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The Red Caboose Hobby Shop

The Red Caboose Hobby Shop

23 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
212 575 0155
theredcaboose.com
Hours:
M-F 11:30am-7pm; Sa 11:30am-5pm
Established: 1946

Led into a long hallway and down a flight of stairs by signs bearing “The Red Caboose,” I came into a basement full of what seemed every toy train part and accessory imaginable. In a small kiosk-like structure sat a man (and his cat on the counter in front of him) who was comparing acrylic and oil-based paints with a middle-aged gentleman. When his customer left, the man greeted me with a smile and a “Hello, how can I help you?” in a distinctively New York accent.

Initially, I was speechless. I just needed a moment to take in what was surrounding me. I had grown up with one room in our basement dedicated to our electric train set. It had been years since I had seen anything close to resembling my fond childhood memories.

That afternoon, I learned a lot about The Red Caboose and Mr. Allan J. Spitz, its owner. Although the Red Caboose opened in 1994, the No. 23 West location has had a hobby shop on its premises since 1946.

The basement originally held the Model Railroad Equipment Corporation, run by Carmen “Ma” Webster. Ms. Webster got into the business because of her husband, the original owner of the store. When he left Ms. Webster, she decided to take over his store and learn everything there was to know about model train building.

In a time when men dominated the hobby industry, Ms. Webster stood out as a female impresario. Undeterred by the hesitance of her male peers, Carmen Webster made a name for herself and was among the first to start selling spare nuts, bolts and parts to hobbyists who would have previously had to buy a completely new set in order to replace the pieces they were missing. Ms. Webster also began her own publication and boasted having the widest selection of model train-related items in the world. “If Ma Webster doesn’t have it, no one does,” the saying goes. Ms. Webster stayed in the hobby business until 1973. Over the years, the space has changed hands a couple of times before Allan Spitz leased the location.

Mr. Spitz had a passion for building warships growing up and found himself working at Polk’s, a legendary hobby shop on Fifth Avenue. After spending a few years learning about the industry, he decided to leave with a couple of co-workers to open The Red Caboose.

Today, Mr. Spitz is the only remaining partner of his original associates. He explained to me that during hobby shops’ high water mark, there used to be four or five other places along 45th Street, but now, only The Red Caboose remains. Mr. Spitz recalls years past with fondness, saying that in its heyday, he had ten employees on payroll – now, there is usually only one other employee standing beside him.

Mr. Spitz says that his customers are “old, older, and oldest,” describing hobby enthusiasts as an aging group of men who used to build model trains during their childhood. Back in the days of railroad workers, men, in between train shifts, would come during their lunch to pick up parts for their models. Nowadays, Mr. Spitz says that a good amount of his sales come from foreigners – especially Brazilians: “here in The Red Caboose, we only fly one flag,” he exclaimed, while waving a small Brazilian flag on a stick. Times have changed for hobbyists worldwide, but Mr. Spitz remains loyal and passionate about his cluttered and endearing hobby shop.