Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lessons from York - What We Didn't See: People

A general interest publication from 1979 -- when things
were much different (and collectors were younger).
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of t he state of the hobby. 

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

Lifecycle of a hobby (according to me)

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I believe that the changes in what we saw (or didn't see) at the show all stem from the same cause -- the aging of the membership. I've seen many collectible fields go through basically the same lifecycle.


Stage one: An everyday object has common appeal. Like comic books, baseball cards, carnival glass plates, or teddy bears.

Stage two: Driven by nostalgia, a market develops for those vintage everyday items. Many collectors try to either recover objects they or their families had in their youth or objects they wished they had owned at that time.

Stage three: Manufacturers become aware of this secondary collector's market, and begin to create products for it. Limited edition versions, items marked "collector's item," multiple versions of the same item (collect them all!) are all examples of this trend.

Stage four: The object, either because of fashion and/or technology changes, no longer has an everyday function. It becomes exclusively a collector's item, which further spurs more exotic versions from manufacturers. At this point, the hobby has usually entered the public consciousness and attracts people who are interested in buying and selling these collectables for the fabulous sums they reportedly command.

Stage five: The original market for the object dries up. This could be due to changing tastes (like Beanie Babies), or just the ageing of the collectors as a group. People who collected Shirley Temple memorabilia because they remember seeing her movies as a child in the 1930s were probably born in the 1920s. Relatively few are alive today, and consequently, the demand is quite low. This is especially true for derivative collectables -- objects made after well after the heyday of the original.

Entering Stage Five

And I think we're seeing the toy train hobby entering stage five. For some time, the meet has used six of the halls on the York Fairgrounds. This time, the smallest of those halls was closed. But the remaining halls weren't crowded. Many rows had empty tables. Some were sold, but not occupied, but a good portion was unsold. And the crowd seemed thinner than it had been even in the fall.

Decline or transition?

So there it is. I think it will be a slow decline, but there's hope. While the halls where people sold old and used trains had declining traffic, the two halls with current manufacturers of trains and model railroading accessories (like scenery and buildings) were booming.

Younger generations may not have grown up with Lionel, but they seem to be interested in operating layouts. And for that, new equipment is much more reliable than vintage trains. The demand for old toy trains may continue to weaken, but the interest in larger scale model (not toy) trains seems to be growing.

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