By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Jan. 10, 2019) Like the Berlin Shoe Box before it, the closing in March of Walt’s Train Shop and retirement of owner Walt Dennison will mark the end of an era – and an industry – in the Town of Berlin.
The one-of-a-kind business has been an institution in the town since opening more than 20 years ago.
Dennison, 81, was born in Upton and raised in North East, Maryland. His father “was a railroader and he would go wherever they sent him,” Dennison said.
When Dennison was about 14, his father was transferred to Mount Airy, in Carrol County. At the time, he was the track supervisor for the Old Main Line subdivision of the B&O Railroad.
Dennison opened his own business in the town in 1976, staying in the railroad business like his father, but instead of working on one of the oldest railroads in the United States, he specialized in the hobbyist side of things.
“It was a full and complete hobby store – the most complete train store in the State of Maryland,” he said.
Dennison and his wife liked the water and owned a condo near Berlin for a number of years. He made a habit of telling her “as soon as I sell the store in Mount Airy, we can move down here.”
“It went on and on and on, and she finally said, ‘You’re not going to sell that store!’” Dennison said. “Why don’t we just move it down there?”
In 1995, he bought the 14 South Main Street building that currently houses the Town of Berlin Welcome Center.
“It was an ugly looking building back then and the [owner] had it advertised in the paper,” Dennison said. “Somebody finally cleaned it up and it looked good, and I saw a Realtor’s sign on it and got more interested.
“I had a price in mind, had a deal in mind, talked to the Realtor [and] told her what it was. She says, ‘He’ll never accept that,’” he continued. “I got home and he called me, personally himself, and said OK. He wanted to get out of it. That’s how I ended up buying that piece of property.”
Dennison moved from Mount Airy on a Saturday night and opened in Berlin on the following Saturday morning, on April 2, 1995.
“I had so many people that wanted to see me leave town in Mount Airy that 18 of them came Saturday night and helped me pack up,” he said with a laugh. “One of them had a big truck, we had a couple little trucks, and we just moved it over.”
Dennison said town government, at the time, was more than welcoming.
“When I went to Town Hall and told those people what I had proposed on doing, they offered me all the resources they had to help me do it,” he said. “They were very nice. They had good ideas. If there were any problems to be solved, they were there to help me. It made it very easy to move into this town and the reception that I got was just outstanding.”
Then, in 2008, Dennison and his wife decided to retire. Things did not go well.
“I put an ad in the paper and let a Realtor know I was going to sell [the building], and in three weeks I got a half-million dollar contract,” he said. “In early 2008, commercial property was still hot.
“But, the people who wanted to buy it kept calling us [and] calling the Realtors. We’d get a call from the bank about this and this and about that, and various things went on that made us just a little bit antsy,” Dennison said.
The buyer, who wanted to open a school in art in Berlin, called from California and asked Dennison to be out of the building within 90 days.
“We set about selling things half price, 75 percent off. I cleared out a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of merchandise in 90 days – emptied the place. And I mean emptied, because I wasn’t going to be in business anymore,” Dennison said. “All of my facilities, counters, everything. I even gave some of it away. There was nothing but the paint on the walls. And they backed out of the deal one week before settlement.
“Now what do I have? An empty store, no money and no inventory,” he continued. “So that precipitated, six months later, my deciding I would either have go get a job, which would have put two other people out of work, or reopen.”
He chose the latter, at first doing mostly consignment work, but with the help of many loyal customers Dennison eventually got into a position to be able to buy new merchandise and reestablish the store.
That went on until 2011, when the town and chamber of commerce bought the building. Dennison moved the business to Pitts Street in February 2011.
“I had enough people that wanted to see me move and help me out that I had about 15 people help us move, so it all got done pretty easily,” he said. “But, it was a different time. Commercial property wasn’t any good anymore, so what I got for the store was not much more than half of what I’d been offered before. It still left me with considerable debt.”
The Pitts Street location, where the store is today, was once a regional Comcast office. The much smaller space meant much less room for new merchandise.
In the rush to retire and close the old store, Dennison also ended up getting rid of about 4,000 customer files on his computer. In a way, he was starting again from scratch.
“It took a while,” he said. “And I started concentrating on what’s known as old postwar Lionel train collections.
“The most popular trains, throughout history … were manufactured by a company called Lionel,” Dennison continued. “It became a tradition that, I’d put a big layout. You, as a father, would put a big layout and get your children involved. And, when you couldn’t do it anymore, the heritage was that you passed it on to your children and grandchildren and so forth.”
Like the housing bubble, the train market collapsed about a decade ago, as very few people were getting into the hobby, Dennison said. As families were clearing out there homes and attics, much of that inventory locally ended up at Walt’s Train Shop.
“I said, OK, I’ll buy them from you. I’ll give you a price for them … and I gave the fairest result,” he said. “And then I would fix them up and put them out for sale, just like they were new. But, there were more and more falling into the market and the value that Lionel trains had up to that point in time was dropping very quickly.
“They were better than the stock market for many years … you could buy some Lionel trains and in three years sell them and get 30 percent on your money,” Dennison continued. “Nowadays, the average age for a model train person is 65 years old.”
Today, Dennison said he can buy the trains cheaper, but he has to also sell them for lower prices than ever, and the parts to restore the old models keeps going up.
“It’s become an expensive thing to do,” he said.
Dennison recently, and typically without much fanfare, put a sign in his window that reads: “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE JAN 10-MAR 16.”
“I can’t call it a retirement – I just had to finally get out of it,” he said, adding debt from the debacle of selling off his former business stayed with him for a number of years.
“That put a timeframe on when I could decide to get out of business,” Dennison said.
Accelerating that, his wife had a serious stroke three years ago. About a year later, she had a serious fall on the way in to balance therapy and fractured her orbital bone, leading to a several-day stay in shock-trauma.
“Both of those [incidents] meant she couldn’t help me, not only around here anymore, but we had a big, massive garden in the backyard and a train in that. It took a lot of our time [and] was a thing we did together,” Dennison said.
“That meant I had to slow down and spend more time with her and helping her. So, I knew I had to decide pretty soon to do something and the timing just fell into place. I don’t call it a retirement, but just the start of my last days,” he added with a laugh.
As for his customers, Dennison said the closest similar store is in Ocean View, Delaware. He said many would also likely turn to the internet.
“If you see the number of trains and things that are advertised and available on the internet, you’d think the railroad business is really great,” he said. “But the internet, because it’s a worldwide thing and there’s millions of people out there, may save the whole model train industry – that’s my opinion.
“Unfortunately, that also takes business away from the local person. And what’s missing from this is that interface. If you have a question about what you want, who are you going to go to?” Dennison continued. “You don’t have that anymore and this is a hobby that requires a lot of help.
“Retail shops are just going to go by the wayside,” he said.
Asked what he would miss most, Dennison replied, “only the people.”
“I’ve got a lot of friends now, up and down the whole East Coast,” he said. “A lot of them came here as part of their trip to Ocean City. They come to Ocean City because they’re always saying, ‘Let’s go see Walt!’”
The closeout sale began today, Jan. 10, and ends March 16.
Walt’s Train Shop, on 8 Pitts Street in downtown Berlin, is open 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1-4 p.m.
For more information, call 410-641-2438.