By Charles Erickson/For The Leader-Herald
PERTH — A 60-something man and his female companion entered Milepost Hobbies a few minutes after the front door was unlocked on a recent Saturday morning. While the woman stood and waited, the man-made a circuit of the aisles that were stocked with model trains and related products.
His browsing complete, the man placed two small items on the counter and left after handing less than $6 to Matt Giardino. It was one of the many retail transactions which occur in the store on a typical day of commerce.
“He bought a tube of glue and a jar of paint, which are some of the most basic things you can buy here,” said Giardino, the store’s owner. “I’ll sell a jar of paint and I’ll sell a thousand-dollar locomotive and anything in between.”
Milepost Hobbies, at 4207 State Highway 30, opened in November 2012.
Giardino estimates that 80 percent of his revenues come from the sale of rail-related products, and of that segment, 80 percent involves pieces rendered in 1/87 HO scale, the most popular measurement for rail transport modelling.
“I sell more HO trains than anything else combined in the store,” he said.
There are non-rail products at Milepost Hobbies. There is a section with radio-controlled cars. There is an aisle having dozens of plastic model kits featuring automobiles, aircraft and vessels. The owner believes his shop must carry a large inventory of the models, even if relatively few are sold compared to the purchases of rail merchandise.
“That makes a good hobby shop,” Giardino said. “You’ve got to be able to walk in and find something you didn’t know you were looking for.”
The store’s train inventory consists of new products ordered directly from the manufacturer, new old stock items which haven’t been out of their boxes since they were made, sometimes decades ago, and various pieces of used equipment and fixtures.
“The most profitable end of my business is secondhand merchandise,” Giardino said. “Anybody can sell brand-new model trains.”
The hobby is open to people possessing tiny budgets. Recent prices for the store’s used stock ranged from $1, for some HO-scale freight cars, up to $350 for a locomotive.
“If you want to stay cheap, you want to stay reasonable, you can fill your heart with cheap rolling stock,” Giardino said. “If you want the nice stuff, the nice stuff is available, too.”
Giardino said some customers work on their train layouts, which can feature towns, switching yards, bridges, trees and other realistic parts of a rail diorama, using tweezers. Others are happy to set up some track on a sheet of plywood and begin running a train.
The manufacturers and marketers of toy trains try to generate interest from hobbyists by introducing new products at regular intervals and then limiting their production. This is not a new strategy, according to Giardino, and it explains why some used locomotives and freight cars are rarer – and command higher prices – than others.
“Matt is very knowledgeable about the hobby and he’s willing to share that knowledge,” said Peter Hansen, a longtime store customer who lives in West Sand Lake. “It’s not a secret. He is willing to engage people and that’s a good thing.”
Giardino, 41, became serious about model trains when he was 13. He enjoyed visiting area hobby stores, seeing their inventories and listening to the tales told by some of the regulars. Some of the customers had worked for railroads or for the American Locomotive Co. plant in Schenectady.
“They would tell these wonderful stories, and he connected with all of that,” said Giardino’s mother, Debi. She is a regular presence at Milepost Hobbies, where she serves as an unpaid assistant.
“And this is still a place where a lot of stories get told. And you learn about history from old railroaders,” she said.
Matt Giardino began working part-time in a Schenectady hobby shop when he was 16 years old. After graduating from college, he took a job with an automotive aftermarket chain. He recalled, while shaking his head, how much he hated that job and only lasted six months before resigning and going back to work in a hobby store. He went on the payroll as a part-timer but soon began working full-time and later became the manager.
After the store’s owner died and the store began operating under new ownership, Giardino decided to try his hand as an owner-operator. He said he invested $20,000 of savings to open Milepost Hobbies, nine years ago next month.
“I basically built it from nothing,” Giardino said. “You can’t get loans in this type of business. Banks view this as a high risk. You can’t get startup capital or anything like that.”
The store began showing a profit about three years after the opening, Giardino said, but it wasn’t until year seven – in 2019 – that he was able to start making a living off the enterprise. He considers 2020 to be the best year in the store’s history, as Covid lockdowns caused a renewed interest in the hobby.
“I’m one of the lucky ones that came out of the pandemic in better shape than before,” Giardino said.
A REAL READING SNOUT
Giardino’s interest in rail stretches beyond the hobby side. He is the president of the ALCO Historical & Technical Society. Knowledge of railroading is beneficial to a hobby-store owner, as customers may have questions about the locomotives and rolling stock used by a specific railroad during a given year.
The cab of an ALCO FA1 diesel locomotive sits outside Milepost Hobbies. It is genuine hardware made in Schenectady a few years after the end of World War II.
Formerly locomotive number 301 for the Reading Company, it was returned to the area in the early 1960s when the railroad traded it in on newer ALCO locomotives. Some pieces were preserved in case they were needed for repairs to locomotives of the same type which remained in service.
“The story that I’ve heard from some old-timers was that ALCO decided that rather than scrap the whole locomotive, they would save the cab part of a few of these locomotives,” Giardino said, “because the nose contours were so complex and they had long stopped building the model.”
The cab was removed from the ALCO plant in 1968, Giardino said, and sat on a piece of property in Altamont until 2011, when it was moved into the ALCO Heritage Museum on Maxon Road Extension in Schenectady. When the museum closed and later moved to smaller quarters, there was no room for the cab. It was shifted to a new location before arriving in Perth in 2012.
“It went from Schenectady up to Clifton Park and then I said to put it next to my building until we figure out what to do with it, and it’s been here ever since,” Giardino said.
Milepost Hobbies has a website and a Facebook page but these are used for informational and promotional purposes. Giardino said about 30 percent of his revenues last year were from merchandise sales made on eBay. The online auction site increases the store’s reach outside the Perth area, but it takes time for the owner to photograph and list items for sale and then wrap them for shipment to the winning bidders.
“I’d like to do 100 percent of my business across this counter,” Giardino said. “But it doesn’t work that way. I think I’ve shipped to every single state in the country.”
He has also been adding to the store’s inventory – an activity that slowed during the height of the pandemic. With extra time on their hands, according to Giardino, many of the homebound discovered train sets from their childhood or sets belonging to their parents. Some were content to play with their finds. Others looked to monetize the hardware but sold it online instead of visiting hobby stores.
“I went through a dry spell for used inventory for a good while,” Giardino said. “Lately that seems to be the opposite. I bought stuff from six different people this week.”