Enthusiasm turns a hobby into a business: All aboard!


June 25, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAM AND Debbie Geiser are model train aficionados. On Saturday, the Laurel residents displayed their wares at the Third Annual Friends of Laurel's Historic Main Street Antiques and Arts and Crafts Show.

The Geisers had antique Lionel model trains for sale, as well as a model train layout with two tracks filled with a dozen moving accessories.

They volunteered to appraise old trains brought to the show.

Model trains can be considerably more complex than the holiday choo-choo -- that desired and expensive gift that many of us recall.

In addition to the trains we remember, model train companies made accurate scale-models of famous trains, from the turn of the century to the present.

Collecting these can be a lifelong passion. Those who had trains as children, and those who wished they did but didn't, still collect these miniature marvels.

That's what the Geisers do.

According to Debbie Geiser, her husband got her interested in trains when they married two years ago. He was an avid enthusiast, collecting trains and selling some, first as a hobby and then as a profession.

The Geisers sell new and antique model trains out of their home. They go to train shows often. They are members of local model train associations and the Train Collectors of America -- the model train collectors' national organization.

"I think it's wonderful that there's some kind of toy that you don't have to grow out of. You can have it as an adult," says Debbie Geiser. She mentioned a 92-year-old customer who stops by to add to his train layout. He began collecting trains after he retired.

She often sees fathers and sons at area shows carefully pick out accessories for the family layout.

Debbie Geiser has her favorites among the many models she sells. For instance, she's partial to the Chessie trains -- models of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad that feature a sleeping kitten as the railroad's logo.

Both Lionel -- the most famous of the train manufacturers -- and Mike's Train House make these.

Of the two brands, Debbie Geiser says that while Lionel trains appreciate more on the secondary (collectors') market -- collectors know the brand -- she prefers the Mike's Train House models. She says Mike Wolf, the Columbia company's founder, was employed by Lionel for years. He started his own company -- now called MTH Electric Trains and located on Columbia Gateway Drive -- 11 years ago.

Debbie Geiser likes these trains for the realistic sounds they make. Aided by a computer chip, the trains can squeal their brakes and generate dispatcher "chatter" and conductor calls while running around the track, adding an extra dash of realism to the miniature world.

Attention to detail is something the Geisers know firsthand. They built an addition to their house to accommodate their 10-by-12-foot layout.

And naturally, they have all the best accessories.

There's a roundhouse where the trains change tracks, a firehouse where the fire engine rushes forward while a firefighter slides down a pole, gatemen who wave flags when the trains pass by and the usual assortment of tunnels and bridges.

While hobbyists sometimes crash their trains deliberately, Debbie Geiser says it's an extremely expensive sideline to the hobby. Premium starter train sets cost between $1,000 and $3,000.

For the novice, though, both Lionel and Mike's Train House offer beginner sets that run from about $150 to $200.

The Geisers say it is usually cheaper to buy these at a train show, where the sets can sell for $135, leaving the collector with money to spend on an accessory or two.

Most accessories are realistic representations of train life, but some include fantasy. Lionel made an aquarium car years ago, with a diorama of painted fish revolving inside the car.

The Geisers' portable display included a gateman and the Warner Brothers' cartoon figure Wiley E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

The Geisers made the portable layout to bring to the Laurel show. Debbie Geiser was shopping at L and L's Gourmet Gifts on Main Street when she spoke to Louise Eldridge, the shop's owner and chairwoman of the show. Eldridge persuaded Debbie Geiser to give train appraisals at the show.

The Geisers decided to pack their portable layout with as many moving parts and accessories as they could. Their two-train layout included a Halloween witch circling a haunted house, as well as Wiley E. Coyote.

According to Eldridge, attendance at the Laurel show exceeded expectations. Local antique dealers had to return several times to their shops for new items to restock their booths, as did several of the restaurant folks.

An antique car show was held in the morning, and the 18-piece Potomac Jazz Orchestra played in the afternoon.

"You would have thought that Glenn Miller was onstage," Eldridge said.

It was so successful, she said, that the Friends of Laurel Historic Main Street are considering putting on a jazz festival in the fall and a car show later in the year.

To contact the Geisers: 301-483-9766. Or, if you are a budding train aficionado, you can visit some of the many train shows in the area.

A large train show will be held at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium, July 31-Aug. 1.

Stop by the Geisers' booth to say hello.

The gremlins did it

The gremlins who inhabit computers can have a wicked sense of humor.

Fortunately, so does Myra Phelps who, for the second year, has been omitted from mention as one of the prime organizers of Savage Fest, our community's annual fair and block party.

A belated "thank you" to Myra for all her hard work.

The fair was terrific and couldn't have come off without you.

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