Whistle blows for trackside model train store
One of downtown Ashland’s staple businesses is leaving town.
After a year of trying to find someone to take over Train Town Toy and Hobby, Jim Donlon said the store’s last day in business is Saturday.
Last year, Donlon said he and his wife, Nancy, purchased a home in North Charleston, S.C. with the original plan being for someone to take over the Ashland store as he transitioned to his new life in South Carolina.
Jim Donlon, owner of Train Town Toy and Hobby in downtown Ashland, poses with some of his model trains. Train Town’s last day in business here will be Saturday.
“I’ve had a few inquiries but nothing enough substantial,” he said. “I was going to mentor the person – come back up and help them and stay for a while – it just didn’t happen.”
Donlon now plans to open a new store in Summerville, S.C., a suburb of Charleston, this April. His new location is on Main Street in the small, South Carolina town where he will still be able to observe the occasional passing train. In addition to Amtrak and CSX lines, Donlon said that Norfolk Southern runs through Summerville.
Donlon said that Charleston “looks and feels” much like the town in New England where he used to live near Portsmouth, N.H., only it’s much warmer.
“It hasn’t snowed there in two years,” he said.
Train Town Toy and Hobby first opened in Ashland in August 2003. Donlon moved the business across the street to its current location on South Railroad Avenue in 2006.
Before coming to Ashland, Donlon was running a Great Train Store location at Union Station when that company went bankrupt. He and his wife were living in the Baltimore, Md. area at the time and decided to move south.
Over the last 10 years, Donlon has remained active in the community with groups like Market Ashland Partnership and the Ashland Main Street Association. Tom Wulf, executive director of Main Street, said Donlon was actually the organization’s longest serving board member when he stepped down last year and was key to its success as an organization.
“We wish Jim all the best as he moves his successful train store to his new hometown in North Charleston,” Wulf said.
Wulf also noted that Donlon helped transform Ashland’s annual Train Day from a children’s program at the library to a full-fledged attraction for the town. Donlon said it’s possible he’ll return to the Center of the Universe for next year’s celebration.
“It’s still a question mark. If I can, I would like to come back for it, maybe set up a little kiosk,” he said.
Ashland Main Street will continue to organize Train Day and Ashland Street Parties will take over the Christmas-time Santa Train program, which Donlon also helped organize during his time in Ashland.
Donlon’s contributions to the town have not gone unnoticed. Town Manager Charles Hartgrove said Train Town was integral not only to the growth and success of Train Day, but also in the vitality of the town’s downtown district as a whole.
“The business has brought a lot of pedestrian and vehicle traffic to the area and they have complemented our community’s train heritage as well,” Hartgrove said.
The town is currently in the middle of a major overhaul of its downtown commercial corridor. Though the area in front of Donlon’s shop is currently a construction zone, he said that the project was not a factor in his decision to leave Ashland, adding that the area will be much improved once the work is completed.
Hartgrove said that while the town will miss Train Town, they hope that their investment in downtown will not go unnoticed by future, potential businesses.
“While we will miss the Donlons and their business, it is important that we continue to retain and build our retail and hospitality base in the downtown area,” Hartgrove said. “We are optimistic that Town Council’s investment in the streetscape improvements will continue to attract quality investors and businesses that will drive both locals and visitors to support downtown Ashland.”
Other interested parties are also looking forward to what might fill the void left behind by Train Town. Main Street board member Hugh Joyce said it was hard to see the small retail business go.
“I hate to see Train Town close its doors! This type of retail is really what we need in all of our downtown buildings – different, unique, something out of the past,” Joyce said.
He added that the town needs more businesses like independent retail stores, restaurants or gallery spaces to occupy its downtown commercial corridor.
“The more of these types of businesses we have, the better,” Joyce said. “They create welcoming and important foot traffic that makes the Ashland downtown work. I hope a similar business will open up there soon.”
Wulf said that he would be surprised if the storefront at 104 South Railroad Avenue stays vacant for very long, calling the area “arguably the best location in Ashland.” It will become even more coveted once the ongoing streetscape project is finalized later this spring, according to Wulf.
“I’ve talked to several business owners who are waiting in the wings,” he said.
Though many Ashlanders are already looking toward the future of a thriving, small business-centric downtown, for Donlon, Saturday ends a decade-long relationship with the Center of the Universe. But he’ll still have the memories and friendships to show for it.
“We miss everyone in Ashland, we want to thank all the customers; we’ve made a lot of friends here, Nancy and I,” he said.