The average age of the model-train enthusiast is typically over fifty. He’s part of a legion, mainly male, of WWII-era kids and early boomers whose childhood dream it was to unwrap a Lionel train set on Christmas morning. Some of them never abandoned that dream, and even after realizing it, continued to build on it over the decades. They became model-train experts who don engineer suits and argue the merits of N-scale versus HO-scale or Atlas versus Kato while overtaking their basements with handbuilt, detailed dioramas.
If you ask Kevin Ruble, new owner of the former Caboose Hobbies on South Broadway (now retooled as simply “Caboose” at its new Lakewood location), they’re old but they’re not dead yet, and with his help, they’ll still able to toot their horns down in the basement well into the ascending century, right along with new generations of what are lovingly called “foamers” in the model-train community.
He should know, because he’s one of them.
“I was a customer at Caboose Hobbies for several years,” Ruble explains. “I’m a fourth-generation railroad guy. I even owned a real railroad in the Midwest — Marquette Rail in Grand Rapids, Michigan — and when we sold that company in 2012, I had moved to Colorado and thought maybe I’d end up doing something else in that space.” Passion runs deep among train nuts, he adds. “I'm a railroad enthusiast, and that’s how I got into owning a real one, but I’m just as enthusiastic about models. It’s a genetic defect. I’ve been this way since birth — I like to call it ‘diesel cell syndrome,’ because diesel runs in my veins.”
But it’s hard to fault the model-train fans who showed up February 25 for the grand opening of Ruble’s resurrected Caboose location in Lakewood. Lines of them were strung around the building waiting to get in, eventually forming another conga line indoors to make their purchases. Observing their childlike joy, one gains an immediate appreciation for what fuels their obsession and how serious they are about train lore, size specifications, mechanics and the focused acuity of model-building.
“For some, it’s just the excitement of seeing a train go around and around, but there’s a spectrum to that, too,” notes Ruble. “There are as many different reasons for that passion for trains as there are people. And I think there’s certainly a level of nostalgia.
“In my case, I grew up in the Midwest, and as an enthusiast, I’m actually re-creating a point in my life,” he continues. “My interest is in re-creating specific scenes from my childhood and the town where my parents grew up.”
Whatever inspires them, Ruble says his job is to serve everyone who walks into Caboose, from newbies to old hands: “I see our role as supporting our tribe of rail enthusiasts. There’s a type of store in our business that caters to that aging person by primarily trying to re-create nostalgia for steam locomotives and trains from the ’40s and ’50s. They don't necessarily solicit or cater to the interests of younger people with blue hair and tats. But there are as many millennials involved in this habit as there are older folks. They love to do creative things with their hands, and this is a hobby that’s perfect for that. I love to see those guys shopping in our store. A young guy with green hair who came to our opening dropped 600 bucks for one locomotive.”
And women and children are not excepted, adds Ruble, who hopes to expand his kids’ section, which was a hit at the opening. “That informed who we hired. We want people to feel welcome at Caboose. I kind of get the fact that the fun of model railroading is infectious, so we looked for railroad enthusiasts who also have experience in the business and can engage anyone who comes in the door. Our average age of help is fifteen to twenty years younger than the staff at the old store.
“I knowingly knew when hiring them that I was leaving some experience in model railroading behind, but I was also giving up the idea of customers being ignored when they walk into the store. That’s not going to work on my shift. I looked for people with the right demeanor, who have no less passion about trains but won’t grumble at you if you ask a question.”
Ruble is also modernizing the business by growing the range and scope of its online presence with a new e-commerce platform and the ability to order items not in stock in a timely fashion. “What we’re doing is redefining what it means to be a specialty retailer for our niche,” he maintains. “We’re leading the way; this is omni-channel retailing, bringing the whole space of railroad hobbyists into the 21st century.”
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Caboose, 10800 West Alameda Avenue in Lakewood, is open Monday through Saturday beginning at 10 a.m., and at noon on Sundays. For more information, visit the website and/or Facebook page or call 303-777-6766.