“This is why these shops are important and why they should be treasured. They are more than a place to shop; they are a way of bringing those with a shared interest, together under one roof.”
Last week I was sent an email asking for my opinions on the humble hobby shop, with questions such as when I last visited one, what I want from them, that kind of thing. Turns out the company are planning to develop their online presence with an actual model shop and this was part of their forward thinking. I couldn’t help but conclude that this was a step in the right direction and though the shop would be 150 miles away from where I live – so not likely to be visited very often – I welcomed news of their plans with open arms.
With the questionnaire in front of me, I started to give some thought to the answers, the first of which was ‘when I had last visited a model shop,’ under which was, ‘how often I visited them.’ In my case, both of these questions were answered in essentially the same way: almost never. In fact, the last time I set foot in a hobby shop of any description (unless you include Hobbycraft and a hardware shop last summer that also sells kits) is around three years ago. So you can see that these establishments hardly figure at all as part of either my hobby, or the day job that supports it.
The main reason for this rather surprising admission is that I have no model shops to visit, within a reasonable distance of where I live. I’ve already mentioned the local Hobbycraft and there is also a couple of gaming shops, one a Games Workshop and the other a rather splendid, independent gaming emporium that sells all manner of figures, paints and tools, but that is it. Sure, I could drive a couple of hours to one that’s out of county, but why would I spend a few hours in the car to grab a couple of bottles of Tamiya Olive Drab, some masking tape, and a kit I’m unlikely to build any time soon, when all of those things can be ordered online and be with me in a few days? It’s not that I don’t want to visit a model shop, it’s that I can’t without giving over more time than I have to indulge in the process.
But of course things haven’t always been like this. In a previous post on this site I discussed how in days gone by, most towns had multiple retailers of all things ‘kit’ (‘Fish, Chips and F-16s’). When growing up in the small market town in which I still live, I can comfortably name half a dozen shops from which I could buy model kits and in some cases, paints and glue – and that doesn’t include odd shops that had a handful of models to sell, alongside their other wares. Within that list were the usual shops that stocked Airfix kits (Woolworths being the most prominent, before it lost its way and couldn’t make up its mind what to sell, or how…) but then there were a few that dug deeper into the hobby world, with offerings from Tamiya, Monogram and Hasegawa, amongst the more familiar and cheaper ranges from the aforementioned Airfix, Revell and Matchbox. And then everything started to change. The high street lost some of its independent shops, owners retired, kids began looking towards other interests, council rates went up and one by one, the shops shut. Today, none remain and thus there is nowhere within my town where you can buy a model kit of any sort. Mind you, there are precious few places to buy toys, clothes and books, either, but that is another story!
My favourite was a small shop called ‘Kits ’n’ Bits.’ Formerly part of a larger newsagent at the far end of the High Street, you had to pass through the magazines, stationary and books to reach what was, a very small toy and model shop. Having spent time as part of a larger retailer, albeit one that was still at the time independent, the owner decided to go it alone, so bought up tiny new premises that remained open for what seemed like years, but was in fact less than 5. I loved it! Mixing model kits with railways, it was always exciting to see what the owner had in stock, a look in the window to see if there was anything new, a ritual that was exciting as it was absolutely essential during a visit into town. Memories fade, so I can’t even tell you the owner’s name, or even remember his face, but I can remember buying my first Monogram kit from that shop, being able to order and buy Tamiya kits from there (I bought both the Merkava and M1 Abrams as soon as they were released) as well as seeing and grabbing for the first time, a Verlinden Showcase published by Tamiya, a precious book I still have to this day. The shop closed years ago, being used for all manner of things over the years and now being used as a very popular, Turkish barber’s shop. To me though it will always remain a model shop, at least in my mind’s eye, even though those days are nothing but a distant echo.
For most modellers, the lack of actual model shops causes nothing like the ramifications it once did, because the Internet has become the lifeline though which their hobby can survive. Today, there are dozens of retailers that you can order from, so the need to actually visit a shop is not really there any more, unless of course, you want to. You don’t even need to use a computer to make purchases, your phone being enough to search for what you need and pay for the results. Technology has replaced a trip; scrolling, the chance to pick up a box and look inside.
But of course model shops aren’t only about buying models and the ancillary products needed to build them. Often, they are hubs for social interactions, a place where modellers can congregate to discuss their hobby with likeminded individuals, annexed model clubs, that also happen to contain shiny new baubles that attract attention and part cash from wallet. Recently I found myself watching the wonderful ‘High Fidelity’, that most engaging of films set within a rundown record store called ‘Championship Vinyl’. The shop’s owner, Rob, describes how his shop is in a neighbourhood that attracts the bare minimum of window shoppers, so that all visitors had to make a special effort to go there. I couldn’t help but think that that was also the case with most model shops I’d visited, places off the beaten track that would have their own group of modellers who had decided on that special trip, irrespective of their need for kits, or materials. Like in the film, they attract groups that all know each other, retail outlets, transformed into a social venues. The fictional shop in question also has its fair share of oddballs – including most of the staff! – so that also made it something altogether recognisable, but I digress!
Today, there are dozens of retailers that you can order from, so the need to actually visit a shop is not really there any more, unless of course, you want to.
This is why these shops are important and why they should be treasured. They are more than a place to shop; they are a way of bringing those with a shared interest, together under one roof. And never has that been more important than over the last 18 months. When model shows and clubs were closed due to the pandemic, shops were for part of the time still open, allowing people to get together when all other avenues were closed. Sure, we still had the Internet and social media to allow the like-minded to congregate in front of small digital screens, but that is hardly a replacement for the human need for physical engagement, masked face, to masked face. When all other possibilities were not there, for some, the humble model shop was a last resort for friendly meetings over the latest plastic model kits and if you were lucky, a hot cup of coffee. Their importance cannot be underestimated.
So where does that leave us? Well, we are certainly not going back to the good old days of multiple retailers in every town, that’s for sure. As much as I would love to see even one model shop on every high street, it’s now such a niche market, that modelmaking is a hobby for those that want to hunt it out, rather than something that all kids did and then carried on into adulthood. The market has shrunk, and with it the need to support modellers with brick and mortar shops. In essence, that means that those we do have, need to be supported. If you have one close and they have what you want, shop there. Speak to the owner, form a relationship and tell your friends. Who knows, you may turn that little shop into a hub for everyone to enjoy and ensure its future along the way.
As for the email and that new shop, we’ll bring you more details on that later this year. In the meantime, I wish them luck and hope that they are not the last modellers to take a punt on a shop that we can visit in person, rather than simply seeing as a list of items on a screen that we scroll through and hit a button marked ‘add to basket’…