Remember the days of the local Hobby Shop?
Not only are there far fewer hobby shops around now, but it’s actually quite difficult to find photos of hobby shops from their heyday in the 1980s – or earlier. Nevertheless, here’s a selection that is sure to make you wish you could travel back in time.
I’ve written in the past about some of my favourite “Lost Hobby Shops” – stores I used to visit as often as I could, but which have since disappeared from the Australian landscape.
Hobby stores seem to be an endangered species these days, and it’s a phenomenon that’s occurring right around the world and which I have witnessed first hand over the years. Most major cities in the world no longer have many, if any, hobby shops. The combined pressures of online retailers with their lack of “bricks and mortar” overhead costs, plus a declining interest among younger people in the sort of crafty build-it-yourself activities that hobbies represent, are two factors often cited as the cause.
At the time of writing, I can only think of a handful of stores that are still operating in my region, when once upon a time there had been a store in nearly every major town, and most major population centres, in Australia.
I respect the fact that not everyone will feel as nostalgic as I do about the decline of the hobby retailer. I’ve certainly heard some negative stories over the years about high shelf prices and poor service. And I’ve experienced a few interesting moments myself. Like the time I was yelled at in front of other customers, by a hobby shop staffer, when I asked if I might look through some old parts bins they had behind the counter. How dare I offer to buy old stock that nobody had looked at in years? Fortunately the shop’s owner intervened and made me feel more than welcome. Ironically, the shop in question has since closed.
But as that example shows, there’s always a mix of good and bad. I’m sure there are plenty of former hobby store owners out there who’ve dealt with their share of rude customers as well. There can be no doubt in my mind that owning and operating a physical store – any store really – is hard work. And between the long hours, repetition, price wars with other businesses, book-balancing, theft concerns, and the need to maintain a pleasant demeanor at all times, it’s a wonder that anyone ever thought the concept of a retail store was a good idea in the first place. I’m not sure I could do it. I firmly believe that only a few people truly have the kind of resilience and sunny disposition to successfully operate a retail store for a long period of time.
Nevertheless, there was always something about walking into a really great hobby store that I loved when I was growing up. To the owner, I was undoubtedly just another another window-shopper – the 53rd that day. But to me, making my once-a-year visit, it was a world of wonder – model kits, trains, cars, boats and planes all stacked high or on display. A world of miniature modeling and amazing toys, all in the one place… if only you could afford to buy them all.
The best hobby shops I ever visited were the really old ones – you know the kind. The sort of places that still had stock sitting on the shelf from the 1960s or 1970s, and where every visit felt like a treasure hunt. Messy shelves, bargain bins, and every inch of space taken up with something – another kit jammed in a corner here, an aeroplane propellor hanging there, a pile of sticker sheets and old magazines sitting on the floor. Things slipping down between shelves. Boxes of parts. Used items for sale on consignment. Glass cases filled with models and cars and trains. Sometimes the counter even resembled the bench of an old man’s garage – with repair jobs and tools scattered around, and lots of little accessories and parts hanging on the walls behind the counter. And finally the shop owner – usually a gent in his 50s or 60s tinkering with some part or model, while customers wandered the store. If the owner was friendly and approachable it was the icing on the cake – you even felt a kinship with him (or her). Because here was someone who had most likely dedicated their whole life to messing about with toys, and was surrounded by them day-in, and day-out. As a kid, this seemed like nothing short of a dream job.
Most importantly though, at least for me, were the stock of R/C toys and models. In the 1980s these were typically among the most prestigious and popular items in the store, and as such would either be behind or below the counter – usually out of your reach, but always in your line of sight whenever you entered the shop.
So to commemorate (and in some ways, commiserate) the kinds of hobby stores we knew in the 1980s, I’ve uncovered a few old photos of actual stores. The pictures are mostly black and white and grainy, but in them you’ll see some of the all-time greatest vintage R/C car kits – those models you wanted, and probably could never afford. See how many you can identify in the background.
There could be more photos to come in the future, but here’s a start anyway…
Photos of Hobby Shops in the 1980s
Store: “Model Engines”
Location: Richmond, Melbourne, Australia
This photo shows “Australian International 7 cell buggy champion Mike Farnan” with his father Tony, at a store in Melbourne, Australia. Clearly this was the era when the Mugen Bulldog and Mugen Bulldog II were some of the hottest kit buggies around, judging from the stock behind them.
Store: Hobby Shop belonging to Ron Sheldon
Location: San Jose, USA
This shop is positively brimming with (what are now) priceless vintage R/C kits. How many can you identify up there on the back shelf?
Store: Castle Hill Hobbies
Location: Castle Hill, Sydney, Australia
Castle Hill Hobbies was a store that opened in about 1985, and closed only a couple years ago. I actually bought this Monster Beetle there some 20 years ago. Here’s the store back in 1988 with then owner Alan McLeay and some of his children. A number of classic R/C kits can be seen in this photo such as the Schumacher CAT and PB Mini Mustang… (and check out the little guy’s face on the left).
Store: Tamiya Roadshow traveling hobby shop
Here’s something a bit different. In the mid 1980s, the Tamiya importer in the UK, Richard Kohnstam (RiKo) sent a traveling trailer around to various events – like a mobile hobby shop – to promote the Tamiya brand. Inside was a display of Tamiya buggies, as well as lots of information and promo material, from videos to stickers. Even the back of the trailer has Tamiya stickers on it.
Store: Ren Models
Location: Cambridge, UK
Described as Cambridgeshire’s car spares specialists, Ren Models of Cambridge in the UK once had an over-supply of the Tamiya Toyota 4×4 HiLux Pick-Up. If only I could travel back in time to 1982 and take a couple more of those kits off their hands (for the original price!). I actually passed through Cambridge a few years ago and saw a hobby shop, but didn’t have time to stop and check it out…I wonder if it was this one?
Store: The Ranch Pit Shop
Location: Del Mar, San Diego, California, USA
The Ranch Pit Shop was one of the most famous locations in R/C history, after being bought by one of the most famous families in R/C history – Gil Losi Sr and Janet Losi, and their children. Gil and Janet can be seen behind the counter in the first photo. In 1985, Gil Losi Jr won the inaugural 1/10 Off-Road World Championship 4WD title driving a Yokomo YZ-834B “Dog Fighter” 4WD buggy – and you can also see one of those on the shelf in the first photo.
The second photo shows the on-road R/C track at the back of the shop, which was used for competition 1/8 and 1/12 scale racing, often under lights in the evening (with the shop and refreshment bar staying open at all times). The Losis went on to found Team Losi, an R/C manufacturer, and this was later sold to Horizon Hobby. The Ranch Pit Shop, as seen in these images, sadly no longer exists and nor does the adjacent track.
Store: (Generic Hobby Store Advertisement by Horizon, a Hobby importer)
Speaking of Horizon, here’s an ad by them from 1989 that depicts the ideal kind of hobby store that most of us probably remember – that’s you, buying your first R/C buggy, after 6 months of paper runs! What better way to start off than with a classic like the Tamiya Falcon too. There might be one or two other vintage kits in the background as well, if you look closely.
Store: Mid-Hudson Hobbies
Location: Middletown, New York, USA
This image may be a little grainy, but it might be the only image in the world of this store that once existed in Middletown, New York State, USA. See if you can identify all the vintage kits on the wall – Tamiya Hornet, Tamiya Hotshot, Kyosho Turbo Scorpion, Marui Big Bear, Team Associated RC10, Tamiya Wild Willy, Marui Samurai… it almost seems incredible to see all those classic models in the one place, as they’re all so collectible now. But we tend to forget that this was pretty typical stock in hobby stores back in those days.
Store: Zanter Hobbies
Location: Narrabeen, NSW, Australia
This image of Zanter Hobbies in Australia is also packed full of vintage kits, and as always they’re lined along highest possible shelf, practically jammed up against the ceiling and far away from the hands of the little kids (like me) who wanted to look at them. Among the kits here are the RCL Incident, Kyosho Optima Mid and the Schumacher CAT.
Store: Nova Fontana
Location: Greenhills Shoppesville Mall, Manila, Philippines
Year: Circa 1990
This image of a toy and hobby store in the Philippines is also packed with cars – note the Taiyo Mini Blaster at centre-bottom of shot, the huge range of Tamiya kits to the right, and even the Taiyo Jet Racer poster hanging overhead. Source.
If you have any more vintage photos of the inside of hobby shops from the 1980s (particularly if they feature R/C toys of course!) then feel free to get in touch as I’ll be happy to add them to this article.