Hobby evolves into train shows for Greenbergs

April 25, 1995|By Heather Reese | Heather Reese,Contributing writer

Bruce and Linda Greenberg have turned childhood hobbies into a successful business as owners of Greenberg Shows, a Sykesville company that organizes toy train and dollhouse shows.

The Greenbergs' first toy train show was in 1976 at the Ellicott City Armory. They now do 35 shows a year in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

The Greenbergs also are expanding their shows into convention centers and fairgrounds in such states as California and Texas. But their annual show at the Timonium Fairgrounds -- the closest to their home -- continues to be their biggest.

"I never expected that it would grow so much," Mrs. Greenberg, president, said of the business.

The organization specializes in toy trains, dollhouses, miniatures, railroad collectibles and toys. Most shows also have a "train doctor" on the premises to help fix broken locomotives.

The shows began as a way for the couple's Greenberg Publishing to make the public aware that its specialty books about toy trains still were being produced.

"We thought that the shows were the best way to show people," Mrs. Greenberg said.

The publishing company, started in 1975, has since been sold to Kalmbach Publishing Co.

But Greenberg shows have grown into exhibitions of items from their business and local dealers.

Mrs. Greenberg said they try to offer something for everyone, and if she and her husband know that a dealer who specializes in one type of train is going to be at a show, they will be sure not to bring a similar display of their own.

"We try to identify the expectations of our customers, and we as a group determine what we are doing to meet those needs," she said.

That's not always easy, she said, because shows average 4,000 to 6,000 patrons on a weekend.

Greenberg also features a bookstore that sells how-to books and collectors guides. The majority of the books are Greenberg books, but if the couple see a book they believe would interest customers, they sell it, too. If the author is from the area, they try to arrange a book signing.

Like preparing for Easter

Mrs. Greenberg compared putting on a show to preparing for a festive occasion, such as Christmas or Easter. "It's amazing how much preparation goes into the events," she said.

Greenberg has advertising, operations and administration departments to handle the shows. Before any event, postcards are mailed to regular customers. The company's mailing list contains about 90,000 names, "so we have to know in advance what we'll have," Mrs. Greenberg said.

The Harford County Train Club usually sets up a large-gauge train display outside if the weather permits, and the shows display a 56-foot Lionel train layout that Mrs. Greenberg calls "very, very impressive."

Organization is a must, because most dealers like to have the same tables every year. This task falls to the local staff, which usually consists of four or five people. The staff arranges the tables according to a floor plan, puts dealers' names on the tables and sets up Greenberg train layouts.

An operational manager and a registrar make sure that dealers' fTC needs are met. They're also responsible for finding dealers to participate.

The registrar and operational manager search for dealers through the Train Collectors' Association, personal contacts and magazine advertisements. They also read Yellow Pages in any new area.

Occasionally, Mrs. Greenberg said, people approach her at shows to inquire about getting a table at the next show.

Some dealers come back year after year. Al Rudman, owner of Side Track, a hobby shop in St. Mary's County, has participated since the beginning, and attends shows in many locations. He said he has had tables at Greenberg shows in Timonium, Virginia Beach, Pittsburgh and Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Rudman said he prefers the Greenberg shows over others.

"The Greenberg shows have a much stronger format than the other shows and a lot more people come in," he said.

Mr. Rudman also said he gets post-show business from people who see him at the shows.

Greenberg profits come primarily from show visitors and dealers buying tables. "Our shows are very expensive to run and there is a lot of personal attention," Mrs. Greenberg said.

Greenberg advertises its shows in hobby magazines and local newspapers and publishes a newsletter, Train of Thought. The newsletter also provides hotel information for people who come to the shows.

Loyal following

Over the years, Greenberg has acquired a loyal following of dealers and vendors. Mrs. Greenberg said some dealers travel with the shows, saying that they will go anywhere that Greenberg goes.

Dorothy Atkinson said she has participated in Greenberg shows for three years and enjoys participating in them because they are a great way to meet people.

Mrs. Atkinson, who owns Family Hobbies in Arbutus, does demonstrations for children and teaches them how to make miniature dollhouse accessories.

"I enjoy doing the demonstrations," she said. "It's a lot of fun. We key the demonstrations so children can do them."

She said many children return to see what they can make that's different.

Her Family Hobby shop now is for sale but she said she intends to continue doing demonstrations.

Greenberg also sponsors events in the off-season, "so we don't become too complacent in the slow time," Mrs. Greenberg said.

For four years, Greenberg has held an auction at a local fire hall to sell trains and toys.

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