Twenty years ago, the model train show looked like it might succumb to the convenience of eBay and the online marketplace. While some still enjoy hunting for bargains online, train shows found their footing and have became stronger than ever. Then global pandemic restrictions forced almost all local train shows to shut down or postpone through 2020. Even headed into 2021, it was hard to plan out six or even three months ahead, and many events were canceled. But like the crocus that reappears after every hard winter, the train show has flowered again. The weekends are again filled with dozens of shows around the country, large and small.
We don’t know when or where the first model train show was held, but we can remember going to our first shows back in the 1960s, which not only gives you a hint of our ages but tells you how long we’ve been playing with trains (or at least buying and selling them at these shows). Sometimes called “flea markets” and sometimes called “swap meets,” it was common to find listings for hundreds of such shows across the country on any given weekend.
Train shows are held almost anywhere that has space for vendors’ tables and room for crowds to mill around and see what’s being offered. We’ve attended shows in union halls and county fairgrounds, in church basements and hotel ballrooms, in pole barns and trolley barns, in roundhouses and old railroad depots. Sometimes they are held outdoors or in tents, if the weather cooperates.
The beauty of train shows is that they offer model railroaders a chance to find that gem they’ve been seeking for years, and maybe a chance to get it on the cheap. For those who find they have excess equipment, it’s an opportunity to unload it and fund the next round of hobby purchases. For those switching eras, or scales, it’s a chance to do so relatively easily. For everyone looking for deals, there’s always a possibility of one at the next table or in the next aisle. There’s the excitement of the hunt, the instant gratification of success, the joy of possession. And let’s not forget the smugness of (sometimes) avoiding sales tax.
A model train show comes in many flavors. There are giant ones held in big-city convention centers that draw visitors from around the world. And there are small ones with maybe 100 attendees in small cities and towns across North America. Some shows specialize in scale models, others exclusively in toy trains and tinplate. There are shows for narrow gauge, trolleys and transit, and steam. And some are a mix of all of the above, representing a diverse cross-section of the hobby.
Yet, in the spring of 2020, all this came to a sudden halt. Events planned for years and shows that had been held for decades closed their doors. Vendors and attendees alike were set adrift. That search for railroad goodies was taken away from us. No more deals. No more searching for that Holy Grail. No manufacturers to visit to learn about their latest releases. No chance to get rid of your late Uncle Stanley’s American Flyer trains to buy new Accurail cars for your HO empire. You were stuck at home, and maybe you dipped your pinky toe back into the online marketplace, but it wasn’t the same.
But now train shows are back! Events by the score have returned to those empty ballrooms and fairgrounds, and thousands of model railroaders have flocked to them. But something changed during those months of abstinence. A new attitude seems to have spread among those thousands of attendees. It’s one of happiness at seeing old friends and acquaintances you haven’t seen in more than a year. It’s the joy of being on the search again for that prized tank car or rare locomotive. That old saying that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” seems to be true.
For the vendors and casual sellers, the news is even better. The regulars are back not only with better attitudes but with more money. Lots of it. After all, for months there’s been nowhere to spend it. Restaurants and bars were closed, so no eating out. Nothing was spent on vacations and resorts and hotels. No cruise ships sailed and few planes flew. And to top it all off, Uncle Sam kept sending us stimulus checks.
So now sellers are reaping the rewards. Buyers, with good attitudes and renewed optimism, and with pockets full of money, are buying all that stuff they couldn’t buy for the past year-and-a-half. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Yep, the model train show is back. And we’re darn happy about it.
—David Richter and Scott Williamson