DETOURS—Toy trains sidetrack a life — but in a good way
By Dave Hoekstra
NEW BUFFALO, Mich.–Filmmaker Tom McComas is driving his Forest green 1997 BMW across the Chessie System/Seaboard Coast Line train tracks near the Indiana-Michigan border. Like any good cinematographer, he looks both ways.
“The last thing I want to do is get killed by a train,” McComas says with a laugh.
McComas owns the I Love Toy Trains store at 16 S. Smith St. in New Buffalo. The shop is named after his award-winning “I Love Toy Trains” children’s video series. The store is a great whistle-stop for a last-minute Christmas gift.
McComas also produced a “Celebrity Train Layout” series on video and DVD that features the mind-boggling home train layouts of Frank Sinatra (Part 1), talk show legend Tom Snyder (Part 2) and Mandy Patinkin (Part 3). Rocker Neil Young is on deck for Part 4. Young is a part owner of Lionel Trains.
And while Young sang, “24 and there’s so much more” (in “Old Man”), McComas found success in midlife. In 1972 he was running his own film production company in Chicago. A big baseball fan, McComas made a film called “No Game Today” about a child who snuck into old Comiskey Park on an off day. McComas, now 64, also ran with a Chicago media crowd that included the fine writer James Tuohy.
In 1972 a friend of McComas invented a sugar-releasing space capsule that was supposed to be a premium for cereal boxes. McComas produced a promotional film about the toy. The toy flopped and the friend was unable to pay for the film.
Instead, he offered McComas four boxes of old Lionel trains. “I was recently married, living in a small apartment on the North Side of Chicago,” McComas recalls in his store, which is in a 100-year-old resort house. “The last thing I wanted was trains. I had a set growing up in the 1950s, but used to put lighter fluid on it, set it on fire and run it around the tracks. I had no interest in trains.”
A year later McComas had some friends over for dinner. One guest was a train collector. McComas told him about the trains that were in storage in the basement. After dinner, McComas spread the trains out on the cellar floor. The guest offered $7,500 for them. McComas immediately became interested in Lionel trains.
And he became sidetracked.
“After everybody left, I picked up those [train] pieces,” he says. “They were heavy, die-cast metal. They were made in the ’30s. And Lionel had this feeling of quality. The 1930s was a great decade for America, with popular music, architecture and industrial design. This was part of the essence of America.”
McComas set out to find more information about the trains and their worth. He couldn’t find any resource material, despite the fact there were 10,000 train collectors across America. He figured there would be a market for a book.
McComas recruited his pal “Tuohy” (as everyone calls him) to help write a series of “Collectors Guide to Lionel” books about trains. He recalls, “We both loved Sinatra and baseball. And he is a magnificent writer. He taught me how to write simply and with elegance–rather than writing elegantly. But he wasn’t a train fan, either. He did it because it was fun and we could travel.”
McComas suggested dividing the books into six editions, ranging from pre-war (1943-45) to the modern era (1970-80) and even including Lionel advertising and art (Vol. 6). He reflects, “Lionel almost went broke in the late 1960s. Who was buying trains then? Airline travel crossed train travel in ’53. The Lionel name still meant a lot, but kids wanted slot cars. However, General Mills came along in 1970 and knew that in 15 years baby boomers were going to be at peak earning power. They figured if they could buy the [Lionel] name for a song, it would be gravy. And that’s what happened.”
Every April and October, more than 15,000 train collectors from all over the world (including Neil Young) come to York, Pa., for a toy train meet. After McComas and Tuohy published their first book in 1974, McComas borrowed his father’s black 1966 El Dorado convertible for a road trip to York.
“It had the biggest trunk you’ve ever seen,” McComas says. “We loaded it up with books and started driving east. Pennsylvania, New York–that’s train country. We’d stop at hobby stores along the way and sell books. Tuohy would say, “I don’t think Hemingway did it this way.” But at the end of the day we had $400 cash. We’d go out and have a great dinner with a few martinis. We’d get a motel and do it again the next day.
“One year Tuohy and I tried to sing through the entire state of Ohio. We sang Sinatra. Cole Porter. The Beatles. By Cleveland, we were looking for anybody.” McComas looks away and begins to recite lyrics from Eric Maschwitz’s 1935 composition, “These Foolish Things.” He says, “A telephone that rings, but who’s to answer? How the ghost of you clings, these foolish things remind me of you. How good a lyric is that? It would take Henry James 600 pages to say the same thing. And it wouldn’t have rhymed!”
McComas’ business took off faster than the Southwest Chief. The books gave birth to the children’s videos. The children’s videos linked to the celebrity videos. The trains even led to McComas producing a children’s video series for Caterpillar. Today, the “I Love Toy Trains” video series has sold nearly 2 million copies. McComas and editor Joe Stachler, 32, co-produced the two-hour PBS special, “A Century of Lionel Trains.”
McComas and Tuohy parted ways in 1987. Last December McComas opened his store, which is stocked with Lionel trains (starter sets and refurbished post-war models), books, videos, T-shirts and popular wooden trains for children. The store also features an operating Lionel layout with four trains in constant motion.
Kids love the I Love Toy Trains store.
I don’t have kids, yet I am floored by their fascination with trains. In an era of computers and video games, little kids still love trains. And technology has morphed with toy trains, so today’s trains have computer-controlled remotes with station calls, cab chatter and other extras.
“Think of yourself 6 months old in a car seat and you pull up to a train station,” McComas says. “Suddenly bells start ringing and lights start flashing. The biggest thing that moves on earth comes roaring by. Some connection is going to be made.” McComas and his wife, Charyl, have four sons: their 11-year-old son, Jeff, does narration in the train series. McComas began the toy train video series to entertain Jeff when he was 3. From previous marriages, Charyl’s son Jack is a junior at Michigan State University; his son Tom, 32, is a stunt man studying to be a director, and son Chris, 26, manages his father’s company, which is called TM Books and Video. The TM umbrella employs eight people.
McComas has lived near New Buffalo since 1987. Sometimes, when he navigates the modest train tracks between his Michigan store and his Indiana home-editing studio, he wonders how all this happened to him. “I didn’t plan any of it,” McComas says. “I wanted to make movies. I loved the films of Godard, Truffaut. But your life takes strange turns.”
And that is the adventure of train travel.
The I Love Toy Trains store is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST) Thursday through Sunday. Other weekdays, call (800) 892-2822 and someone will meet you at the store. I Love Toy Trains also offers a free appraisal service. Readers can fax a list of their trains and the store will fax back a rough estimate of their value. The store’s fax number is (219) 879-7909.
And yes, you can take a train to New Buffalo. Amtrak’s Pierre Marquette line makes a daily stop just six blocks south of the I Love Toy Trains store, 16 S. Smith St. The train leaves Union Station at 5:20 p.m. (CST) arriving in New Buffalo at 7:32 p.m. (EST). Return time is 10:02 a.m. (EST), arriving in Chicago at 10:26 a.m. (CST). A round-trip ticket ranges between $30 and $40. For more information on I Love Toy Trains, call (800) 892-2822.
Reprinted with permission—Chicago Sun-Times (suntimes.com)