Our Town: Willis Hobbies a train trip to the past

Dr Tom Ferraro

Why are trains so much fun to look at and to ride? 

Trains have some kind of romance to them. They are like a call to adventure and the Robert Zemeckis film “The Polar Express” capitalized on this notion with the help of Tom Hanks and some wonderful animation. 

One of my favorite memories was being put on an overnight sleeper by my mother when I was about 10. She trusted me and my older brother to travel alone from Maine to New York. 

I still recall climbing up the ladder to my red velvet curtained bunk bed and staying up all night gazing out the window watching the landscape whiz by under the moonlight.

So when a patient of mine urged me to go visit Willis Hobbies and check out the world-class collection of trains I thought to myself this might be fun.

Willis Hobbies is one of the country’s largest privately owned hobby shops and here it is on 300 Willis Avenue in Mineola. 

You walk in and it’s like walking into your past. There was the HO and the Lionel trains choo chooing around the mountains like I remember from my youth.  

I hunted down the owner Steve Ford who has worked in this business for 43 years. His dad bought the store when it was on Hillside Avenue in Williston Park. 

Steve eventually moved it to 300 Willis and has created a marvel of a store out of love and a passion for modeling.  And he is not alone in his passion. At one point we chatted with a local judge who seemed to love trains as much as Steve. 

Walking through the store is like walking down memory lane. The train section is most riveting for us older folks but this section also had a full collection of Thomas the Train models, which is now a cartoon series every bit as big as Sesame Street used to be. 

And right next to this section is aisle after aisle of die cast model cars. There was an old 1962 VW van  and the original Mini Cooper.  There was a 61 De Soto and a pastel blue Chevy Impala convertible. 

Upstairs he showed me things that the teen set like. All high tech remote control cars, boats, tanks and helicopters. I remarked that kids like action and a teenager who overheard me quickly smiled and said “Yep!” 

I saw a cigarette boat like the ones in Miami Vice and newer versions of slot cars that made my version look like a joke. Everything gets better and faster with time and advancing technology. Kids used to fly kites and now they fly helicopters. By the way they have kites for sale too.

In the basement they have a party room with slot cars tracks, model trains to run, flight simulators, and a Lego table and Thomas the Train table for the younger set. When we went back upstairs I also noticed a section for girls with Origami sets, birdhouses and needle point as well. There were even some of those old fashioned educational toys, a little something for everyone. 

Soon I may be taking a train vacation in California stopping in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Carmel and Yosemite Park. 

I’m excited about it. Whether you’re on the Orient Express or the Polar Express there is mystery to trains that Steve Ford appreciates and gives us. 

Before I left I asked him if he had a model of the 1954 MGTF that I used to drive. 

‘Of course’ he said and showed me a similar model. Wow there I was once again in those carefree days at college. Top down, my scarf around my neck, a smile on my face, driving up to Marymount College to visit my girl. 

Ah yes the magic of  youth  and of memory.  

(In last week’s column about  La Marmite the correct spelling of the owner/ partner is  Manuel Gomes.)

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