Editorial Comment Model Shop

HOBBY SHOPS: BRICKS, MORTAR AND MODEL KITS…

Once a regular feature of our high streets, model shops are now few and far between. Where next for this once important part of our hobby?

“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’…

I'm formerly the editor in charge of Military In Scale magazine and latterly, Model Airplane International. Editing duties to one side, I'm now a full-time modelmaker with Doolittle Media, working to supply modelling articles and material for a number of their group titles, including MAI and Tamiya Model Magazine International. I'm also an avid fan of Assassin's creed, Coventry City FC and when the mood takes me, a drummer of only passing skill. Here though, you'll find what I do best: build models and occassionally, write about them!

12 comments on “HOBBY SHOPS: BRICKS, MORTAR AND MODEL KITS…

  1. that looks like monk bar model shop in york ???/ can you confirm that please….

  2. Philip Jones

    You are absolutely right about the value of having model shops (or even one model shop) nearby. Those of us modellers who live in, or near, to Dublin in Ireland appear to be very lucky in having a choice of bricks and mortar stores. In Dublin city centre, there is Marks Models (which also has a warehouse that you can buy from about 10 miles out the M7 motorway in Rathcoole, Co Dublin). Marks majors in the main ranges of kits, and also has a huge range of railway stuff. Also in the city centre there is Paul Walsh’s model shop (which does mostly second hand kits and reference books – and a fine collection of uniform and weapons for re-enactors). Then, further along the M7, in Newbridge (about 30 miles out) there is McLoughlins (MCL), which has a collection of kits and paints in an annexe to a filling station autoshop. Another 6 miles further along the motorway, in Kildare town, there is The Hobby Den, where Brian Walsh runs a proper model shop, with lots of brands that you do not often see elsewhere (he also does resin castings for (mostly) AFV wargaming).

    We are very lucky, and you are right – when we have them, we should support them.

    So, if (and when) travel begins again, anyone reading this from the UK can know that, if visiting Ireland, you can bring an extra big bag (or a couple of suitcases) to get your modelling needs here (and chat with the lads in the shops about things plastic..most of the staff are modellers themselves.)

    If it happens to be the third Saturday in the month when you are visiting, (and when things get back to normal), you could also pop in to a meeting of the Dublin Chapter of IPMS Ireland, held close to the main bus station and the mainline rail station in Dublin city centre, where you would be most welcome to join the 25 to 30 modellers who would be there, from 11 am to 1 pm.

    Philip

  3. William Robert Chappell

    I very much enjoyed your post. As a hobby shop operator of 35 years, I am in total agreement with the concept of the brick and mortar hobby shop being a part of the social fabric of the hobby. As a hobbyist myself, I enjoy the interactions with my like-minded customers. As far a being a nexus for fellow enthusiasts, we foster groups, build sessions and activities to promote the relationship between the store and its supporters. During Covid, where possible, we conducted outdoor “tailgate” meetings so that we could all get together during lock down periods here in Canada.

    Social media has been a great way to promote and strengthen the relationships between shop and hobbyist and extends the “group”, and when those further away are able to drop in or meet us at an Exhibition, it is a good thing.

    Thank you for this affirming article

    Regards
    Bill Chappell
    The Hobby Centre
    Ottawa, Canada

  4. John Harris

    I agree with all your comments regarding model shops, though I’m not sure their demise was entirely due to the move “online”, I am sure they were declining before we all started logging on, a combination of increasing rents and rates.

    I live near East London / Essex border, hardly out in the wilds, yet my nearest model shop is probably Hannants’ franchise at Hendon. There are a couple of model railway shops nearby, but depending on their speciality they may or may not stock items of general use to scale modellers.

    Model railway shops are an interesting example, I appreciate that the market is larger, but many of the online suppliers have moved to an online shop, while retaining the physical shop.

    Even Hobbycraft have stopped stocking Airfix kits and don’t have the supplies like plastic card and strip sections these days.

    What I find inexplicable is that until 2019, the IPMS show “Southern Expo” was in a local sports centre, there was a show by the local MAFVA group too, both of which got really busy, so there is obviously a market for modellers in the area.

  5. Dave Ward

    Spencer, your article re model shops and the need to support them is spot on and following all the recent lockdowns and restrictions very much of the moment. How do we support them? Well if we can, we need to actually go in to model shops and buy kits and all the other ancilliary products – glues, paints, etc, etc, and not just browse around for inspiration, check the prices, and then go home to order it from an online source. Yes, your local model or hobby shop might be (and often is) a little more expensive, but on the plus side you can (if you ask nicely) have a look at the kit contents, also you buy and take your kit home and not have to wait for it to arrive by post – or not arrive at all if you’re unlucky! Also, you’re right Spencer, the owners of our dwindling model shops are usually model builders themselves and have a wealth of experience and knowledge that they are willing to share – as are other model kit shoppers. I’m very, very fortunate that in my home town of Dorking we are blessed with a terrific old-fashioned model shop (Dorking Models), stuffed to the ceiling with kits, books, and other sundry supplies and Tony who owns the shop – and has done for the last 40 years or so – is always available to offer advice and pass on his knowledge. However, looking to the future Tony isn’t getting any younger and at some point will decide to retire fully and what then? Hopefully, someone will come along and buy the business, but as you point out buying and building model kits is now a niche hobby (and a relatively expensive one), and will anyone be willing to take on and develop the business and take it forward into the rest of the century? Probably yes, but who knows. And finally: I like the new website and am looking forward to new posts and builds.

  6. Vernon Jeffery

    Unfortunately lost my local model shop before the pandemic, miss it greatly called in for a chat and a look around every Saturday. Now just left with websites or a warehouse with a 3 foot counter it’s a well known site but you can’t call in for a chat and bump into friends.

  7. tcinla

    I’ve lived in the City of Lost Angles for long enough that I can remember when there were 30 dedicated hobby shops (in different genres) in the San Fernando Valley alone. It was a great community. One day about 20-odd years ago, I was visiting the shop nearest the NBC Studios in Burbank when Jay Leno walked while on a break before doing the Tonight Show, to pick up a kit (he’s a very good motorcycle modeler). The end result of that was the three of us who happened to be there got invitations to Jay’s Garage, which really is as spectacular as it looks on the TV screen, You can’t do something like that at an internet shop!

    Fortunately, the three shops left are all near places that I eventually get to for other purposes, with the best of the bunch being on the way for the weekly trip to the supermarket. He has an “estate sale” section of the shop where the widows of the guys who collected those garages-full of unbuilt model kits can have them sold (and not at collector’s prices), or people like me can put something we’ve finally decided we really aren’t ever going to get around to in for a consignment sale. I would guess half my recent builds have come from those shelves.

    And yes, the internet is great for those things that will never make it to the shop, but when I can buy something at the shop for close to the cost of a model and shipping from an internet store, I’ll buy at the shop, to make sure it continues. Call me a modeling Luddite.

    • Cap'n Tightpants

      First store sounds like Burbank’s House of Hobbies, the second sounds like Smith Brothers. I assume the third you mentioned is Kit Kraft. There is also a small shop in Canoga Park, Scale Model Stuff.

  8. Cos Marendy

    I live in regional Australia, same trend here as well. Shops are rare beasts, but visiting them is great, because the owner or their customers often have wisdom to share. That is what I value most, human contact with people who share a hobby.

  9. Bruce Culver

    Treasure the good shops when you can find them….. Locally in the North Dallas, Texas area, we used to have a good Hobbytown store, with a local IPMS member running the plastic model and accessories operation. We saw plenty of new stuff and Saturday mornings were our time for gathering and drooling over the latest pile of sprues in a box, followed usually by lunch at a local food emporium. Alas, the owner retired and sold the franchise – the new owner was not enamored of plastic models and the selection and amount of accessories dwindled, so that few of us go to the place except to get Evergreen or paint and tools (still good for those as the model railroaders use them). But the social loss was real and I still miss the days when we could spend a couple of hours there talking kits. We didn’t just look either – the plastics department was one of the shop’s profit centers, even with the 10% discount for local IPMS members…..

  10. debbie damron

    My husband loves to do models but there no place around our town that sale them and ordering them on line coast so much .he likes to the cars and trucks . Wish there was a place here .he has done over 200 so far and still looking for more.

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