How a hobby store owner chugs through the economy

How a hobby store owner chugs through the economy

Long before Whistle Stop Hobbies became an Old Town fixture, owner Frank Kozuch got his start selling merchandise from an 8-foot table on the model train show circuit. 

After about 12 years of faithfully trekking out to meet with collectors and enthusiasts on the weekends, rolling profits back into inventory all the while, Kozuch decided to settle down in his native Alexandria in 2005. Though he still spends 30-odd weekends of the year on the road , customers can occasionally find him behind the counter of his South Royal Street shop, listening to sports radio while sorting and restocking merchandise. 

A lot of people think we’re just about trains, he said, amid shelves crammed with Lego kits, model rockets, puzzles and yes, plenty of model trains and accessories. 

I wanted it to be a hobby store and trying to find an old-fashioned name, Kozuch said. Whistle stop means a small town where the train doesn’t always stop, only if it’s signaled by a whistle … But the big thing for me is trying to get away from the train connotation. It’s a hobby shop.

Still, it was Kozuch’s lifelong passion for miniature locomotives that propelled him from a career in the computer industry to shopkeeper and full-time hobbyist. He got his first model train set, a Lionel, as an 18-month-old. His fascination with small-scale railways faded later in life, but was rekindled when he pulled the Lionel set out of the attic in the mid-80s.

He’s been chugging along ever since, but has slowed his pace lately. While the recent economic downturn hasn’t derailed Kozuch’s business, it has put a damper on sales. When it’s a decision between heating oil and a collectable costing hundreds, necessities tend to come first, he said. 

When people see three figures they get a little nervous, Kozuch said. They’re very cautious about what they spend their money on.

A recent hobby show in Omaha he attended attracted roughly 30,000 people, but they kept their wallets pocketed and their purses clasped, he said. High gas prices, uncertainty about the future and the weather last year’s snow, the summers oppressive heat and this winter’s bitter cold keep many potential customers at bay. 

And then there was the June robbery. On a bright Tuesday after Memorial Day, a robber brandishing a knife demanded an employee open the register. A scuffle ensued and the employee was forced to hand over the cash. A second fight broke out a short time later when the robber tried to put him in the store safe. 

Despite the daylight crime, the robber remains free as far as Kozuch knows. 

[He] didn’t get a whole lot of money, Kozuch said. Was it worth what would have happened had he been caught? I don’t think so … He got lucky.

But it’s not all bad news. There hasn’t been an incident since and mid-priced merchandise remains popular with his Old Town clientele despite the wavering economic climate. Kozuch caters to them, bringing any products he thinks will fly off the shelves, from paint-by-numbers kits to yo-yos. 

It’s too soon to say whether the tourist dollars will once again flow into his store come the warmer months, but when spring comes its safe to say Kozuch will still be behind his counter, greeting customers.