Before the owners of a local train hobby story make their way down the tracks, they hope their Ashland business will find a new conductor.
Jim and Nancy Donlon opened Train Town Toy & Hobby in Ashland in 2003. The store has spent time on both sides of the tracks, and it has developed popular events such as Train Day and the Santa Train. Customers come from as far away as Fredericksburg and Charlottesville.
Jim Donlon had decades of retail experience with toys. He worked for companies such as Electronics Boutique and the Great Train Store before striking out on his own.
He sees toy trains as an activity that can bring the whole family together.
“They can be a gathering place for people in the home, not just for Christmas, but for all year-round, between a 2-year-old who has the Thomas trains and the grandfather who remembers Lionel trains in 1955 and can have them all work together,” Donlon said.
That family aspect has been one prevalent component of the business. Another has been getting involved in the community.
Donlon joined the Ashland Main Street Association, Market Ashland Partnership, and the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond.
When the Ashland Library staff came up with the idea to celebrate trains, Donlon got on board. They held the first Train Day in 2003, and it drew a crowd of maybe 200.
The annual event grew from there. Donlon secured more trains and more vendors. The Town of Ashland got involved to help coordinate the traffic, and Amtrak took part in last year’s event, bringing people from Richmond to Ashland specifically for Train Day.
“As soon as the kids are back in school, they start asking about Train Day,” Donlon said. “It’s getting bigger and bigger all the time.”
Train Day had about 4,000 to 5,000 visitors last year, and the tradition will continue under the stewardship of the Ashland Main Street Association.
Donlon was originally planning to retire in about three years, but he and Nancy found a house they like in Charleston, S.C. They decided to go ahead and buy it and move up their timetable.
So now they’re looking to sell Train Town Toy & Hobby, but they’re not in any hurry.
Jim Donlon is considering selling only a portion of the business for now to stay involved for a bit longer.
“I’m hoping to find a person to continue with Train Town on the tracks and maybe mentor him for a while, be a partner with him having the majority interest, and maybe three years down the road sell the whole thing to him,” Donlon said.
He had interviews with prospective buyers scheduled last weekend, and he had already conducted some phone interviews.
“We hope to have somebody who wants to be involved with the store and the community,” Donlon said. “Have they had a history of retail and the community, being involved in the community? So that’s part of the things we’re looking at to turn it over to somebody.
“We won’t sell it until we find that right person who has an interest in the community, trains, and Ashland.”
The next owner will need to enjoy three items in particular: “You have to enjoy trains. You have to enjoy kids. And you have to enjoy being a part of the community and not doing it just for the money.”
Donlon has enjoyed “seeing families come together to enjoy an activity without the need of a computer, without the need of television.”
He’s not entirely sure what’s next for himself, but he’s tossing around a few ideas, such as getting involved with tourist railroads in South Carolina.
But he knows he wants Train Town Toy & Hobby to continue long after he’s left Ashland.
“We’d like to see it go on for another 50 years,” Donlon said.
Anyone interested in purchasing the business should contact town economic development coordinator Alexis Thompson at Town Hall at (804) 798-1073.