The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 20, 2013

Collector rolls out vintage trains for window display

Tom Lavis

JOHNSTOWN — Christmas decorations and model trains seem to go together.

But for Paul Boratko, 63, of Johnstown, trains are a way to enjoy his lifelong hobby and make some money at the same time.

Boratko owns Dewey’s Auto Body at 204 Broad St. in Johns­town’s Cambria City neighborhood. He has converted the office and front portion of the shop to make room for his trains.

But not just any trains.

The lean and fast-talking Boratko has an affinity for older trains. They are the trains he remembers from his childhood: Lionel and American Flyer.

“In the old days, everyone had a train under their trees at Christmas,” he said. “Even today, kids are fascinated with the smoke and the whistle of a locomotive.”

That’s one of the reasons he has set up a train display in the front window of his business.

He got the idea from Jim Lear, 68, of Old Conemaugh Borough.

“Jim showed me an old photograph of himself gazing at a Christmas display in the window of Glosser’s department store that The Tribune-Democrat took of him when he was 3 years old,” Boratko said. “I thought it would be nice to recapture some of that holiday magic in my own window.”

Boratko has created a 9-by-9-foot platform complete with buildings forming a cityscape and three trains. A fourth train will roll over a replica of Johns­town’s Stone Bridge designed by Tom Cassat of Westmont.

“My son (Paul Boratko III) added LED lighting and a stone facade to give it an authentic look,” Boratko said.

“I will put the light on a timer from 6 to 10 p.m. so the public can view the display.”

Boratko has been collecting model trains since 1974.

“I actually have bartered to get trains,” he said. “I would do some body work in exchange for a train I wanted.”

But he usually obtains collectibles from train shows, trade magazines, public auctions, estate sales or on the Internet.

“Enthusiastic” may be too mild a word to describe model railroaders. “Obsessed” might be more appropriate.

Building a model railroad can be expensive. Like other hobbies, it’s good to start slowly, but just like a train, once you start chugging along, it’s easy to pick up steam and invest large sums of money.

His most desired train is the standard gauge Lionel, a name synonymous with model railroading, which Boratko calls the Cadillac of model train locomotives and accessories.

He particularly enjoys obtaining replicas of local trains and cars that once rumbled through the Laurel Highlands.

Boratko said many of the desirable trains were lost during the 1936 and 1977 Johnstown floods.

“So many people told me that their trains were lost or destroyed,” Boratko said.

It’s not uncommon for him to own two identical trains.

“I have little hesitation in selling any of my doubles,” he said. “I hate to part with them, but you can’t keep them all.

“Kids don’t want trains anymore, they want electronics,” he added. “I have found that the real market is guys like me, 40 years old and up.”

In the main area of the showroom, trains and toys fill rows of shelving. In his office, the walls are crammed with model trains from Boratko’s private collection.

One can’t help noticing the large number of orange and black Lionel boxes stored among the trains and toys.

“Oftentimes, the mint-condition box can be worth as much as the locomotive or train car,” Boratko said.

Collecting never ceases for Boratko.

“I buy and sell Lionel, American Flyer, Mike’s Train House (MTH) and some HO gauge train sets,” he said.

A vintage Lionel locomotive can sell from anywhere from $100 to $8,000.

“It all depends on how bad a person wants a certain train,” he said. “If someone needs a particular piece to complete a collection, they are willing to pay top dollar.”

He recalled the time he was outbid for a train by an older couple during an auction.

“They were running up a bid for a train that had little collectible value,” he said. “I found out the reason they kept bidding was because the yellow-and- green train was exactly what they were looking for to match the colors in their kitchen.”

The most he as ever spent for a train was $5,000. It was a mint-condition Lionel in standard gauge.

There is something about Christmas and train displays that fascinates people of all ages.

Customers often stop by to buy new wire or a part such as a tiny coupler to make train repairs.

“I get guys in here all the time who just want to talk about their hobbies,” Boratko said. “Trains aren’t a seasonal thing anymore; I have people here all the time.”

A skilled mechanic, he enjoys giving new life to old trains.

“Many locomotives that don’t work are simply dirty and have too much grease and oil,” he said. “If it’s too bad, I rebuild them.”

If one obsession isn’t enough for one man, Boratko has another.

He has sold highly collectible trains to get money to help rebuild his vintage Mustang fastback.

He owns a 1967 Mustang 390 GT, which is parked in the body shop behind the train shop and visible to customers.

“I have fully restored it from the ground up,” he said. “I had a friend rebuild the engine and it now cranks out over 400 hp.”

Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on LavisTD.