WILDWOOD — Larry Lillo wanted to open a new business to fall back on when he retired from the city’s Fire Department, where he worked for 25 years.
Lillo, 65, of Wildwood, was torn between the practical, a store selling vacuum cleaners, and the unusual — turning his love for model trains into a hobby shop.
He decided to follow his interests. Today he owns Holly Beach Train Depot, a train and model shop on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood. His store offers hundreds of makes and models of train sets, engines, parts and layout accessories. He also provides routine service and repairs for train engines.
“I started this from scratch. Our first year we had a good Christmas,” he said. “But the rest of the winter business died. It was horrible.”
But Lillo kept with it, initially dragging his wife, Shirley, to trade shows. Word spread about the new train shop in Wildwood and he began getting calls.
“Now I have customers all over the world. I’ve sent trains to Australia, Africa and Japan,” he said. “It has become a way of life. Now my wife loves going to the shows.”
Model railroading is a $424 million industry with about 100 manufacturers in the United States, according to Bachmann Trains, the world’s largest maker of model trains, based in Philadelphia.
“Everyone has different tastes. Some people really enjoy steam engines,” spokeswoman Debra Schiff said. “We have starter sets with different themes, such as Christmas. We do large-scale for outside and gardens.”
Named for its neighborhood in Wildwood, Holly Beach Train Depot also sells diecast cars and planes, model rockets and remote-controlled toys. But most of its inventory caters to model railroading.
He opened his store in 1994 with the help of his wife. He devoted his full attention to it when he retired from the Fire Department in 2003. Many of his customers are a lot like him — renewing their childhood interest with trains as adults.
He got his first train set for Christmas in 1949, when he was 2. It was a Lionel. He still has it.
In 1957, his family visited Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia, where he fell in love with a Union Pacific diesel engine that raced precariously around a store display, seeming to defy gravity with every hairpin turn.
“It had Magnetraction — magnets that held it to the track,” he said.
His father, a Wildwood barber, asked to buy the display from Gimbels. Lillo got it as a present that year, albeit after Christmas when the display was taken down.
“Most of my customers are over 50. They’re the ones who have the money,” he said.
And model railroading can be an expensive hobby. A starter train set can cost as little as $30. But the collectible engines can cost hundreds of dollars. Most collectors also invest in the scale-model buildings, scenery and accessories that help bring their miniature world to life.
Trains modeled after real railroads and places are the most popular. He sold 60 sets of a Cape May Seashore Line train that announced local stops in Wildwood and Cape May.
Lillo is building a new train layout in his spare time to re-create the Wildwood of his youth, including models of its Boardwalk, amusement parks and old hotels. But the construction has been slow-going.
“I thought I’d be playing with more trains,” he said. “But some days when I leave here I don’t want to look at another train.”
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