AT A SATURDAY afternoon birthday party, dozens of tiny tots zoom to and fro in Choo Choo Bob’s Train Store in St. Paul. They play with wooden trains on low tables, supplying their own sound effects. They watch with wide eyes as electric trains whir over bridges and through tunnels. Every time Thomas the Tank Engine circles the track, a kneeling toddler in plaid pants and patent leather shoes leans over to giggle and wave as the locomotive passes. ¶ Bob Medcraft oversees this bustling domain. Dressed in a sweatshirt and rumpled pants, the store’s owner is a fun-loving kid grown tall. He grins like he did in the childhood snapshots displayed on the wall under a sign that reads “Trained at an early age.” ¶ “I’ve always thought trains were cool,” Medcraft says, noting that his grandfather was a railroad man and that many of his boyhood friends in Hastings shared his obsession. But trains were toys, not a prospective career. Schooled in business and journalism, he became a freelance film producer. He scouted locations, worked on movies, and produced music videos starring such groups as the Barenaked Ladies, the Flaming Lips, and Prince. But that Hollywood-style glamour hardly compares to his dream of keeping train lust alive.
“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.