When 75-year-old David Dansky plays with his toy trains each morning, he's transported back to a special time when unwrapping a treasured Lionel locomotive on Christmas made him feel like "king of the block."
Though life's routine minutiae inevitability took hold in the decades following his 1940s childhood, the spirit of that wide-eyed boy comes to life within the grown man when Dansky meditatively watches trains chug in loops inside his Ridgefield home.
"The value of trains to me is almost transcendent," said Dansky, a retired educator who buys and sells the collectables under the business name David's Toys. A display showcasing some of his prized models is up until the end of December at Umpqua Bank, 1400 Washington St., in Downtown Vancouver. "To me it's the aesthetic appeal of the train and the memories they evoke of days gone by."
Hobby losing steam
While there are many passionate hobbyists across the country who frequent online message boards and regional swap meets to find that certain piece for their collection -- whether an American Flyer engine or some O-gauge track -- the interest is losing steam due to the realities of time.
Just like the full-sized counterparts -- replaced as the go-to mode of long-distance travel after the advent of the Interstate Highway System and the Jet Age -- model train collecting is faced with an uncertain future as tastes shift and fervent hobbyists age out of existence.
The Train Collectors Association currently has about 28,000 members across the country. The Pennsylvania-based nonprofits' Membership Services Coordinator Leslie Houser said because a significant chunk of its members are seniors, the group's roster has dipped in recent years.
"Membership has dwindled a little bit due to older members passing away," she said. To counteract the trend, Houser said there has been a concerted push to draw in prospective members with a newly implemented kids club. "We are looking towards the future."
"The people who like toy trains are my age," Dansky said. "As we are dying off two things happen: One less person to appreciate and buy an old toy train and, 90 percent of the time, the families, the estates will sell the collection."
Where a decade ago a standard collection might have been worth a pretty penny, the market value for many types of model trains has plummeted, Dansky said.
"A lot of supply and not as much demand," he said. "So prices have fallen."
Island Hobbies owner Tony Talvo said model trains are no longer a part of his regular inventory at 13503 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd. because the boxes started to gather dust on the shelves. Now he sticks to what actually sells: remote-controlled cars and plastic models of boats and airplanes.
"People just didn't want to come in," Talvo said. "I can't do business that way."
Vic's Hobby Supply will go out of business Jan. 31 after 69 years selling model trains in Northeast Portland. Its 86-year-old owner Leo Vilstrup told The Oregonian he is shutting up shop rather than diversify away from its sole focus on trains and accessories.
Relegated to history
Hobbies leave the limelight all the time.
We lost our marbles fascination when the nation's eyes started shifting to the boob tube. Same with POGs in the mid-1990s, which seemed to come and go faster than it took to flick a slammer at a tower of cardboard circles. And there are few remaining who recall when ornamental Billiken charm dolls were trendy in the early-20th Century. In another 100 years those wild-haired Troll dolls will no doubt face a similar fate.
Will it also happen to stamp collecting as we steer away from traditional postal services in lieu of online bill paying and digital correspondence?
But these fascinations, and myriad others, still retain a magnetic connection to the hearts of those who came of age at exactly the right time.
Just as some will always fondly recall the sweet bubble gum odor that wafted from packs of Topps trading cards or the burning ozone smell of an overworked slot car track, Dansky's love of toy trains is forever held in his being.
In two dedicated rooms of his home, an extensive collection is displayed, featuring hundreds of pieces made by 25 different companies from across the world.
"It's not about money," he said, though some train pieces can fetch thousands. "It's collected memories."
A new generation
Dansky hopes his display inside Umpqua Bank will remind people about what toy trains once meant to them when they were children, and maybe intrigue a new generation of youngsters who could help stabilize the hobby's future.
"One thing we've been surprised at is the number of people who do really have an interest," said Kelli Reynolds, lead associate at the bank. "There's a lot more collectors out there than we thought."
Even in the era of digital distractions, youth still gravitate toward toy trains. The "Thomas the Tank Engine" characters, with vibrant colors and bouncing eyes, rivet young children who might have never even stepped aboard a railroad car. And children still tear into BRIO wooden train sets on Christmas morning.
While Dansky said it might seem to some like model train collecting is rolling toward extinction, he believes there's light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the interest remains endangered for the foreseeable future.
"Toy trains will never go the way of the dodo birds or carrier pigeons," he said. "But (collectors) will be more like California condors and whooping cranes."
Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: col_hoods.