By Daniel Silliman
When asked directly about the model trains, about the hobby and its obsessive attention to detail, and devotion to accuracy on a miniature scale, Bob Branin seems uncomfortable.
He seems like he might dismiss the entire enterprise of miniature trains, or play it down as "just something to do."
He's standing in front of a glass case full of locomotives and train cars, each hand-crafted and hand-painted, and some costing close to $1,000. "Awww," says the owner of Riverdale Station, a store that has supplied the area's model train enthusiasts for the last 26 years. He hesitates, then says, "It's something to do with your hands."
Jim Willett -- one of the enthusiasts who has kept the 6632 Ga. Highway 85 retail store going, even in the age of Internet sales and video games -- is prowling a back aisle, looking at computer chips to program sounds into his trains. He looks up, when Branin plays down the hobby, and butts in.
"It's also a fascinating history," Willett says. "You can learn something about your country and how the railroads built this country and how they still move this country. It moves American industry. Go up to West Virginian and you see miles and miles of coal cars moving coal out of those hills. People don't realize that all of American industry's raw materials are moved on trains. The trains are behind the highways and no one sees them."
Willett said he has been building model trains for the last five years, after rediscovering a hobby from his youth. He saw a newer model train, somewhere, and was excited by the improvements made to the hobby, with new technologies. Now he can while away an afternoon, at Branin's store, and when he talks about railroads and miniature railroads, he gets excited and speaks in fast, run-on sentences.
Willett only works on his models one night a week, he said, but the obsession of the hobby -- "It can be addicting," he admits -- comes out, when he talks, in gushes of enthusiasm.
For Branin, the same obsession is there, but it's expressed in attention to detail and deep dedication to accuracy.
"The goal is to make it as accurate as possible," he says, flipping through a magazine full of pictures of model trains.
"This one here" -- Branin taps the magazine's glossy page -- "he lettered it for his own railroad. He made up his own railroad. Some people do that. I model the trains of the Pennsylvania area mostly, myself. I build 1951 railroads, so I can't go out and look at existing railroads, but I have tons of books and articles and pictures, for research."
Riverdale Station is a heavenly haven for the true model railroad enthusiasts. It is a place where you can find that ready-out-of-box train set you may have gotten for Christmas, when you were a kid. But it's really for the serious model train fan. It's a place where you can discuss newly released engine models, the relative merits of HO scale compared with N scale or S scale, and the steam-to-diesel transition period.
Branin downplays the store, describing the business he's operated in Riverdale since 1981 as, simply, "not something you'll find in every town, or every corner."
In the back of Riverdale Station, one of Branin's meticulously researched and fastidiously constructed models is under construction. Pieces of a mite-sized Camden, N.J., occupy a 10-foot long table. A factory, a warehouse, a train station and a Campbell's Soup plant, circa 1950 with all brick and stucco exteriors and looking as realistic as a good movie set, are spread out between disconnected pieces of railroad track.
When asked directly about little Camden, Branin flips on the light about the small city and then, again, downplays the obvious hours of careful construction he's spent on the scale-city.
"I've just been into the hobby ever since I've been old enough to play with trains," he said. "And, of course, my family was in the railroad business."