Sidestepping the 'electronics age,' toy shop owner ready to retire

Sidestepping the 'electronics age,' toy shop owner ready to retire

John Elliott, owner of Apple Valley Hobbies, plans on getting out of the business within a month or two. Above, Elliot is pictured with a train layout. (Breeze photos by Gerry Goldstein)
Now in Greenville, Apple Valley Hobbies began in Pawtucket 67 years ago

SMITHFIELD - In a culture obsessed with smartphones, iPads, and Xboxes, 76-year-old John Elliott runs a small retail throwback where "digital" isn't in the dictionary and Christmas shoppers negotiate a timeless maze of model airplanes and electric trains.

Look up and there's not an iCloud in sight to block the scores of miniature aircraft hanging rakishly from the ceiling.

Look down and there's a Lilliputian Acela train, zooming past the outskirts of a tiny rural town.

Look straight ahead, beyond the stacked-up kits of model cars, ships, rockets, and locomotives, and there's Elliott himself, silvery whiskers and all, in his element amid an inventory glossed with the patina of Christmases past.

For nearly 33 years, Elliott has stuck to basics that for generations have fascinated hobbyists, but that's all coming to an end - sometime after Christmas he's planning to close up shop.

He's been looking to sell Apple Valley Hobbies, in the Apple Valley Plaza on Cedar Swamp Road, but so far there are no takers for what he terms "a small, intimate shop where we don't have a computer and still do layaways."

Elliott, of North Providence, doesn't begrudge the world its fascination with cyberspace, but observes that "it's about instant gratification, and this is not instant gratification. The electronic age is not for us."

Instead, he says, his clientele - which ranges from children to grandparents - take a slower route that involves buying boxfuls of parts, following directions, and picking up a little history in the building of models that reflect America's development.

One recent day, Dave Angelotti, 64, of Cranston, a one-time jet mechanic in Vietnam, cashed out with kits for a World War II airborne troop carrier and a Navy seaplane. In shopping at the store, he was following a precedent set by his father.

Marc Lamontagne, 48, of North Smithfield, said he's been a customer for nearly a quarter of a century, because what Elliott sells represents "the old way of having fun."

The Smithfield store, in a strip mall behind McDonald's just off Putnam Pike, has roots in an enterprise that started 67 years ago in Pawtucket as Parent Hobbies.

Elliott bought it in 1981 while he was an industrial products salesman, and his wife, Carol, ran it in the early years. They moved it to Smithfield in 1994.

The customer base is loyal, says Elliott, and over the years has included World War II veterans who flew the real versions of models they bought.

Scores of planes hang from the ceiling, most of them made and brought in by Elliott's customers, who enjoy his non-stop, waggish banter as much as his model kits.

Elliott says most of his friends are retired, the old-time hobby items aren't as widely popular as they once were, and the Internet has cut into his type of operation.

Also, he's disappointed in the quality of merchandise that comes from overseas manufacturers and he's grown tired of the effort it takes to maintain a diverse inventory and pay the $2,600 monthly rent.

It's a bit of a struggle these days, he says, noting that while he prefers to sell out rather than close up, "I'd think twice before selling to a friend."

The shop needs an owner "who's retired or semi-retired and well off," he says, adding that buying the place would take about $175,000 - not exactly child's play.

And, he guarantees, "You will not get rich here."

For now, Elliott is offering deep discounts to reduce stock and anticipates remaining only another month or two.

There's plenty to do at home, where he has an extensive model train collection, wind-up record players that go back to the era of 78 rpm records, a stamp collection, and a library of books on railroads, cars, and the military.

After decades of providing leisure-time pleasure to young and old alike, John Elliott says its time to wrap it up "and play with my own toys."

Shoppers browse under the canopy of hanging airplanes.