If the Central Coast Railroad Festival, which organizers boast focuses on railroading of many types with an eye towards the beauty of the Central Coast, gets you in the mood to start a rail line of your own, there’s one place to turn. Central Coast Trains in Atascadero is one of only 13 model train shops left in the State of California and, notes owner Anita Walter, who’s been running the operation since 1995, the only one run by a woman.
Incidentally, she thinks she’s probably the youngest owner as well, at 57, but she knows her stuff. Rattling off a list of all the major gauges, and their narrow line variety, faster than a visiting reporter can jot down, she added that she could probably install an engine car sound encoder in her sleep, well, because he’s had that dream already.
“You have to have train knowledge to serve the clients,” she said. “ and it’s all about customer service. I make your [train] dreams come true.”
Starting the shop as a business opportunity in the mid-1990s after a more general hobby shop left a vacant spot in their complex on El Camino Real, the store gave Anita’s late husband Bill Walter a chance to indulge an expensive hobby.
“He wanted to walk into a hobby shop and even if they didn’t have what he wanted, he wanted them to get it on his behalf,” the store’s website explains, “Bill being into the N scale, which is not as well known as HO, was paying more in shipping than for the actual items. So, with Anita, he opened the store with the idea that they would specialize in special orders for their customers. Anita ran the store from day-to-day and Bill enjoyed doing the Train Show circuit.”
She added though that she didn’t have the knowledge at first, but has picked it up through the years, and she suspects she’s had more fun with it as a job than Bill did as a manager at Long’s Drugstore when they moved to town.
“People are generally in a good mood when they come to see us. They’re getting to do something they’ve wanted for awhile. It’s not like working at a pharmacy where people are sick and aren’t having a good day before they see you,” and she said, unlike most retail, “the customer’s have fun together. If I’m busy when someone comes in I can start a conversation between them and maybe they’ll teach each other something or compare notes.”
Running model displays in the shop are similar to, if a tad smaller than, the dioramas on permanent display at the Museum in San Luis Obispo, but the ones here were also made with a lot of volunteer help over the years.
“The customers helped build our displays,” she said, explaining that there used to be more off hours workshops run out of the store by volunteers helping kids and fellow model makers learn things like cast molding and how to set up scenery.
In fact, there are at least three “Thank You” notes pinned in spots around the displays from kids that were a part of the hobby scene here 10-20 years ago. Some will still come by and “admit” that it was them, she said, although there’s an interesting generational gap in who comes by. “The young people we get are the grandchildren of people that built trains and let their grandkids play with them, not somuch their parent’s generation.”
Anita chalks that up to the “i” generation, with everything on a smartphone and not as much spirit of hands on creativity. Down from 60 such stores in California in the 1990s, the ones that are left have to talk to each other and folks who like to “play with trains” stick to industry magazine guides with regional directories. Business for this type of shop has suffered over the last three years and many of the original owners were already doing it as a post-retirement second career. Still, there’s a dedicated base of enthusiasts who need outlets.
“We get a lot of folks over from Fresno and Bakersfield,” she says, but they do business all over the world from Australia to Germany and most of Western Europe. “We have to meet them here first though, have them come in and see us before we’ll start doing mail order with them.”
Not that the right people seem to mind. A lot of business is generated by the store being a stop for a very particular kind of tourist. Doubtless the kind that might be in the area October 5-7 for the Railroad Festival. Being the only local shop with the expertise, the store is also the clearinghouse for models donated to the local railroad museum, which runs its models on a particular period representing the area and on a particular kind of track.
One set donated to the museum she appraised for tax receipts in the ballpark of $23,000. That is not the type of set she recommends for first-time buyers though,
“We’re looking at a lot of [Christmas] tree sets coming up. With Harry Potter and Polar Express there’s more out for kids, and if you don’t have the space for a permanent set, these are perfect.”
Normal store hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm at 7600 El Camino Real, Suite 3, in Atascadero, a right turn from the Highway 41 exit.
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.