A St. Paul film producer turned conductor steers trains into town
“I’m just this guy who has completely lost his mind, who has this store and is driving his wife insane. I thought it would be the antithesis of being in the film business, but it’s exactly like the film business,” he says, bemoaning the equally risky, vulnerable lot of retail entrepreneurs.
Carving out a customer base is his challenge. Most model railroaders are in their sixties, he notes, glancing at the gray-haired collectors perusing the shelves while birthday-party-goers buzz by their knees. Many train stores already cater to the hobbyists. In fact, it was a “We are not Toys ‘R’ Us” warning sign he encountered in one store that inspired him to introduce the World’s Greatest Hobby to younger generations in a different way—by letting them touch the engines and cars.
Medcraft spent five years searching for the perfect location. He found it at 2050 Marshall Avenue, an accessible storefront close to Izzy’s Homemade Ice Cream. He enlisted some film-biz buddies to help design the décor and opened Choo Choo Bob’s in October 2005.
He lifts a shiny silver Crusader from its bubble wrap. “This is a break-the-Santa’s-bank kind of toy,” he says, handing off the pricey piece to Engineer Paul, a costumed employee. Medcraft hooks an older engine up to a circling train. Whistles blow, all aboard is called, and smoke rings belch from the Pennsylvania Limited’s stack.
“ ’Moke!” shouts a riveted red-haired child. (Liquid smoke comes in different scents, Medcraft whispers: bacon and eggs, cinnamon, diesel. This one stinks; he waves it away. “Can you imagine this filling up your house?”)
Medcraft is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for his business, which has steadily grown in the last year. His return customers keep him enthusiastic. “There’s just something about being able to move rivers and mountains and design your own world. I feel like an empire builder,” he grins. “Just like James J. Hill.”
Cathy Madison is a writer in Minneapolis.