Model train mecca changing tracks from longtime store downtown to an undesignated spot in Towson-Timonium area

More than a pastime: Mini-trains moving out

July 10, 2006|By RON HOLLANDER | RON HOLLANDER,SUN REPORTER

Never mind the trains, they want the bricks. Yes, the bricks.

Forget that they're no more unusual than any one of a million rail spikes securing a length of track anywhere in America.

Doesn't matter that they're painted red.

The customers of MB Klein--downtown Baltimore's model train store founded in 1913 and as venerated as a Lionel steam engine -- are so devoted to this mecca of model railroading that they want souvenir bricks from the building when the store moves next June.

A few bricks are already missing from the southeast corner of the 19th-century, two-story building that with its brick sills and green, wood-framed windows looks as if it were transported from a model railroad's industrial section. But Ted Klein, 70, the owner and son of the founder, said the seekers of relics haven't really descended yet.

"Probably just got loose, or maybe some of the homeless around here knocked them out," explained Klein, a dapper man who dropped out of Forest Park High School to help his father, Morris Benjamin, in 1953, and who has been at the throttle ever since.

The homeless might be as much a thing of the past at North Gay and Saratoga streets as 1:48 scale locomotives, once MB Klein relocates to the Towson-Timonium area. The store and surrounding deserted factory buildings have been assembled into a 40,000-square-foot parcel by Baltimore developer Richard W. Naing who says he plans to build a 40- to 60-story, middle-income apartment building by 2011 on the site abutting the Jones Falls Expressway.

Neither Naing nor Klein would divulge how much the store site is bringing to Klein, who owns the land as well as the business. Naing said that based on the $100-$200 per square foot he's paying for surrounding properties, the 4,000-square-foot site could be worth $400,000 to $800,000.

Meanwhile, train fans are trying to keep their hobby on track, despite the notice on the store's glass door offering a $500 gift certificate to the customer who finds a suitable new home for the business.

A model fire engine and two Coca-Cola delivery trucks clutched to his chest, longtime customer Tom Martin, 64, said he has been buying trains and railroad layout accessories such as toy vehicles and miniature figures at the store for 50 years.

Turning to Klein, Martin said, "I guess it was your dad sold me two transformers for $50. I carried them home on the bus."

Martin, a retired florist who lives alone, couldn't estimate how many trains he has in his one-bedroom, West Canton apartment, but he said it was enough that he has pulled his window shades down permanently so he can run shelves with trains on them across the window.

For many, model trains are as much a generational divide as Frank Sinatra or The Beatles were. "Most of our customers have gray hair now," Klein said.

Martin readily agreed, wrinkling his nose at the mention of computers, although the back room of the store in which he stood was ringed with them, and half the store's business is now mail-order over the Internet.

"Come on," the white-stubbled Martin cajoled from under his O's cap, "a computer doesn't have the charisma of trains. You can't watch it run. You can't put it on a shelf. But you build a layout, and it's your entire fantasy land, your Disneyland, right in front of you." Before he left, Martin urged Klein to have a "really big layout to entertain the kids" in the new store. Klein said he hoped to.

While toy trains have been at the center of his entire life, Klein is far less sentimental about the trains than his customers are, or even many of his 30 full- and part-time employees, some of whom were customers before becoming workers.

"Your father gave me lollipops when I was 2," recalled store clerk Louis Wolfe, "and my mom bought me Lionels here because I was good and took care of my grandparents." With the unerring recall that model railroaders reserve for the most beloved of their childhood totems, Wolfe remembered that the engine was a Milwaukee Road, that it cost $51.99, "and the passenger cars were $18, each".

Klein is used to such displays of emotion, and though he does not share them, he understands that they are the basis for the success of his business. "We are a Baltimore landmark," he said. "Anyone with children older than yuppies knows of us." But Klein has no hallowed memories of trains uniting him with his father, as the Lionel train catalogs promised for decades.

An only child, he was the scion of a toy train empire at a time when they were an important gift of boyhood. But Klein said the one simple steam freight train he had at home was "no big deal." He can't recall exactly what model it was, nor does he still have it.

Yet it was Klein who persuaded his father to slowly convert what was founded as a hardware store and locksmith shop to a train store, a change that was effected entirely in the mid-1970s when a previous manager's mantra of GROTH -- Get Rid Of The Hardware -- finally became a reality.

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