Crozet has thought of itself as a train town since the C&O railroad named the village for Claudius Crozet, engineer for the Blue Ridge Tunnel, as a condition for having a depot established in 1876. Now it will be better known among model railroaders too.
J. Scott Geare of White Hall and his business partner Mike Militello of Fredericksburg have taken over the hobby’s Great Scale Model Train Show, the largest model train emporium in the Mid-Atlantic, and one of the largest train shows in the U.S., from founders Howard Zane and Ken Young. Held four times a year at the Maryland State Fair grounds in Timonium, outside Baltimore, the 32-year-old show is a market for buyers and sellers and a venue for displaying sophisticated layouts, some covering areas as large as a house. It draws 300 vendors and nearly fills the fairground’s three-and-a-half acre “cow palace” building.
Geare and Militello operate their own retail operation, Makin’ Tracks—based in Crozet—that retails to model train enthusiasts.
“It’s a childhood infection,” said Geare, who was raised in Bergen City, New Jersey, and later moved to Cumberland, Maryland, which is also a train town. “I walked into the room on Christmas morning at age three and there was an American Flyer going around the tree. There was a basement there, so there were model trains. My dad appreciated mechanical and electrical things, so the first layout was quite elaborate.”
HO-scale trains became more popular in the 1950s and ’60s and Geare made the switch to the smaller size too. He maintained a hobby interest in model railroads as a boy but fell away from it until, in retirement, he had a basement with a large empty area. Out came the trains.
“I bought some things I needed and some things I didn’t need and that sort of put me in the business. Tax laws forced the question—fish or cut bait—and it became an actual business.”
Militello, a fellow model railroader, was a customer and from there the partnership evolved. Militello handles shipping and receiving from his home in Stafford.
“We became an LLC and we have a stockroom and go to train shows,” said Geare. “Customers are mainly beginners who need help but not a sale. It’s a technical hobby and it’s supposed to be fun. You have the joy of creating a world and letting it operate by your rules. Now we have computers in locomotives that carry data streams. All track is powered all the time and you can have 10 trains operating independently of each other. With digital technology you can make things as complicated as you want.
“Watching a railroad gives you a sounding on the economy. The Buckingham Branch is one of my favorite things and my house in Cumberland was on the tracks.” Geare said a favorite pastime of his was to sit outside in a lawn chair with a martini and wave to passing engineers. He once “rescued” a coal car that was rocking dangerously. He took down the car number and called Chessie. “They appreciated it,” he said.
Train shows are the principal venues for retailing to model railroaders. Shows allow customers to handle the merchandise and get advice. There are eight to 10 shows that are nationally prominent. Zane and Young, both now in their seventies, had had offers to buy their show, but they were reluctant to sell to someone who was not a true enthusiast, too. Shows sell table space to vendors and take an entrance charge at the gate. The Great Scale Model Train Show, held four times a year, has about 800 tables. “A show has lots of moving parts and they don’t always move in harmony,” said Geare, who formerly worked as staff at the show. He said he and Millitello are now investigating Virginia locations for a show as well, but that will wait until they prove they can manage the Timonium show smoothly.
Geare said that the tough economy has forced general belt tightening and people find more reward in spending their disposable income on their hobbies rather than on transient enjoyments. Show attendance has persisted through the recession.
“This is big news in the model railroad world,” said Geare. “This is significant. Zane and Young wouldn’t sell to just anyone.” Makin’ Tracks is not a prominent retailer who might have been predicted to take on the show.
“There’s an underlying ethos: we support the hobbyist,” said Geare. “The show advances that by making things affordable to people. We’re hobbyists ourselves and we understand. We do it because we love it.”