Warren Hatch is an enthusiast and ultimate defender of the dying hobby of model railroading. A model railroader since the age of 7, Hatch found a way to make a career out of what he loves by opening Trains West Inc., a vast store that sells only model trains and their accessories, 14 years ago. The entrepreneur sat down with the Alibi to talk about model trains and the community that surrounds the hobby.
What is sold in your store?
Basically, it’s all train-related material. We do five primary sizes [of trains], and then all the stuff that is related to those sizes--the track, the indoor stuff, all the scenery stuff, buildings, roadways, vehicles, people, anything that’s related to building a model railroad, essentially.
Model railroading seems to be the hobby of many adults over the age of 40. What does this trend do to the vitality of this hobby?
It’s a graying hobby. It’s going to disappear one of these days because there are no kids coming into it. There are all of us who started 50 years ago, 60 years ago. And we are all getting up in age. And because the kids are so computer-oriented, there are very few younger folks coming in.
Would you say there is a model train community in Albuquerque? Who makes up the community?
Basically, where model railroading is strong is in communities that have been railroad-based communities, which Albuquerque is. The Santa Fe [Railroad] has been here for a hundred years. And a lot of railroad people live in Albuquerque that still work on the Santa Fe or that retired from the Santa Fe. So that’s a basis for who is a model railroader. Now, it’s a lot more than that because a majority of our customers never worked for a railroad. People model what they see. If you live next to a railroad you see trains, so that becomes the basis of what you model.
Does your store give back to the community?
It plays a part, because we are at the moment the only all-train hobby shop in New Mexico. And simply because the other hobby shops have given up trains for radio-controlled race cars, trains and boats. We are the only place, other than the Internet or discounters, [where people] can buy train stuff. In general, for the newcomers to the hobby, the hobby shop plays a more important part. The older [hobbyists] educate us, because they come in with all sorts of information. And that’s the fun part, the whole sharing of information.
How do you propel the popularity of model trains so that you stay in business?
Model railroaders are an interesting breed in that with most other hobbies people go into it for three to five years and then go on and do something else. About 95 percent of model railroaders are model railroaders all their life. They have been doing it, like me, since they were 12, they have done it for 50, 60 years and they are still here looking for something new to build. The model railroading side of it takes less promotional work because you really don’t lose these people. And now [that the baby boomers] are retiring, we have a lot of them come in and say, "I retired, I am bored out of my skull and I want to get back into trains." So from that standpoint, we don’t really have to promote.
Is it becoming a common occurrence for local craft stores and businesses in general to get shut down by larger retailers? How do you stay on top of those large retailers?
The basic issue is that the profit margin is so low on model supplies that places like Wal-Mart aren’t even going to touch you on model trains because they can’t afford the shelf space at the profit margin that’s there. If they try to discount, there is no profit margin at all. You don’t get rich running a model train store; that’s the bottom line.
We heard you had a model of the Rail Runner, how does that one sell?
Fantastic! The authority that is running the real train went to the manufacturer and said, "We want 150 copies of the Rail Runner to give to the politicians up and down the line so everyone can have one on his desk." So that’s what started it. The company already had a model of the cars and the locomotive so all it was to them was a paint job. So they produced 300 copies of the three-car set and the locomotive. The authority got 150 of them, we ultimately sold 125. And we sold them out. It was the first time we sold 125 of anything. Like I said, fantastic. Everyone wants a Rail Runner. The real design is absolutely spectacular, the roadrunner with the plume and the red and so forth. Now we are into the second run, and they have already announced they are gonna do a third run. We’ve got 50 more on order; we have already sold 35 of those. I imagine we are going to get 50 on the third run.