Allen Drucker, former owner of Allied Model Trains, is shown before he sold his store after 32 years in Culver City. The store exterior is modeled after Union Station and easily one of the biggest model train stores in the country. - Los Angeles Times

The last stop

CULVER CITY, Calif. — All aboard! Allied Model Trains has left the station.

One of the nation's largest model train stores has closed its longtime home in Culver City — a half-block-long replica of Los Angeles' Union Station. And fading along with it, says owner Allen Drucker, is the model train industry.

"It's just a dying hobby," said Drucker, 58. "I always told myself I didn't want to be the old man running the train store." After 32 years at the miniature railroad hub, Drucker has sold to new owners, who will move the business to a smaller Art Deco-style building he owns across the street. He'll rent the Union Station look-alike to a camera shop.

With real estate values rising and competition from the Internet barking at his heels, he decided it was time to sell his business — a favorite stop for local boys and girls and train buffs for generations.

Among them were celebrities including Frank Sinatra, who had a building shaped like a train station at his desert estate.

"He had a huge Lionel layout and all along the walls were shelves full of trains," said Drucker, who visited Sinatra's home several times. "He had a real Santa Fe caboose too, as his workout room."

Sinatra's collection was acquired by Canadian business mogul Jim Pattison, along with Sinatra's desert home. The crooner was one of several celebrity train collectors who shopped at Allied.

Among Drucker's other customers, he said, are musicians Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen, and actor Donald Sutherland.

Model railroading dates to the early 20th century, when Lionel introduced its first electric-powered train. The business enjoyed a golden age during the 1920s, when heavy metal locomotives and cars were the most prized possessions of many boys.

After U.S. model train production stopped for World War II, the industry boomed again in the 1950s when trains were the No. 1 toy for boys. Video games are among the many competitors for children's time and interest today, so the industry's fan base is fading. Model Railroader magazine's circulation has dropped to 162,000 from 272,000 in 1993, a spokeswoman said. Average railroaders, however, spend an estimated $1,555 a year on their hobby, almost twice as much they did in the early 1990s.

"It has become increasingly more difficult to run a single store like mine in a major metropolitan area," Drucker said.

Among his challenges have been paying electric bills of $3,000 a month to help keep his display trains running and maintaining a staff big enough to look after the place.

Then there is the looky-loo hobbyist who, he said, comes in, checks out the latest model trains with powerful lights and digital sounds, but buys almost nothing.

"He says, 'Wow, I would love that.' Then he walks out of here with a tube of glue and a magazine and buys it online from some guy working out of a barn in the middle of Kansas," Drucker said.

But the real problem with the model train industry, Drucker said, is that its biggest fans are growing older and haven't been able to pass along much of their passion to the next generations.

Customer Randy Miller endures gentle mockery from his children. " 'He's 55 and still playing with trains,' my daughter says. 'I think he's losing it.' "

Miller drove down to check out Allied's closing sale and walked out with $300 worth of Lionel boxcars in a big sack. He's restoring his late father's old train set and enjoying memories, recently using his skills as a machinist to restore a toy water tower his brother broke in the 1960s.

"My father never got over that," Miller said. "Now it's fixed." One hobbyist who is trying to encourage another generation of enthusiasts is Steve Lind, a retired Marine pilot and commercial banker who says he owns thousands of miniature train cars and is grateful that his wife, Nancy, "puts up with all my toys." He had his 4-year-old grandson, Ryan, in tow at Allied to look at some S-gauge rigs chugging effortlessly through a Lilliputian landscape.

"I'm getting him started on trains," said Lind, who grew up in Chicago watching the Burlington railroad. "He's going to inherit quite a few."

So although the fan base is aging, the hobby should always hold appeal for some grown-ups who want to escape the grinding uncertainties of life, said Brent Lambert of the National Model Railroad Association.

"You can create your own little world you can get away to," he said, "where things are exactly the way you want them to be."

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