Modernity and the old days meet in a model train store on the banks of the Allegheny

MILLVALE, Pa. — When you walk into Esther’s Hobby Shop in this old river town on the banks of the Allegheny, your instinct is to wonder if this glorious step back in time is the last glimpse of a dying industry.

It only takes about five minutes — and a spray of customers ranging from eight years old, to a couple of Millennials, to several Baby Boomers who traveled all the way from Florida — to realize that instinct is wrong.

In an age of rapid automation that includes an addiction to handheld computers located in your iPhone and technological advances that usurp jobs and culture right before our eyes daily – Esther’s has found a way to bridge that transition from artisanship that could have died off to high technology that appeals to the young and not-so-young of the digital age.

All thanks to the owner, Bob Mehler, who has worked at Esther’s for 80 years.

Yes, 80.

“I was seven years old when my mother, Esther, opened this shop. It was 1938, and it began as a variety shop, with some models as well as coffee and a lunch counter,” Mehler explains as he gingerly fields questions from customers.

Dressed in a crisp white short-sleeve shirt with his first name embroidered on the right side and a train-themed tie, Mehler steps back and lets the customers move around the neatly stacked, highly organized shelves filled with model trains, tracks, scenery, plane kits ranging from the balsa-wood planes that used to fill kids’ Christmas stockings to elaborate high-tech models.

“Never rush people, never hover over people. Let them explore, enjoy, and find that thing that inspires them to build and create,” he says.

Like Esther’s, Millvale is a town in the middle of transition. The transition that appears to be going well, considering everything that has gone wrong for this town over the past few decades: job losses, a flood that wiped out half of the Main Street businesses, an aging population that was dying off.

Read the full piece HERE.

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