Ellicott City shop owner shares lifelong love of hobbies with young and old

December 16, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Lad Slapak recalls vividly the first day he stepped into a hobby shop in his boyhood hometown of Bel Air and walked out dazzled. He was the proud owner of a 10-cent stick airplane modeling kit.

"I was hooked on hobbies from then on," says Mr. Slapak of his boyhood memory.

Today, he's still hooked on hobbies. Currently, he favors tinkering with plastic model kits, trains, and collecting vintage airplane model car engines. He also owns and runs his own hobby shop. It's one of only two true hobby shops left in Howard County.

Mr. Slapak launched Lad's Hobby Center, located in a small shopping hub on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City, about 18 months ago. He hasn't been exactly rolling in cash since, but he's been pleasantly surprised at the number of hobbyist frequenting the cozy, well-stocked shop.

The old-fashioned American hobby shop, once a staple of many neighborhood shopping areas, is now a struggling breed. Giant chain retailers, with their purchasing clout, have also nibbled away at the small owner-operated hobby shop business by stocking some popular items.

How does an old fashioned hobby shop survive and compete for customers today?

Mr. Slapak's enterprise offers some clues.

"The main way you build business is through service, friendly advice, and word of mouth advertising," says Mr. Slapak.

"When someone comes in the shop and purchases an item, they get us with it. If they run into any problem building the rocket or painting a model, they can call me and I'll walk them through the problem.

"You aren't going to get those kinds of answers from some 19-year-old sales clerk in a chain store. They can't offer the knowledge a true hobby shop owner will have about hobbies."

Mr. Slapak has even extended his credo to people who haven't purchased anything from the shop. "I usually answer their questions and tell them the next time they plan to buy a hobby item to come in here. They won't get left in the lurch that way."

Ed Ball, founder of the 3-year-old National Retail Hobby Shop Association in Oak Lawn, Ill., says hobby shop owners must have a bullish attitude toward service if they hope to survive in today's competitive, fast-paced market.

Mr. Slapak has made it a point to carry in his inventory items from what are considered the "classic" hobbies, namely trains, plastic modeling kits and rockets.

These hobbies account for the lion's share in sales at his shop -- as they do nationwide at other hobby shops.

Mr. Slapak's largest department is model trains. He carries the N-scale, HO-scale, and the Lionel O-27 model railroad trains and the vast array of train village items that hobbyist buy to give their set-ups pizzazz.

The next biggest seller is what are referred to as "plastics" in the hobby world -- that is the model cars, boats, and planes from almost any period in history. There is also a plastics line of figures of soldiers and battle weaponry, such as tanks, as well as a full line of paints for detailing the models.

"I have a couple of customers who come in every week and buy another kit. They have these elaborate dioramas set up in their homes. They like to add to it each week."

Rocket kits are also very popular, particularly among some of the shop's younger patrons.

"They have a lot of action to them. The youngsters like that. I have whole neighborhoods which come in here together and pick . . . rockets to shoot off together."

While model trains and the plastic modeling kits haven't changed all that much in recent years, the rocket hobby has been altered by technical improvements.

For example, a rocket hobbyist can indulge in the Astrocam 110 ($26.95). The rocket has a camera and film built into its tail end. As it reaches the zenith of its trajectory, the camera clicks a picture of the landscape below.

"Stuff like this have made rockets very popular," says Mr. Slapak.

Business has been busy during the Christmas season. Model railroad items, from the highly detailed N-scale trains to the vast array of train village accouterments, are big sellers right now.

Though business is good these days, Mr. Slapak is well aware of the tough times hobby shops have fallen on in the last decade.

"I like to tell people I'm part of a nearly extinct breed," says Mr. Slapak, an affable fellow whose shop has a military orderliness and cleanliness to it.

Mr. Ball at the retail hobby shop association estimates there are about 4,000 hobby shops still operating in the U.S.

Since he launched the business about 18 months ago, Mr. Slapak watched another hobby shop in Ellicott City go out of business.

The other hobby shop still operating in Howard County is Create-A-Hobby, located on the second floor of the Columbia Mall. That shop stocks a line of what are considered craft items, as well as a line of the "classic" hobbies.

In the Baltimore area, there are about a half-dozen true hobby shops left.

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