It always seemed to be a damp December evening when my father escorted me to Heller's Govans Hardware Store on York Road for Christmas browsing. There, amid the saws and paint cans, were miniature yards full of catsup red cabooses, yellow cattle wagons and silver passenger cars.
The store had an odor of smoke pellets, machine oil and turpentine. Maybe only the scent of a fresh balsam Christmas tree can match that odor for memories, better if the two are mixed in the same room.
We were not alone that night.
It seemed as if half of Baltimore was watching the train run in
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 45 years.
"The new Lionel catalog was treasured reading for many boys, including myself. One had to be prompt, for they were usually gone by the first part of December. These wish books were treasured. I read them over and over until the covers fell off and the pages grew loose," he said.
Mr. Genthner recalls Baltimore miniature railroad retailing in the 1940s and 1950s, when trains were so universal that many shops kept 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 located downtown, French's was popular with anyone who loved old trains, for the place seemed to retain the same 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 Baltimore fire.
Amidst Park Avenue's Chinese grocery stores and restaurants XTC were two train and hobby shops -- Goffman's and the Spot Hobby Shop.
The department stores carried Lionels and American Flyers during the Christmas 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.
The scene was far different not far from City Hall, where 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 very 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.
"At Christmastime, most dime stores sold items for Christmas gardens," Mr. Genthner said. "The old Crown and Woolworth's in Waverly were my headquarters for these supplies, the evergreen trees made out of wire brush which were covered with artificial snow. The trees came in several sizes and had red circular wooden bases. They did not last for more than two or three holiday seasons before the snow fell off and the trees began to lose their shape."
Perhaps the toniest of all the city's railroad shops was Lloyd's, located 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 adults.
Lloyd's was the graduate school of the train academies.
I once walked in and spotted a scale model of a Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis interurban electric car.
This custom-made beauty was not something ever to be found in commonplace Lionel catalog.
The WB&A, by the way, ran on what is now the southern leg of the Central Light Rail Line.
Part of its name, the Baltimore and Annapolis, is remembered in the ever-popular Anne Arundel County bike and hiking path.
In Catonsville, Earl Dew's Sport Shop had a good inventory of Lionel trains, bicycles and Ping Pong sets. He would keep the goods his customers selected until Christmas Eve so that children would not find out what gifts they were getting.
But many a Baltimorean's first train probably came from a small neighborhood hardware store, such as Clarence G. Neubauer & Son at 1700 Gorsuch Ave. in Waverly.
"One incident I recall happened about 1955," Mr. Genthner said. "The salesman was trying to impress a customer with the durability of Lionel rolling stock when he took a double-dome tank car, threw it on the floor and then stepped on it. The little car creaked a bit, but otherwise survived the mishandling. I do not know whether this dramatic presentation resulted in a sale."