From the Contra Costa Times -Craig
Posted on Sun, Dec. 25, 2005
Hobby shops no longer hip
By Renee Koury
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
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
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
"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
"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."