The average model railroader is 62 years old, but on most Saturday mornings at Choo Choo Bob’s on St. Paul’s Marshall Avenue, that figure is lower—much lower. Owner Bob Medcraft and his employee Paul Howe—better known as “Engineer Paul”—welcome young children to the store with a weekly storytime and singalong, though the store also serves adults who spend vast sums on their detailed layouts. “We are trying to achieve a peaceful coexistence between the serious hobbyists and the kids who want to play with toy trains,” says Medcraft.
Trains have long been a cherished childhood toy, and on a recent Saturday morning the crowd was full of smiles as Engineer Paul strummed his guitar and sang “Down by the Station.” Howe remembers getting his first train set at age eight. Wearing blue and white striped overalls, a conductor’s hat, and a red bandana tied around his neck, Engineer Paul is the face of Choo Choo Bob’s. After retiring from a job with the federal government, Howe called Medcraft to apply for the job when he saw signs for the opening of the store just over three years ago.
“This is as close to a rock star as I’m ever going to be at this point,” Howe jokes. Engineer Paul’s fan base consists of dozens of children who stare in awe as he operates a model train set. (Last year the store hosted 180 children’s birthday parties.) Howe gets hugs and even Valentines from these small admirers; one parent told him that when her son received a toy train on Christmas he exclaimed, “I knew it! Santa shops at Choo Choo Bob’s!” Howe also stars in The Choo Choo Bob Show, a half-animated, half-real show about trains, which he and Medcraft hope to get on television.
Medcraft hit upon the idea for Choo Choo Bob’s several years ago; when the space on Marshall opened up, Medcraft jumped on the opportunity. Having rode the rails with his grandfather, who worked for a railroad, Medcraft harbored a love of trains throughout his life.
Choo Choo Bob’s boasts a beautiful set with a train chugging through the heart of a mountain, curving around its base, and off into a town. Though Howe and Medcraft don’t treat the store’s set as a museum piece, Howe notes that “the really hardcore train guys will never touch the train.” The serious enthusiasts move the cars along the track only with the use of remote controls.
Model train sets inspire nostalgia in many people, and television shows and books—Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Thomas the Tank Engine, The Little Engine That Could—mythologize the railroad for young children who may have never touched or even seen an actual train. Medcraft and Howe hope to turn some of these youngsters into hobbyists who care about the intricacies of the craft. While proudly supporting the model train culture, they are happy to occupy the space between tottering, haphazard railroaders and meticulous, skillful hobbyists.
“The point is to come here and have a good time,” Medcraft says, emphasizing the hands-on nature of model train sets. “There is a lot of value to having something to touch, hold, build, and play with—something not just on a television screen.”
Ellen Frazel (email@example.com) is a student at Macalester College and an intern at the Daily Planet.