendance at winter shows can be triple that. (The nonprofit is holding a show in Belleville at the St. Clair County Fairgrounds and Expo Center on July 27-28.)

Though many modern buyers go online for their model train fix, Swanson said the shows serve as a stepping-stone for newcomers. People like Jacobson and Brown are often found at such shows, answering questions and offering advice.

Losing a shop like the Electric Train Outlet creates a void for people looking to talk trains with other fans.

“Amazon never asked me how my day was going,” Swanson said.

For Jacobson, closing the shop means more time with his family. At 76, he said he has no bucket list — he’s already done it all.

“My goal was to have the best train store in the state, and I probably succeeded over and above that,” Jacobson said. “I figured I made my goal, it’s time to quit.”

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