Posted on Sun, Dec. 25, 2005 Hobby shops no longer hip By Renee Koury KNIGHT RIDDER
Before Xbox and the Internet, children flocked to Bob and Jan Johnsons' hobby shop to stock up on airplane models and toy trains. Now they head to the video game store across the street.
For four decades, the couple helped parents hunt for that unique Christmas toy and aided model builders in the search for that hard-to-get chassis, perfect shade of racing-car paint or rare World War II fighter kit.
But the Johnsons are closing the San Antonio Hobby Shop in Mountain View -- one of the Bay Area's biggest -- after one last holiday season, another casualty of the digital onslaught.
"Thirty years ago, you couldn't get in the door of my shop because there would be 25 bicycles out front blocking the entrance, with all the kids coming in," said Bob Johnson, who started the business in 1965 fresh out of school, when he was 21 and Jan was 18. "Now, the kids are all playing with electronics, and the average age of my customers is probably 40 or 50."
Surviving the barrage of electronic gizmos and 3-D action video is a serious puzzle for businesses built on patience, a thousand pieces and a sticky tube of glue.
No one's done an official tally, but the number of hobby shops across the country appears to be dwindling, said Don Hendrick, president of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association in Illinois. More and more, hobby supplies are relegated to a shelf in a toy store. Six hobby shops closed in the past three years in his suburban town outside Chicago, Hendrick said, while just one opened.
Hobby shop owners are adapting by stocking up on what kids like: ready-made models that can be assembled in minutes, and fly or roll with remote controls.
"Kids today don't have the patience to sit there and glue things and wait for them to dry," Hendrick said. "They want something that they can snap together in 20 minutes out of the box so they can go out and fly it. Everything today is fast, fast, fast."
D&J Hobbies in Campbell built a TV ad campaign around the message that model making can be fast and easy. The ad features a black-and-white image of a 1950s dad struggling to build a model, while a color shot of a modern boy holds a plane already made. The slogan says, "We make it simple," said D&J owner Darrell Pozzi.
"We have to change with the times," he said. "If you stay with a horse and buggy, you can't sell it to a crowd that doesn't exist."
One day recently after school, a 6-year-old boy named Darren gravitated to the ready-made airplanes on San Antonio Hobby's emptying shelves when a large-scale model seaplane caught his eye. It was prebuilt.
Darren, with his mother, was the only child browsing Johnson's diminishing stock, alongside about 20 older men. There was Craig Jordan, a 55-year-old supervisor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who bought 13 aircraft models at San Antonio Hobby's going-out-of-business sale.
He's been shopping there for 30 years and building models since age 7. "I love to sit in front of the TV and put these together," he said. "They're a real conversation piece, because each plane tells you something about history and aviation."
Ed Doyle, 49, drove to Johnson's recently from San Carlos to buy a water-based acrylic for his model motorcycle. For 20 years, he's shopped at San Antonio Hobby for the paints, tiny brushes, markers and models that other shops don't have.
"Anything you want to find is here," he said. "Now, I don't know where I'll go."
But while only one child was in the hobby shop, the nearby video game store bristled with children, many trying out the new Xbox 360 on display.
"I like Lego too, but I like Xbox a little bit better," said 7-year-old Marcus Alvarado of Mountain View, who was masterminding an animated gun battle. His father, Tony Alvarado, said the lure of video games is strong.
"It's easier to push a button and watch everything happen," he said. "The little hobby shop doesn't stand a chance."
No one stepped up to buy the hobby shop from Johnson, 61, who said the nudge into retirement came when he suffered medical problems earlier this year. But his business already had slowed, he said, because of the dragging economy and competition from online sellers.
He and Jan started 40 years ago with 1,000 square feet in the San Antonio Shopping Center, then gradually spread out into their current store, which is 15 times bigger and about the size of a football field.
At the front of the store, an electric train chugs and whistles around a mountain village. Inside, model planes hang from the ceiling and wooden sailboats stand tilted inside glass cases. Toy train enthusiasts used to test models on another track inside.
San Antonio Hobby Shop has always stocked huge supplies of micro-tools, balsa wood, ready-made and die-cast toys. Now that it's closing, local hobbyists worry those supplies might be harder to find. Several shops remain in the region, including Pozzi's D&J Hobby, Castle Hobbies in San Jose and J&M Hobby House in San Carlos.
But self-acknowledged hobby store addict Alexander Cohen said the retirement of a reputable dealer is another sign of a graying pastime.
"I don't think I'm ever going to grow up," said Cohen, 49, who boasts about the miniature "airport" at his San Jose house, filled with toy planes. He said he spent $1,000 at San Antonio Hobby recently on specialized train tracks, railroad cars and aircraft kits.
"After this place closes, it'll be a terrible day."