Train keeps a-rolling at Willis Hobbies

Tom McCarthy
Willis Hobbies Co-Owner Steve Ford said that hobby stores are still doing well in the digital age. (Photo by Tom McCarthy

Willis Hobbies co-owner Steve Ford said his Mineola store has hopped around Willis Avenue for decades but has never lost steam.

“The hobby is evolving. It’s never been as strong as it is now,” Ford said. “We’ve been expanding, expanding, expanding.”

Ford celebrated the rise of drones, which he said have also become a big product at local hobby shops. He also celebrated Lionel’s newer digital model trains and their sound systems. 

“You close your eyes and this sounds like a real train. It’s amazing,” Ford said. “ The products they make today are phenomenal. 

Ford said the store, located at 300 Willis Ave. just off Jericho Turnpike, was packed for Black Friday weekend and Small Business Saturday.

Ford attributed the crowds to the store’s loyal customers.

“We have such a core clientele we have guys that come in and say “hey tell my wife or girlfriend to pick me up one of those,’” he said.

Ford and his brother Ken have owned the store since 1984 when their father retired and left them the business.

Willis hobbies go as far back as 1949, Ford said, but their father Al Ford bought the company in 1970. Their father was a model train hobbyist who worked in real estate before buying Willis Hobbies, Ford said.

While Ford’s specialty is in model trains and drones, his brother Ken’s specialty is radio-controlled products like cars, boats, and planes which are predominately featured on the second floor of the store. Ford joked that he was “king of the first floor” and his brother was “king of the second floor.” 

“We take things a step further,” he said.

Ford said the store does extensive repairs, host demos to teach people how to use and operate the equipment. Ford that the staff are hobbyists like himself and love teaching customers how to use gadgets and gizmos. 

“All the guys that work here are into hobbies so they’re all knowledgable about one particular product,” Ford said. 

The store has been at five locations in its 70 years – all on Wills Avenue, Ford said. 

Ford is hopeful about the future of Willis Hobbies, noting that a lot of customers were once kids who came to the store with their fathers.

He said these customers now bring their children to the store. The store has also begun selling its products on Amazon and eBay, which Ford said local businesses should consider doing in the digital age. 

“It’s a big business and you have to know your market,” Ford said.

He did note, however, that a lot of hobbyists still like to come to the store to check out the products in person. 

“There’s still a good amount of people who want to come in and touch,” Ford said. “We’re fortunate in that way.” 

Customers who don’t know exactly are able to come to the store to see “hundreds” of plane models and “hundreds” of train models, Ford said.

Ford said that at the moment said that there is no heir apparent for the hobby store, but said he is not stopping anytime soon.

“We keep going. It’s a fun business. I love what I do. I love getting up in the morning and coming to work and that’s because I like the one on one,” Ford said.

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