MILLVALE, Pa. — When you walk into Esther’s Hobby Shop in this old river town on the banks of the Allegheny, your instinct is to wonder if this glorious step back in time is the last glimpse of a dying industry.
It only takes about five minutes — and a spray of customers ranging from eight years old, to a couple of Millennials, to several Baby Boomers who traveled all the way from Florida — to realize that instinct is wrong.
In an age of rapid automation that includes an addiction to handheld computers located in your iPhone and technological advances that usurp jobs and culture right before our eyes daily – Esther’s has found a way to bridge that transition from artisanship that could have died off to high technology that appeals to the young and not-so-young of the digital age.
All thanks to the owner, Bob Mehler, who has worked at Esther’s for 80 years.
“I was seven years old when my mother, Esther, opened this shop. It was 1938, and it began as a variety shop, with some models as well as coffee and a lunch counter,” Mehler explains as he gingerly fields questions from customers.
Dressed in a crisp white short-sleeve shirt with his first name embroidered on the right side and a train-themed tie, Mehler steps back and lets the customers move around the neatly stacked, highly organized shelves filled with model trains, tracks, scenery, plane kits ranging from the balsa-wood planes that used to fill kids’ Christmas stockings to elaborate high-tech models.
“Never rush people, never hover over people. Let them explore, enjoy, and find that thing that inspires them to build and create,” he says.
Like Esther’s, Millvale is a town in the middle of transition. The transition that appears to be going well, considering everything that has gone wrong for this town over the past few decades: job losses, a flood that wiped out half of the Main Street businesses, an aging population that was dying off.
For years, people have been writing off the town as mired in the past and unable to grow – sort of like model railroading, for which story after story suggests the hobby is dying and unable to sustain itself.
Both stories are only partly true. For 30 years, Millvale had been on the decline but — given its proximity to the river, a trail that connects to Washington, D.C., and its charming Main Street grid filled with historic buildings graced by unique architecture — young people noticed and started investing in the town.
There is Mr. Small’s Funhouse, a concert venue located in a converted church that also has two full-size recording studios; two art galleries; a French bakery; two diners, one that so enthralled then-candidate Barack Obama that he had them make pancakes at his first inauguration; a bird shop; an iconic vinyl store; a brand new coffee shop located in a former furniture store; a brewery that has a weekly food-truck event — all mixed in with old Millvale’s bars and restaurants.
There is even an ax-throwing club that just opened in the old ironworkers’ building.
Houses are big – most built before the turn of the 20th century that sit precariously on the rolling Allegheny Mountains surrounding Main Street and that are embarrassingly affordable.
Like Millvale, the obituary of model railroading has been written and re-written every year for the past 30 years. It is an obituary that is certainly premature; like our culture and our politics, the hobby is in a moment of great change, but nowhere near dying.
Often, our culture mirrors our politics. Sometimes, our politics echoes our culture: As we change and stretch and grow and shrink with each industrial shift in our culture, our politics reflects that.
Millvale and model railroading are perfect examples of that transition.
“Twenty years ago, there were 28 hobby shops in this county, nearly one in every small town. Now there are three. Does that mean less people are doing the hobby? I’m not sure. Maybe it means our shopping habits have changed? Maybe it means our population shifts are more the reason than lack of interest,” said Mehler.
Bob Leonard of Ft. Lauderdale visited the store on his way to Altoona, Pa., for a structure show. “What they have done with technology today to help the hobbyist to construct buildings is transforming the industry,” he explains. He and four friends marvel at Mehler’s stock as they walk up and down the aisles of the store.
Technology now allows savvy enthusiasts to run their trains from their iPhones, and 3-D printing will soon empower hobbyists to create scenery, custom trains, and track systems.
Mehler raised six children on the third floor of his business that kept them all fed, educated, and safe. He chokes up, recounting the highs and lows of his life here behind the counter of this hobby shop, from the struggles his mother faced to the loss of the love of his life nearly two decades ago.
“I still wear the ring I gave her attached to my tie,” he says, pointing to a ring attached to his colorful tie. “She looks over my shoulder every day,” he adds, pointing to a photo of her behind him at the counter.
Thirteen years ago, Hurricane Ivan delivered a devastating flood to Millvale’s main-street businesses; some never returned. One of Mehler’s train displays, under the pressure of the flood water, collided with the glass of his front window and floated off down the street, swept up by the dangerous current.
“I could have closed, but why would I give up? Yes, things have changed, but you change with them. There is only so much fight you can give, and then, you figure out a way to survive. When you stop fighting and start adapting, most of the time you find success,” he says.
Our culture and our politics often project a what’s-in-it-for-me or what-am-I-entitled-to attitude. Had Mehler or the town of Millvale held those kinds of transactional beliefs, Millvale would have died, and this region would have only two hobby shops.
Instead, both the town and the man embraced a painful but necessary change that allowed the intersection of old and new to flourish.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.