Talking Shop

When I was a little girl, my grandfather had a train table. Somehow, though, the word "table" doesn't do it justice: The site was an entire miniature town and took up more than half the basement. This fantasy place had a lake that was dotted with sailboats in summertime, a ballpark where tiny kids played softball, and a Main Street lined with stores named after his grandchildren: Julie's Grocery and Kate's Kitchen. Wrought-iron streetlights came on at nighttime -- which was whenever we flipped the lights off. And during the winter, the town square was decorated with a huge (by comparison, of course) Christmas tree strung with twinkling white lights.

Then there were the trains. I remember sitting on my grandpa's lap and running the switches, speeding up the electric locomotive as it came out of the mountain pass, pushing a red button to sound the engine's horn and dropping the safety gates to keep the little cars from crossing the tracks. I still recall the pleasant aroma: a combination of grease, fresh paint and grandpa's aftershave.

Caboose Hobbies caters to people with a passion for creating such tiny worlds, moving or otherwise. People like my grandmother, for instance, who used the other half of the basement to fabricate a sprawling dollhouse complete with a front-porch swing, a goldfish bowl and a roaring fireplace. It's for anyone who gets excited about miniature shopping carts, tiny windshield wipers and Lilliputian beer bottles. (For the more exotic-minded, Caboose stocks diminutive cheetahs, giraffes and lions, too.)

"We've got just about everything," says Tammy Charbonneau, the store's general manager and daughter of owner Duane Miller.

Foremost, though, are the trains: row after row of shelves stacked high with engines and freight cars. Clearly, the pastime is "more than just running a toy train around a tree," says Miller. "It's for people who like history and take enjoyment in building things."

To that end, Caboose has books on historic railroads like the Rio Grande and the Santa Fe, along with an assortment of more than 100 monthly train magazines. For good measure, there are also train videos, a mail-order center, a repair shop and a kids' section, where pint-sized conductor uniforms hang. "We're billed as the world's largest train store," says Miller. For the true collectors, there are custom-made brass locomotives for more than $10,000.

Founded in 1938 and bought by the Miller family in 1954, the company is being passed down the old-fashioned way. "It's a family-owned business with four generations still working here," says Miller. "My 97-year-old father still comes in once a week, and my grandson is a cashier."

Some days, Miller worries about the future of the model-train business. "We have a hard time getting children into the toy-train market these days because they're so interested in electronics," he says. "Hobbies teach people how to use their hands to build things." He finds the lack of young interest sad. "Who is going to do the building in the future?" he wonders.

It's a valid query. But personally, I know that tucked far back in the corner of my spare closet is a three-story Victorian dollhouse, white with blue shutters, that my grandpa built for me for my fourteenth birthday. At the time, I remember being disappointed in the present; I was in a rush to grow up, and he had built me something that I viewed as childish. Maybe now it's time to sweep away the cobwebs and give my dollhouse some tender loving care. After all, I saw some cherry pies at Caboose that would look perfect cooling in the kitchen window.

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Julie Dunn
Contact: Julie Dunn