Jason Kirchner is on the right track when it comes to combining business and a hobby he loves.
Kirchner opened Jason’s Train Shop at 100 Clinton St. in downtown Johnstown in October 2012.
His father bought him his first train when he was 2 years old, and Kirchner still sets it up under his tree.
“It’s a Lionel set, with a Republic Steel switch,” Kirchner said. “It’s pretty beat up now.”
That first train set off a lifelong love of trains for Kirchner in a family of train lovers.
“Every year, we had a big display,” Kirchner said. “My dad even made some buildings.”
At age 36, Kirchner believes he is working his dream job.
The shelves of his shop are lined with engines and cars, and a display is set up with tracks for three trains, which travel through large tunnels.
At this time of year, he also has another table set up with Christmas trains.
While there are dealers who handle the older Lionel trains in the area, Kirchner specializes in newer trains, from the mid- to late-’90s to the present.
“The digital models have an authentic steam whistle, diesel horns, bells and speed control, all in a remote,” Kirchner said. “Instead of slowing going up a hill, then going fast coming down, they can stay the same speed. The new ones smoke more than the older ones, too.”
Kirchner explained the electronic brains for the sound are in the tender, the first car behind the engine, and controls for speed and smoke are in the engine.
His shop deals mostly in O gauge trains, but recently has gotten into the more cost-effective HO gauge market.
Kirchner also stocks buildings, trees, scenic accessories and grass mats.
“An abominable snowman figure is coming out this year,” he said.
Kirchner said he gets busy in December and has steady walk-in traffic through the end of February.
With Christmas coming up, Kirchner’s customers might get out a specific Christmas train like the Polar Express or collect only holiday items every year.
He said someone starting out collecting trains usually gets a starter set similar to the one he or she remembers growing up with – an engine, cars and oval track with no sound but a steam whistle.
“That’s the most basic,” Kirchner said. “When a parent gets one for their kids, I think they play with it more than they do.”
First-timers also could get more advanced digital sound or go all out with an individual engine with more detail, a big figure-eight track with switches, and cars that dump coal and logs.
Seasoned collectors most often have a train room in their home, dedicated to their hobby.
“I have a couple customers who have a whole building for their trains, but it’s very rare,” Kirchner said. “One guy in Texas is making a 60-by-120-foot building. Customers order by the website, so I have them all over the world.”
Kirchner has a lot of regular customers, from younger ones in their mid-20s to 30s to more mature collectors.
He moved his train shop to the downtown because he was nostalgic for Johnstown.
Kirchner remembered when his family lived in Moxham and his father worked at Lee Hospital.
“I remember Glosser Bros. and the train display in the window,” Kirchner said. “I want to see the downtown come back with more speciality shops. We need a few more places to shop.”
Kirchner not only moved his business to downtown Johnstown, but his living space as well.
He bought the entire building at the corner of Clinton and Washington streets, using the first floor for his shop, the second for packing containers and his office, and the third and fourth floors for his living space.
“I looked at a lot of buildings downtown, and this one needed the least amount of major work,” Kirchner said. “The building had been run down and not occupied for a long time when I first came.”
Future plans include repainting the outside of the building and getting an old-fashioned wooden sign.
“I get a lot more foot traffic here,” Kirchner said. “I have about triple the space, and sales have been hard to keep up with. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving are hectic, with trains running the whole time. One Friday we
didn’t get out until 8 until we waited on everyone.”
Train shop hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Kirchner started off his career in trains at Jim’s Train Shop in Homer City, where he helped pack orders and put on stickers in his spare time and on days off.
Kirchner then went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania full time, graduating in 2010 at the same time the owner retired.
“I bought out his inventory, and he closed the day before Thanksgiving,” Kirchner said. “I opened as Jason’s Train Shop a few days later on Black Friday 2010.”
In the smaller shop, he didn’t have room for a full product line and as much track as he has now.
“I needed more room,” Kirchner said. “There was less than half the space I have here. When I first came, I got passersby who reminisced about working across the street at Bethlehem or remembered the bar that was here. They wanted to see what’s here now.”
Ruth Rice covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/RuthRiceTD.