Those dazzling days of 'all aboard' for Christmas-looking

Jacques Kelly

December 10, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

It always seemed to be a cold and damp December evening that my father would take me to the old Govans Hardware Store on York Road for Christmas-looking. There, amid the saws and paint cans, were dazzling Silver Range Vista Domes, coal-black steam locomotives and the Shell oil tank cars.

The place smelled like smoke pellets, machine oil and turpentine. It's a Christmas perfume I wouldn't trade for anything.

Baltimore once had many little retail way stations along the Lionel and American Flyer lines, where the miniature trains always ran on time.

"No respectable toy store, department store, automotive supply or hardware store could face the holidays without offering some sort of toy train, if only a cheap Louis Marx windup," said James Genthner, who has been observing the local miniature railroad scene for the last 40 years.

Genthner recalls Baltimore miniature railroad retailing in the 1940s and 1950s, when trains were so universal that many shops keep a large inventory and invited repairs and trade-ins, like an auto agency that dealt in tin-plate toys.

Perhaps the oldest local train supplier was French's, Inc., which for many years traded at 304 W. Baltimore St. The firm remains in business on Dundalk Avenue. When it was downtown, French's was popular with anyone who loved old trains, for the place seemed to retain stock year after year and never really bothered with fads and trends. The store was an expansive, old-fashioned place that seemed to predate the 1904 fire.

Just around the corner, on Fayette Street, in the block with the Town Theatre and the Ecuador Hat Co. was a little hole in the wall called Ziggy's. The inventory was small, but train fanciers still stopped to eye its wares. Ziggy's had a branch in the 4700 block of Liberty Heights Ave.

Amid Park Avenue's Chinese grocery stores and restaurants were two train and hobby shops -- Goffman's and the Spot Hobby Shop. Goffman's was the first place I ever saw a Marklin-brand German train, a type popular with servicemen stationed in Cold War Germany. They often carried them home as souvenirs.

The department stores carried Lionels and American Flyers during the Christmas selling season. One of the great joys of my childhood was to take the elevator to the sixth floor of the old Hochschild Kohn store and have the door slide open to the din of about six train sets roaring around a huge, professionally made Christmas garden in the store.

On Gay Street, Morris B. Klein's Gay Street hardware store sold -- and continues to sell -- hundreds of trains. But in the old days, customers were just as likely to order a can of shellac as they were to ask for a Lionel Santa Fe diesel.

East Baltimore had Gamerman's, a serious hobby and camera shop in the 3800 block of Eastern Ave., with a second store in Edmondson Village.

Louis J. Smith, a large hobby and sporting goods house remains in the 500 block of S. Conkling St. Its big window often had a couple sets of Lionels that never seemed to stop running in circles.

Perhaps the finest of all the city's railroad shops was Lloyd's, first at 2111 N. Charles St. and later at the northeast corner of Charles and 22nd streets. This was a serious place, with motor-driven airplanes and cast brass scale models. It also attracted many adult purchasers whose trips were probably kept a secret from their wives and accountants.

In Catonsville, Earl Dew's Sport Shop had a good inventory o Lionel trains, as well as bicycles and table tennis sets. He would keep the goods his customers selected until Christmas Eve so that children would not detect what was being purchased for them.

But many a Baltimorean's first train probably came from a humble neighborhood hardware store, such as Clarence G. Neubauer & Son at 1700 Gorsuch Ave. in Waverly.

"The train section was in a little annex and run by a young man, no doubt the & Son," Genthner said. "It was at this store that I saw my first standard gauge Lionel. He had several freight sets which were retailing for the then hefty price of $35 and $50.

"However, there was a lone No. 8 electric engine, with no cars or no track. It was $8. . . . Later I bought enough track at 25 cents a pop. It was all used stuff, of course. The little No. 8 raced happily around its tiny circle and I was satisfied with my purchase. It is still spinning merrily around the living room."

Many boys didn't save their childhood trains or they were given away, stolen or lost.

The other Saturday, just such an unfortunate trainless individual was at a Fullerton train show.

"The first ones you re-buy as an adult," the man said, "are the ones your parents gave away."

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