Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Lessons from York - We See Change

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 the 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


From collector to operator


In Part 1 I shared some examples of a hobby in flux. The first three generations of toy train collectors are selling more than their buying. There is a fourth generation, though. But this middle-aged group is made up of operators rather than collectors.

Yes, they're interested in the larger gauge trains that were the mainstay of Lionel and American Flyer.  But they prefer to run trains on a layout rather than display them on shelves.

Trains made by Lionel, MTH, Atlas, Bachmann, and others for today's market are much more reliable that fragile and finicky vintage equipment that's a half-century old.

And that change was readily apparent at the meet.

Code Orange

The York meet had six dealer halls, designated by color. Four were for members who sell vintage toys (that being a loose definition). Two -- the Orange and Purple Halls -- were reserved for manufacturers of new products.

In these two halls were the latest offerings from Lionel, MTH, et al. There were also plenty of offerings from smaller companies that specialize in operating layout accessories; scenery, benchwork, electronics; structures, etc.

 The Lionel booth in the Orange Hall. It didn't look like this in
the members-only halls.


The Orange and Purple Halls were packed (at least while we were there). TCA allowed the general public into these two halls during the weekend. They did so at the last meet, and it was successful enough to continue this time as well.

Let's make a deal!

By contrast, the members-only halls weren't nearly as busy. These halls had the train items of interest primarily to the first three generations of collectors. There were many empty tables in these halls.

In the past, I had run across vendors who were anxious to close the deal. If I stopped to look at something, the table holder would appear at my side. He'd extoll the virtues of the object, and give me every reason why I should buy it right that minute!

And if I still resisted, he'd sometimes hint that the price was negotiable.

This time, it seemed that more of the vendors were like That Guy. Plus, I saw several signs at tables: "Prices negotiable" "Make me an offer" and so on.

I ran across a table with a pile of MPC Lionel boxes -- $10 each. Normally these would be in the $20-30 range, but not that day. The other half of the table was marked 50% off.

My two York purchases. I was really only interested in the red
Southern box car from Lionel MPC. But for $10 each, I couldn't resist.

To me, this suggests that the vendors also know the market is changing. And they want to get rid of their stock while there's still a window of opportunity to sell it. Because once the third generation stops buying, demand will plummet.

The October, 2018 meet should show if my impressions were correct.

One more thing


For the first time ever, I didn't see a Lionel Lifesavers Tank Car. Not one. It's been one of the few items I could count on spotting every meet. Have they all finally found homes?

 

Monday, April 23, 2018

Lessons from York - A Sea Change?

At one time, this volume was worth
over $100 - if you could find it. Now
it's readily available for $10.
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 the 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.

What we saw

Most of what we saw at the April 2018 meet seemed to suggest that the market for vintage toy trains was still shrinking. If anything, the decline of the hobby (at least in its current form) seems to have accelerated.

One big library sale

Throughout the years a number of hobby-related reference books have been published. Because of their highly specialized subject matter, these books tended to have very short print runs. The better ones seldom came on the market. These were books collectors would use -- and use often.

Out of print for years, and now back on the market.
This meet we saw several tables with piles of reference books. These weren't factory remainders. Each table usually had just one copy of a particular title. They just had a lot of titles.

Why? Reference works are one of the last things to leave a collection. Even after the objects have been sold, you can still enjoy looking at their color photos in books.

I think these books are the final liquidation of collections. The subjects of most of these books were for trains made between 1900 and the Second World War. This was the focus of the first and second generation of collectors, those who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s.


The past few years I've seen evidence of these collectors downsizing. I believe this flood of books represents estate sales.

Lionel and American Flyer HO

In the 1950s, HO scale was hot. And both Lionel (O-gauge) and American Flyer (S-gauge) started to lose market share. Both companies tried to enter the HO market, and both were unsuccessful.

This did not end well. 
This did not end well, either.
Which made their HO trains somewhat rare, but not especially desirable. Except for a certain type of collector.

Most collectors have very specific interests, but there are some who want it all. For a hard-core Lionel post-war collector, that means not just having every O-gauge train set the company produced from 1948-1970.

It means owning every rail car, every accessory, and every esoteric item Lionel produced, like their chemistry sets, science kits -- and HO scale trains.

The current active generation of collectors grew up in the 1950s. These are the people who would acquire Lionel and American Flyer HO trains to fill out their collections.

But this is also the generation that's just entering retirement. And that means downsizing. The easiest way to begin downsizing a collection is to get rid of the outliers. And if you're a Lionel O-gauge or American Flyer S-gauge postwar collector, these companies' HO trains are just that.

A changing hobby

So if the last remnants of the old collectors is now hitting the market, and the current generation is starting to downsize, is this the end? I don't think so. I think, rather, these are signs of change -- as I'll explain in Part 2.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Line Mar Match Box Construction 084 Mechanical Acrobat

I found a Line Mar Match Box Construction Set from the 1930s, complete and with instructions. The box claimed the set made 100 different toys. I decided to test that claim -- one toy at a time. You can read all the posts for the Line Mar construction project at 100 Toys.

084. Mechanical Acrobat

Although it's called a mechanical acrobat, this week's build is actually the model of a mechanical acrobat. As you can see, there is nothing to make the figure move around on the crossbar. 

And there's something else. Once again, the illustrator got a little ambitious with his drawing. The set comes with two cubes. The model requires three -- two for the crossbar and one for the head of the figure. 

The only way to make the toy at all was to use one of the larger blocks instead.