The Trains Still Run on Time at Sattler's Hobby Shop

"Kids interested in model railroading now are 55," owner Bruce Kohler says.

A visit to Sattler's train shop, a fixture on Haddon Avenue since 1954, is both a step back in time and a glimpse of what's new.

For model railroaders, it's an essential stop for new trade magazines, new train elements or accessories for platforms. For guys who just like to hang out and talk train, it's a cozy spot with lots of easy banter.

Bruce Kohler of Oaklyn, who bought the shop from the original owner (and never considered changing the name to his own), shares duties several days a week with Ed Styan. Together they're the Frick and Frack of the tiny-track world, often leaning on the front counter as they chat with regular customers and one another.

Kohler remembers working in the shop when he was in high school, 55 years ago. He's quick to acknowledge that the market has changed.

“Kids interested in model railroading now are 55,” he said, noting that the attraction of Internet and computer games has drained interest. “Most of our customers are like us: gray hair or no hair.”

Even so, according to statistics of the National Railroad Association, the hobby has about 19,000 active members nationally. 

The shop is busy when new models come out, like the Pennsylvania Reading Seashore rail diesel car that was released in August. Selling for $116, it's a scale model of the passenger car that ran through Haddonfield. That rail service stopped when the PATCO High-Speedline opened. 

“Next year, I'll look at the books and ask, 'Why did we do so well in the late summer?' [and] then I'll remember that car,” said Kohler.

Little engines that could in the age of video games

Big sellers continue to be locomotives with sound, said Styan, who went to work for Kohler when he retired from Sears. Although neon signs outside the shop advertise it as a hobby shop, it's strictly for model railroaders. 

Items are sold on the Internet, but at Sattler's, you'll get a chance to try out an item before taking it home. A small platform in the middle of the shop is available for testing equipment.

A stream of customers visits the shop to poke around among items for their platform displays, like Plasticville stores and houses. Most items now are sold without a need to assemble them, and their detail is remarkable: on "Granny's House," a quilt airs on a porch railing as a dog sleeps on the steps. 

The shop is a regular stop for UPS, mostly to supply customers who have relocated out of the immediate area.

“Every day there are four or five packages that go out,” said Kohler.

New stock arrives almost daily.

Here, you won't find train sets for young children, like Thomas the Tank Engine, and Kohler will buy equipment in good condition from people trying to downsize—often widows who are stumped over what to do with their husbands' collections. 

Both locomotives and cars now are made of plastic, not metal.

“You get better detail that way,” said Styan. 

One section of the side wall in the shop is filled with shelves holding about 150 cars assembled by the two men.

“All those screws.... They were the glory days of this hobby,” said Styan. 

“Computers have ruined a lot of hobbies," Kohler said. "Parents don't spend Thanksgiving pulling out the boxes of trains to put on a platform. We would take the furniture off the porch and that would be the train area until Christmas."

Kohler smiles as he remembers seeing trails of the mica that decorated the tiny houses and surface of the train platform throughout his childhood home in Haddonfield.

“Months later, you'd see that sparkle every time the sun changed direction,”  he recalled, remembering that it frustrated his mother. 

Tom Houck of Cherry Hill, one of shop's frequent customers, described the visit as his “low-calorie lunch.”

“They have the best prices and they're easy to deal with," Houck said. "This the lowest-price train hobby store on the East Coast,” he said. 

“You can never have too much of this stuff,” said another midday visitor, Bill Repholz of Merchantville.

“It's history,” he said, describing himself as “a Lionel guy.”

Repholz made it a point to show off the old wall telephone in the front of the store, with the number listed as Ulysses 4-7136. That number still works.

Sattler's Hobby Shop at 14 Haddon Ave., Westmont, is open Monday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday shop hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m.


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