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June 18, 2011

Shop Talk: Delhi Station Train and Lighting Shop

The Daily Star

---- — Shop Talk is a weekly column featuring locally owned and operated businesses. This week, we talk to Neil Mitchell of the Delhi Station Train and Lighting Shop.

How long have you lived in the area?

I moved here in 1998 from New Jersey, where I grew up. My mom was from Otego, where my grandfather had an opera house and newspaper business. My aunt and uncle owned the Delhi Republican newspaper quite a while ago.

Tell me about your business:

I sell new electric model trains in all gauges; occasionally I deal in used trains as well. I am an Aladdin Lamp dealer specializing in kerosene, electric and restoration pieces especially in the era of 1830 to 1960.

This is a small shop with a lot of inventory; in addition to the trains and lamps, I stock track, scenery and parts, do special orders and I have specialty catalogs for customers to look through.

Describe a typical day in your business:

I really never know _ people stop in out of the blue looking for something specific or just to look around, or I will have people stop in and have a train that they would like to have repaired. November and December are really busy with the holidays.

How did you get started in this line of work?

I guess it all began with a train around the Christmas tree. My first train was a 1954 Comet American Flyer, I believe, and I have always been interested in model trains since. I had originally thought about running an antique shop, but there are plenty of those, and I didn’t have the space required for antiques, so I decided to specialize, focusing on trains and on lanterns.

Where do you see this business in five years?

It will all depend on the nation’s economy. Model trains are a discretionary income hobby, but they manage to stay popular despite the economy. In five years, I want to still be open with a regular flow of customers.

Describe a memorable moment in your workplace:

A man came in about six years ago who was about 90 years old. He drove himself up here with an old train that he had. It was a standard gauge pre-war Lionel Engine that he wanted to have cleaned up and repaired. I fixed, cleaned and repaired as best I could, and when the man returned to pick it up, he was so happy he almost started crying.

What have you learned from your work?

Treat people squarely, be honest and upfront. I didn’t learn this from my business, but I did learn how important it is when I hear what other sellers do. It surprises me. I have also learned how many women and young ladies are interested in trains, and really know what they are talking about.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

It has to do with ordering trains. It use to be that the manufacturer made plenty, so there was an ample number stored for small businesses such as mine to call and order what I or the customer wanted. Nowadays, any of the newest, latest models need to be pre-ordered because companies are only making so many. By Christmas time, if I didn’t pre-order, partly on a guess, what would be hot sellers, they would not be available and I would have to wait till they make more.

The most enjoyable?

Things like getting an old oil lantern restored and working, or when a customer comes in looking for something very specific and I have it in stock.

How do you define success for your business?

Return customers are a sure sign of success. New customers who come in for the very first times can also be a good reading on how well I am doing. Right now I think I am doing pretty good.

What are some advantages as well as drawbacks of doing business in this area?

The disadvantages are the winter weather, especially if heavy snow and bad weather come before Christmas and people are not as likely to travel out this way when the roads are bad.

The advantages are that there are no other train stores around and there a quite a few hobbyists in this area.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

I don’t have any competitors here really, but in terms of the ‘big stores’ as competitors, it is hard to keep my prices at least similar so I have to make up for it with great service and not be pushy or get them to buy without explaining what they will need to know.

What advice would you give to someone trying to enter your field of work?

Whatever you are selling, know your product(s) and do not go into debt.

Shop Talk interviews are conducted by Terry Hannum. For information, or to suggest a business for Shop Talk, call The Daily Star at 432-1000, ext. 217, or email