Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Of Toy Trains And Department Stores

Thank you Marc, for inviting me aboard the Standard Gauge Blog as a team member. I'm looking forward to adding a thought or two about our wonderful big tinplate standard gauge trains from time to time.

This is me c. 1954 or 1955 (age 5 or 6) probably at Gimbels department store in Philadelphia. I forget what I asked for that year, but by the expression on TV personality Sally Starr's face and Santa's glassy eyed stare I figure that it might have been something impossible like a 400E State set.

Speaking of department stores, the other day there was a report on one of the network TV news shows about their resurgence. I did a double take when this came on. Department stores? ...those retail dinosaurs that we city dweller baby boomers remember oh so well from our youth? Well, it seems as though shoppers have now decided that they like the big aisles and the warm and fuzzy feel of department store shopping once again. I've always enjoyed wandering through the big old department stores. I never warmed up to the specialty store or to the mega-mall shopping experience.

When I was a kid here in Philadelphia we had five major department stores downtown: three on one corner alone at 8th & Market (Lit Brothers, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Gimbels,) and two others: Snellenbergs at 11th & Market (which later became Philadelphia Community College's first campus,) and the great John Wanamaker Philadelphia flagship store at 13th & Filbert. They are all gone now. The last full line store was the Strawbridge store which closed earlier this year. The hulking building now sits cold and empty with its huge display windows empty and dark probably for the first time in decades. What a sad sight at the holidays. I used to love to go into that store at this time of the year with it's brass chandeliers on the main floor all decked out with bright red lamp shades for Christmas. But all that's left now department store-wise in downtown Philly is the scaled back Macy's store housed in the bottom three floors of the historic Wanamaker building.

Years ago the great old flagship department stores used to have wonderful train displays around the holidays. I can remember watching the trains on what seemed like a huge layout at Gimbels with my mom while waiting in line to see Santa. The Wanamaker store featured a great floor full of toys including electric trains, and they actually had a functioning monorail that ran around the ceiling of the toy floor that kids could actually ride in! Talk about fantasyland!

Wouldn't it be great to once again have a big store train display featuring standard and 0 gauge tinplate trains? Well, I guess it's too much to hope that the old time department stores return with their toy departments and train displays. But who knows? I saw an interesting post on another forum about the Lionel display at FAO Schwartz in New York City. Maybe there's hope yet! Standard gauge train displays in stores once again, now that's an item on my grownup Christmas wish list.

Jim Kelly

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