Polk's was a five story hobby shop in New York City, with each of the five floors devoted to a different hobby, one of which was model railways and toy trains. The Polk name continues today, specialising in radio control models. The company was formed in 1935, by Nat and Irwin Polk, and is currently owned by Lewis Polk, son of Nat, and his wife Maryann. See update below, September 2013.
The following is an interview with Nat Polk, by Bruce Manson and Ron Morris of TCA, and is absolutely fascinating. It may be that this interview is copyright somewhere (TCA?), but appears to be on many web sites, so I take the liberty of including it here, because it should be compulsory reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of our hobby. I have changed names of interesting people and businesses to bold type. Enjoy.Polk's Model Craft Hobbies celebrated its 60th Anniversary in 1995 and the following article from an interview with the Train Collectors Quarterly magazine by Bruce Manson gives insight into what sixty years really means. It's not just the survival of a company, but rather the relationships, insights, and dedication to an industry that accompanies the longevity and generates the good will that improves the environment. Nat has always said, " The way to improve business is to increase the pie and then get your share of it." However, more than saying it, Nat has dedicated his life to this premise.
While the interview following relates to the early days in the train business, Nat was also active in the model airplane field with the A.M.A., military miniature field with the M.F.C.A., the plastic kit field with the I.P.M.S., and with slot racing and die cast cars. Nat started out as a retailer and has been a wholesaler, importer, and now a manufacturer of Hobby products. Additionally, Nat served on the board of the Hobby Industry Association for many years as well as attending more than 1,000 hobby shows across America.
As a postscript to this article, it is important to mention that Nat Polk passed away in August 1996. However, we will continue to follow many of the theories and ideals which Nat set forth for our company. And, we hope that this interview will give you some insight into what this man was all about!
Bruce: What we want to do Nat is to start with day zero. Let's start with the Polk Brothers. We know you through the TCA meets and you have a brother named Irwin. Are you the senior member?
Nat: No, I'm the junior member.
B: Both youngsters at heart! You fellows started in the hobby business in approximately what year?
N: We started in New Jersey in 1933 on Halsey Street and my brother at that time was still working for Hearst Newspapers running the model aviation program in seventeen newspapers. In 1935, he was the Field Director for the Junior Birdmen of America.
You know William Randolph Hearst actually brought in the Boy Scouts of America. He always liked boy's organizations and he had an organization called the Boy Scouts of America, who wore Daniel Boone fur hats. And they were not scouts as you know them today, they were like western scouts. And when the Boy Scouts came over here from England, we pleaded with Hearst to give up that name and he did reluctantly. He always hungered for youth organizations, and after Lindbergh flew across, the aviation thing was wild and the young people were so involved in it he started with what they called the Junior Birdmen of America. Hearst ran a column daily with a full page or two on Sunday's in seventeen of his newspapers. My brother was the Field Director working to put the seal of approval on various model aviation kits and running the contest all over the country.
B: Were there model aviation companies as we know them today?
N: Oh yes, there were companies like Comet who made kits and they also made railroad kits too, you know. They were all model airplane companies at that time. In fact, during those days you didn't have any model railroad shops, you didn't have hobby shops, you had model airplane shops. We were the ones who eventually took and showed them how to sell trains, because at that time Varney and John Tyler of Mantua were selling by mail.
B: Most of those airplane model shops were in department stores, weren't they?
N: We ourselves had leased departments in about thirty department stores throughout the country.
B: Did they sell strictly airplanes?
N: Airplanes, glue, supplies, wood, and all.
B: When did that hobby start?
N: As soon as Lindbergh flew across in 1927, after that it was go. In fact, Bamberger Air Club asked us to form a club which we did with the Newark Evening News, and they asked if my brother or one of us would go to work for them and then they would open the department.
B: So you had shops, franchises in thirty department stores?
N: Yes, that went on until the late 1930's and so on.
B: How did you get into model railroading?
N: Model railroading, of course, was a love of ours always. Because we sold Lionel and American Flyer and Marx - that was strictly from the toy end. When people like Gordon Varney and John Tyler from Tyco or Mantua it was called then, because the company was in Mantua, NJ, started to sell by mail. We got very interested and talked to those two.
1934 was the year that Al Kalmbach started Model Railroader, and that was the year we opened in New York City. Bill Walthers was already in the mail order business. So we went to Tyler and to Varney and said we think we can sell these train kits and locomotives and so on through the model airplane shops. Well, they didn't believe that, but they were willing to have a go at it. So, we bought a bunch of stuff and gosh, in one month we got rid of it because it was very easy to teach those model airplane shops to go into model railroading. After that they were called hobby shops, no longer model airplane shops and we did very well.
About this time the fellow in Chicago, you know the Redbook man, Donnelley - Reuben Donnelley went into business. He was making kits mostly, and he came to us and we did the same with his line.
B: He was OO and O gauge?
N: Yes, he was OO and O gauge. That was one of the reasons that Lionel jumped head first into OO. They were so afraid that this guy who was loaded with money that he could put in a gauge they didn't have. I told Josh Cowen, don't crash into it because you have HO lurking in the background and it is much more popular and much more available in HO, but Lionel jumped right in to OO because they were worried about Donnelley, they weren't worried about any of the HO guys. That was a mistake on their part, as we all know now. Cowen was afraid of Donnelley's money and that Donnelley would surpass him.
When Donnelley's daughter died in an accident at home, he lost all desire to do anything, and that was when he stopped making anything else. He kind of lost heart.
B: Polk's, at first, was located near Macy's on Seventh Ave.?
N: It was Polk's Hobbies - Polk's Model Craft Hobbies.
B: There were hobby shops on 42nd St., weren't there?
N: No, at that time only Charlie Penn was there, but he had some model railroad supplies in his office where he published the magazine (Model Craftsman), and the only reason he had hobby supplies was because some of the guys couldn't afford to pay him so they gave him goods.
B: He had a little hobby craft store?
N: No, he had a few counters. He started to sell this merchandise to get his money out of the advertising.
B: Did Walthers at one time have a store in New York?
N: No, Bill Walthers stayed in Milwaukee where he was in the Rolodex card business, and the hobby was a secondary thing because he loved railroads and he used to ride with the engineer in the locomotive all the way to New York. And then he would come to our place to clean up and wash up. He didn't do that to save any money, he just loved riding up front in the locomotive.
B: Lionel Trains were sold where at this time?
N: Number one was hardware stores and number two was the department stores. Hobby stores did not catch on to the toy train business and there weren't enough toy shops around to have a twelve month a year train business.
B: One of the early hobby shops was started by Howell Day, correct?
N: Howell Days was in New Jersey, and he had one of the early hobby shops. He started like everybody else with kits and parts and supplies. Al Kalmbach was kind enough to give us the plans for a different locomotive every month and he would give us the plans ahead of time that so we could buy the materials and wrap them in brown paper. When the magazine came out all the guys came rushing up for the rods and parts and boiler tubes because they would have to work them out on a lathe.
B: So most of the things that you were selling then were for kits made in the States?
N: They were made in the States, but they were strictly kits, you know, parts and so on.
B: And they were cottage industries?
N: Some were cottage industries, and in those days you could call both Varney and Mantua cottage industries easily, because that's where they worked.
B: Herb Walter, a legendary O gauger, the 'old man,' at one time worked for you?
N: Oh, the old man, you know its a funny thing you call him the old man, which probably sounds as if he was always an old man, he was never young. He always looked old. He worked for us. He sold behind the counter and he was a nice enough man that he projected an image --- we were all young you know and bouncing around there, and he was the solid type of a guy, and he just leaned on the counter with his pipe or whatever.
B: I knew him when he worked for Carmen Webster at Model Railroad Equipment Corp., and he looked a bit like William K. Walthers.
N: Yes, something like that and he had a lot of confidence that he passed on to people.
B: I can remember listening to him in Model Railroad Equipment Corp., and he would ask what gauge the customer was in and they would say HO and he said, "HO is for oats," he was primarily an O guager.
N: Yes, he liked O gauge.
B: And then he left you and went to work for Carmen Webster and was written up in many magazines.
N: I have a feeling he was working for Carmen while he was working for us.
B: He may have been moonlighting. I heard a rumor to that effect.
N: It didn't really much matter to us at that point. We were just moving fast.
B: That time in New York City, was Madison Hardware open?
N: Madison was a hardware store. Don't forget in those days hardware stores were the biggest customers of Lionel and Gilbert. Madison was in Lionel early, except their connection in Lionel was still not yet established. From the point of view of getting the parts of discontinued products.
B: Did you folks carry Lionel before the war?
N: Oh yes.
B: So you were dealing with them and Gilbert?
N: Yes, and Louis Marx, which is strange, because Louis Marx was strictly a toy oriented factory.
B: When did you move your store to Fifth Avenue?
N: We moved from 421 7th avenue., which was upstairs in the corner building, to the center of the block between 33rd and 34th right alongside Macy's. We occupied the second and third floors. We were above Bickfords Restaurant. We moved there first, and then we moved to Fifth Ave. in 1940-41.
B: I remember visiting the 5th Ave. store during the war. What did you folks do during the war? Could you get kits and things?
N: Yes, we got wood and cardboard and all surplus type of stuff, but we had a big problem with supplies. It was not easy because you couldn't get proper materials. Even the model airplanes we had had to use hardwood instead of balsa wood, because balsa wood was being used for rafts. So it was not fun. A lot of guys were making HO kits with lots of cardboard in them. That didn't suffer as much because they used hardwood for rods and floors. But it suffered from the point of view from castings, because we used all kinds of mixtures of so called lead, you know, which really fell apart.
B: You met J.L. Cowen on many occasions, didn't you?
N: Oh, yes. He thought that we were in such a different field, we were not the Christmas toy oriented people, for we talked to the customer and suppliers 365 days a year. So he thought that we were the people he should keep in touch with. Contrary to some of the people that he had working for him who didn't think much of anything about the hobby people. They were looking for the big buyers, Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, the catalog people and all that, and then General Electric, of course, GE had all these GE stores which were hardware and electrical stores.
B: Lionel prior to the war had a fairly decent representation in hardware stores?
N: They did. They were the biggest outlets and GE had their own stores which were all over the country. The hardware business generally, the hardware distributors, were their big customers.
B: Lionel had a tie with GE?
N: No. They didn't really have a tie but they were a good supplier to GE who sold a lot of trains.
B: GE also had, because you see it on boxes, a wholesale division?
N: They had a wholesale division to supply smaller stores, which were like what you would call franchises, to a certain degree, that was they could use the GE name and they bought their stuff from GE.
B: What about A.C. Gilbert? Did you have ties with him?
N: Yes, Gilbert was a kind of a guy who understood the home craftsmen a little more than Cowen did.
B: He had more educational toys.
N: He was a firm believer, he was the kind of a guy that when he said he first wanted to build up the muscle machine you know he was sincere about it. He really meant it. He felt that the kids should train their physical body and keep it in shape long before the fitness people came on the scene. And then after that he wanted to improve the mind of the young people so he started with this Erector business, although prior to that he was the agent for the British company.
B: Was he the agent of Meccano?
N: Yes, he was the agent for Meccano and he kind of knocked them off, not literally, but he knocked them off. In other words, he made his own rather than buy Meccano. But he could never mount a campaign with Meccano like he did with his own Erector business.
B: He was a promoter?
N: He was a promoter, but he had a reason and he was sincere about it. And he was no phony. He meant what he said. He though that these sets could build up mentality and build up those minds of the young people by doing this. And he was right. They could and he pursued that part of it. He didn't pursue it as a toy per se, he pursued it as a mental machine.
B: Getting back to Lionel. They were interested in just selling to the big stores?
N: There was a total division which came about peculiarly. The Italian faction ran the factory and design, while the Jewish faction ran the sales office. Lionel was fighting for more volume and to get the biggest space in the catalogs, in other words, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were the kings you know, and whoever got the most space in there did the most business. Everybody else came second. Department stores were the thing for them because during Christmas time that was their big showcase. However, the national GE Hardware chain was not being overlooked.
B: Was Raphael the sales manager then?
N: At that time yes.
B: Tell us something about the Lionel legend at that time.
N: It was indeed a legend during those years all travel and transportation relied on railroads. Steam locos pulled the passenger and freight trains. The distant whistle of the trains lived in the minds of everyone, young and old, with a promise of travel and adventure. Lionel was the link from fantasy to the closest promise of reality.
B: Who did you deal with at Gilbert?
N: At Gilbert I dealt with Bill Perry at the New York Showroom. But I didn't actually deal with Perry because I dealt with A.C. Gilbert himself, since he always wanted to talk to us. He would say, "Come on up, I'll pay your car fare." "You don't have to pay for my car fare. I'll come up to New Haven anytime to talk." Then whatever orders we had to place we worked with Perry.
B: Bill Perry was a nice fellow, wasn't he?
N: Perry was a typical New Englander, although he spent his life in New York. He was a nice man and kind of had his soft sell way. He always talked to me when things were rough to absorb how the hobby business was doing. He always stood there very tall and dignified. He commanded respect.
B: As a young kid I remember the Gilbert salesmen in tweed jackets, more subdued than the Lionel salesmen.
N: To a degree, they were like the British. I don't know where they got that thing, but they had those leather elbow jackets and a pipe.
B: Another hobby personality in New York that was interesting, who was an early pioneer if you want to use that word, was International Models. Did you know those fellows?
N: Yes, I knew Lou Barnett. He was a CPA by profession and the accountant for Ideal Model Airplane Co., one of the earliest model airplane companies in the business. He became very interested in the hobby business, especially when things began to arrive from the Orient. So he stopped being an accountant and traveled to Japan. He traveled by boat and it would take him a month to get there. He started to buy all the various gadgets that were available at the time which were really very clever. But they were not really quality goods. They were interesting because they used a lot of brass which nobody had used yet. And he became very involved in the hobby and started International Models.
B: They had a store when I first knew them, up near the old Madison Square Garden on 7th Ave.
N: That's right. Then they moved down to Union Square.
B: He had an awful lot of goods, but never the quality that Polk's had.
N: In the first place, mechanically he was very dull, but he loved the way they treated him when he went over to Japan. He used to say the suppliers would be there waiting at the boat so nobody else got a hold of him. Really, in those days Japan needed the business.
B: He brought in grain of wheat bulbs, signals, etc. didn't he?
N: Yes, and he did the dry ice engines for the model airplanes, and in those days outside of rubber bands we had what you call compressed air engines. We had a long 36" tube inside the fuselage which you blew up at the gas station. And then you would let go and the engine would operate by air pressure. Instead of that, the Japanese made a dry ice one and put dry ice in the tube, and as it melted the ice created a gas and the gas pressure ran the engine.
B: In addition to being an early importer of all those miniature lights, signals, and HO brass engines, he had a tinplate O gauge line which he called Scaleplate.
N: He told me once that the Japanese were very hungry for business in those days. He used to carry a little mirror in his vest pocket which had "Betty Boop" on the back of it. Well, Betty Boop was very popular. He said while he was working there he bent over and it fell out of his pocket and was left there. By the time he got home they already had 20 samples for him of the Betty Boop mirror.
B: I used to go in his office and he had a big chalk board, which had all the names of the different ships from the Orient and their arrival dates. The last thing I remember about them, they were bringing in Lone Star from England, which became N gauge.
N: oh, yes. That didn't do well, even in England. you know.
B: When did you folks go to the Orient, or did they come to you?
N: No, we went to the Orient. We were one of the early starters. We went after Lou Barnett, because we were looking for specific things that we had designed. Lou took whatever they had for him. He wasn't trained enough in mechanics or in the hobby field to come up with an item of his own. He would wait for them to make something and show it to him, and then he would either buy it or not.
B. You and your brother were a team, but Barnett's son didn't seem interested.
N: He had two sons, neither one was adventuresome. Second, I don't think they even liked the business. They had their noses in the air with it. I know they were not rich enough to be eccentric, so I don't know where they came off doing that.
B: You took things over to the Orient that you wanted them to make for you?
N: That's right. We had electric motors in mind and we had many other things in mind. Not necessarily or specifically for the hobby trade. But we tried multiple use things, and we would design them here and then go to have them made.
B: Your brother was involved with the motors?
N: He met Ken Mabuchi, a young man making motors with workers sitting on the ground. But he saw a spark in this man so we went with him, and then we built that business up in this country tremendously.
B: They are still in business, aren't they?
N: Gosh, they are the biggest manufacturers of fractional horsepower DC motors in the world. They are the ones that supply all the motors for this cordless stuff. You take your automobile, and I'll bet you nine out of ten items that operate electrically, such as your mirror, power windows, etc., are made by Mabuchi Motors. Your windshield wipers, your water squirter, they're all done with Mabuchi motors.
B: And they still do things for the toy hobby?
N: Oh, yes, they have not let go of that business at all.
B: Another name you mentioned was Ideal. They were on 18th St. in New York.
N: Yes, that was Dave Newmark. They started in airplanes, towards the end, they were the ones that made the cardboard buildings for Gilbert HO. They could do a lot of things, but the problem with them was they never wanted to move out of 18th St. in New York City, and go out to the Island or Jersey, where they could have a decent factory. Everything was tough there. You had to go up in the elevator ten floors or something and unload. Everything was hard. Money backer of Ideal was a man by the name of Kramer. He was also an engineer. He worked with them, but he never wanted to move out of New York. So eventually, they just lost out on cost.
B: Is that the Kramer that we know later on in the hobby?
N: No, Ideal's Kramer was involved in the hobby business. He was strictly a number one financial and number two mechanical man.
B: Another Kramer, Sol, was active in the hobby?
N: There was Sol and Lou Kramer In Baltimore. They used to have Burd Model Airplane Co. and they became Kramer Bros. Hobby Distributors. And now they are Life-Like. The two boys are still together, although, like my brother and I, they are no longer boys.
B: Did you have any connection with Colber?
N: Yes, those two men were in Irvington, NJ, right near Lionel, and they were doing automotive parts when they got interested in model railroading. I gave them a street light built by a firm in Pittsburgh (H&H) who had made it for me, and they looked at it and they said that they could make that thing real easy. So they knocked it off and went into a large range of accessories. They found a nice easy business. They are still in the automotive business. They are still there, but they don't do anything in model railroading. For a while there they were coming along pretty well, with a good accessory line.
B: They were even imitating the Lionel orange boxes.
N: That's right. They were very good. They were good mechanics, they were good engineers, even though eventually they just didn't find the market that was hot enough for them. Automotive was so much bigger.
B: Another hobby person in New York that always intrigued me was Frank Ajello, at Hobby-Land.
N: I don't know why you make such a big thing out of Frank Ajello. Frank was the world's greatest opportunist and the biggest "pitch man" in the world. He was a great guy. I loved the guy. When he went bankrupt I went to the creditors meeting, he cost me a lot of money and Bernie Paul was sitting there and said to the committee, "Well, put this guy out of business, he can't do any good anyway." So I said, "No, you shouldn't put him out of business, he played an important part in the downtown New York City area when we didn't have any kind of good stores." So they said, where is he going to get the merchandise? So me, like the hero, I told the committee that I would supply him with merchandise. I did, and you know what, he never paid me for that either. It was funny, so Bernie said to me, "All right smart man, what did you accomplish?" Anyway, I liked Frank, and he had a nice personality. We were friends, we used to socialize with he and his wife, and Ed Miller and his wife.
B: Ed Miller? What role did he play in the hobby?
N: He used to be a hobby rep, but at one time he had his own line Emco. You know railroad hats and a few other items.
B: They made a little trolley with the name Dinkepuille, didn't they?
N: Yes, they made little trolleys once. Whatever he could get a hold of. He was a rep, he was not a manufacturer.
B: Did he not bring in the Sakai line?
N: Yes, he did. He brought in a few things wherever he could, but he really couldn't. He was not a manufacturer, he was a manufacturer's agent. He had a showroom in the Fifth Avenue Building and he used to rep things. And when he could find something on his own he did. The company that handled his own direct things was called Emco-Ed Miller Company.
B: Another company we would like to know a little more about was Comet Metal or Authenticast.
N: Comet Metal or Authenticast was on Long Island. Their claim to fame was the identification military tanks and planes in HO that were used for training during the war.
B: Did they make some train figures, too?
N: They made figures to go with the tanks and then they made figures for HO and some other figures. None of them very good because they used sludge castings. Eventually their tanks became collector items because nobody could get them. They were difficult to make. They sold them to somebody in Delaware and that company couldn't make them. The Slonim Brothers were the originators of Authenticast.
B: For a while Nat, they were making soldier sets to compete with Britain's.
N: They made the 33MM sets of soldiers, boxed sets, and they couldn't get very far into that business at all. In the first place their castings were rough, and in the second place the painting was not at all comparable to Britain's, the other boxed soldier people. Then they went to Ireland with their business. The Irish Government would offer anybody anything if they would come there and employ some people. So they got a loan and went to Ireland, and they didn't succeed there. Then they went to South Africa. In South Africa they couldn't train the people well enough and the soldiers came out terrible and unacceptable to the market. I put in a bid for the molds for the soldiers and nothing happened. I couldn't figure out where the heck they were and eventually they got lost in the shuffle somewhere.
B: I believe Gilbert used their figures at one time.
N: Yes, because they were handy. They were local and they could deliver. In other words, they weren't great figures, but they used them.
B: Another familiar hobby name is Bernie Paul. How did Bernie start?
N: Well, Bernie is an interesting person. He started after all of us. Actually, he started as a kid in the back of his mother's candy store selling model airplane stuff. When the war came along, he owed me about $3,000 which at that time was a tremendous amount of money, and I thought he was going to be drafted. He was put into 4F because he had an ear defect, so we were saved by the bell. Bernie started to distribute goods. Then, he slowly moved out into bigger and bigger places and became a distributor, and after a while started AHM, Associated Hobby Manufacturers. If you have a few minutes, I will tell how all that happened, and I'll tell you how Aristo-Craft came into being, as well as Associated Hobby Manufacturers.
Some of the manufacturers in the hobby industry decided that they were going to kill the importers and get them out of the H.I.A. association. So, they passed a ruling that anybody that exhibited in a trade show would have to pay $300 for each and every brand line they showed. You understand what I'm saying?
B: Yes, big bucks.
N: We had everything packaged over in Japan and Europe. All packaged under the Aristo-Craft trade name, and Bernie put it under Associated Hobby Manufacturers name. That's how those names came into being, because we couldn't pay $300 per line, since we each had 40 or 50 lines. So, if you pay $300 per line, you're out of business.
B: Aristo-Craft became your trade name?
N: That's right and it has continued to this day.
B: It's kind of a neat name. Where did you get the name?
N: Well, we called it Aristo-Craft distinctive miniatures, although we don't use Distinctive Miniatures much today. We used to be good at coming up with names.
B: Why did the hobby trade organization put the $300 rule into effect?
N: They did that to hurt the importers, to put them out of competition with the domestic people. There were a couple of wild guys that thought this was one way to get rid of the importers from the trade show. Then, the buyers wouldn't see the imported goods.
B: The same thing happened in the TMA ( Toy Manufacturers of America). Didn't they have two different shows?
N: Right. The import show was in the Breslin Hotel. I used to exhibit there. Before they went international, all the shows, Nuremberg and all, were national shows. Japanese manufacturers at Nuremberg would say to me, "What did you see?", because all the Japanese would show in downtown Nuremberg in a little hotel. They would say, "What did you see? What did you see?" I went to a meeting and said, "Why don't you make this an International show and you would see what they have and you wouldn't have to go asking about what they are showing." So, they did and they made it an International show.
B: Let's jump to another familiar name, Rivarossi, you knew them well?
N: Very well. Rivarossi was Alexander Rossi. They made terrible, terrible HO trains, and I mean terrible, awful, off scale. So, we paid them a visit and what I loved about them, is that they were located in Como, Italy, right on the Swiss border, a very beautiful area. Rossi had a big castle of a house.
The house was so big that during the war, he used to house 300 people from Milano there. We said to Rossi, it doesn't cost any more to make a mold that's fully scale than it is to make one that isn't. They listened carefully and they went ahead and did this. They weren't selling well at first and they said," You guys cost us a lot of money making us change to scale." I said, "Wait a minute, you're going to prosper from all of this and you are going to make a lot of money." Of course, they did when we were handling their trains until Bernie Paul came along and he gave them a million dollar order. So, they called me and they said, " We just can't refuse this," and they wanted to break our agreement. So, I caught a plane and flew over there and I said, "Look, I won't hold you guys back. You know we are friends. If he gave you that big an order I want to benefit from it, so we'll work out a deal that you pay us a commission on everything that Bernie buys for three years. Then, you're on your own." Which is exactly what they did. Then, they grew from there and then, of course, what happened is that Bernie had them making the trains out of plastic more and more. And although the trains were very good, they were fragile.
B: Were their trains die cast in the beginning?
N: Originally they were all die cast. Beautiful detail and so on.
B: I think the first evidence I saw of them was a Hiawatha engine.
N: The first thing we did with them was a docksider like Varney's, but they did it beautifully. They also made a Hiawatha.
B: The Hiawatha, was that die cast?
N: Yes, and they also made an 0-6-0. All of them were made with plans that we sent them.
B: Somewhere along the line, they got involved with Lionel, didn't they?
N: Yes, well I did that. You see what happened, Alan Ginsburg, President of Lionel was trying to jump into HO real fast. I said, Alan you can't do this. You cannot just start making an HO line in one season, there's no way. So I said, what you should do is buy your track from Atlas and you have a complete line of track. Then I said you buy everything from Rivarossi and package it in Lionel boxes. So, that's exactly what they did. They got a full line through Rivarossi.
B: You told Alan Ginsburg, and got Alan involved?
N: Yes, I had a good ear with Alan. He used to be a buyer at Bamberger's. He was a young man and had graduated Harvard with all the honors. He was very bright and worked for Bamberger's, and he used to tell me stories on how he used to go get his Lionel buying done. You know, the guys would sit there and play gags on him because he was still very young at this point. He was only 22. He went to live in East Orange, NJ, so he could be close to Bamberger's where he worked. I liked Ginsburg. Number one, he was very bright. I think eventually I got him on the Board of the Hobby Industry Association. If you ever saw a guy pull fifteen board members together - he was a genius at it.
B: Another company, switching back to Europe again, is Pola.
N: Pola was a guy by the name of, would you believe, Pollack?
B: Where were they located?
N: In Nuremberg, Germany. He used to make very cruddy stuff. Oh my gosh, it was terrible and the packaging was worse then that. You know, we used to buy Pola and we urged him to make better kits and he finally caught on and began to make beautiful kits. And then he got rich enough to have an airplane and a young wife, and two young children. One day, he was flying and crashed. Well, the widow was too young and too frightened to try to continue the company, so she sold it. The man who runs it now is the one who bought it then. That's were Pola came from.
B: Did they make some cars in Standard O for Lionel?
N: I don't think they made anything for Lionel. They were strictly in structure kits and they stayed there. Their building kits were superb. Then again, Bernie Paul got hold of them and made an exclusive deal. The people in the hobby business were all very creative and very energetic and very daring. They took a lot of risks. If you analyze it, you see its exactly what they did.
B: Somebody over there made O gauge cars. Atlas, I guess, brought some in from Yugoslavia.
N: Well, Mehano Technick made some of that stuff in Yugoslavia, but Rivarossi also made kits in O gauge. That's where you saw it. In fact, Atlas finally wound up with them. But, they had trouble moving them.
Earlier, we mentioned Frank Ajello of Hobby-Land. His son Ed Ajello ran a souvenir shop on the Queen Mary. Actually, Ed was named after Ed Miller. They were very good friends.
B: Most of you were very friendly rivals?
N: Yes, we were friendly, we were rivals to a degree, but we were friendly because we all had one calling. We had to be friendly, we were interested in the business. We had to be together and each one did their own thing, and we competed on some occasions, of course, but not in a bitter way. The one goal was to make the whole hobby thing bigger, to make the pie larger, so each slice would be bigger. This is what a lot of people could never understand. They wanted to make their slice bigger and nothing else. You had to work for the whole pie and that's where the Hobby Industry Association came from. That's why it was successful.
B: Another name comes to mind, and that's Robert Wolf. Was he a buyer?
N: Wolf was the original toy buyer for Bamberger's, and then he became Macy's toy buyer. Wolf was the buyer for Bamberger's when we first started the Bamberger Aero Club there. He was an energetic young buyer at that time. Eventually, when Macy's absorbed Bamberger's, he became the buyer for Macy's.
B: Wolf became President and CEO of Lionel Corp., from 1964-68. Ron Antonelli will have an interesting piece on Robert Wolf and the role he played in the Lionel story in an upcoming issue of the Quarterly.
Was John Tyler the owner of Mantua Metal Products?
N: Yes, John Tyler was the founder of Mantua.
B: Was Thomas Industries involved with them when they started?
N: Thomas was not involved with them. Thomas was making some kind of a casting set. I believe Thomas was John Tyler's brother-in-law. He made a small line of O gauge trains. No connection with Tyler. They might have manufactured things for each other. Eventually, I got John Tyler friendly with Steve Schaffan of Atlas, and the three of us used to go out in New York every Thursday. John would come by bus to New York and we would spend the day together, and have dinner, and then we would put John on the bus back to Mantua, NJ.
B: You had fun too, Nat?
N: Oh, we did indeed. It was a tremendously friendly type of industry. There was camaraderie and it was really partially social, because we all worked so darn hard we didn't have time for a family social life, so we had our social activities within the industry.
B: Irv Athearn, how did he get into the model railroad business?
N: Irv was in California, he was way out in the "boonies". In those days, California was where Varney was. California used to be what you call "retirement country." A fireman could retire out there and go into an apartment or house. The house came with linen and furniture and dishes and silverware. You couldn't get any manufacturing sub-contracting done out there. You couldn't get any train merchandise in California.
I told Varney to move out of there. I used to tell him you have got to move out of there. So he moved to Chicago, and of course, immediately he was able to get his sub-contracting die casting done and he made the HO 0-4-0 dockside kit that sold like crazy. He went on from there and became big enough to be a major source of growth of HO.
B: Irv Athearn stayed in California?
N: Irv was a clever manufacturer. He was a hard worker. He was like many other people, such as, Augie Kniff. He did everything by himself "in house".
B: Who is Augie Kniff?
N: Augie Kniff was Tru-Scale He was a friend to everybody in the industry. He first made wood HO roadbed. He made the most beautiful roadbed.
Ron Morris: Nat, along with Tru-Scale roadbed, we came across architectural buildings that appeared they were out of Tru-Scale Manufacturing?
N: Augie did that. He made a coal hopper and a few other structures.
Ron: These are buildings, like houses, not railroad oriented.
N: Augie bought the best wood working machinery and with that machinery he could make anything in wood. He made some buildings. Now, I don't know who the heck he made them for, but they had a similar name.
B: Perhaps they were Yank, Lionel had those on their layout. Nat, we hear so many interpretations of what happened in the early 1960's to toy trains. What really caused the slow-down of toy trains?
N: The demise of toy trains came when everybody began to chase the $19.95 or $24.95 starter sets of trains from Sears and Montgomery Ward. In other words, the manufacturers all thought that the starter sets had to sell for $19.95 or $24.95, and they couldn't come up with any kind of quality at that price, so things got worse and worse quality wise. People had bad quality experiences with them. Even the small storekeepers had bad experiences with them. You know it all culminated in that Scout set. The Scout set was the final ruination of all the cheap, cheap catalog sets that we all, sadly, had to have.
B: So, the cheapening of the line was one of the causes of it?
N: Cheapening the line was basically what happened. Philadelphia used to be the biggest market for toy trains in the country, because they had more one family homes and more attics. In those days, people didn't run trains in the basement. They ran them in the attic because the basements were too wet. Everything used to rust. We wound up using brass track later on. They used attics, so of course, when it came summertime and the golf season started, you couldn't breathe in the attic because of the heat. Nobody played with trains during the summer. Air conditioning was not available at a reasonable price. And what happened was that apartments with small rooms were being built by the millions. Men were coming back from the war and got apartments, small units. Then you didn't have room for the big trains, so HO scale started to mushroom. And Lionel and A.C. Gilbert were not in that ballgame, and by the time they got in it, it was a little late.
B: Gilbert was in HO before World War II.
N: Yes, Gilbert had HO, in fact, I remember that Bill Perry (of A.C. Gilbert) got so mad at me because they had an AC locomotive in HO. They made it because Knapp Electric had one. So what I did, I didn't buy the Gilbert transformer. I went and bought the inexpensive Marx transformer and I put the two together and ran large ads. I tell you, Bill Perry could have killed me. He was really upset because he never had anybody use their engine with Marx transformers to come up with a great price.
B: You know, going back to the demise, the slowdown of trains, I guess we're talking in the 1960's, late fifties and sixties. I've seen it written that the model race cars - slot model motoring killed toy trains.
N: I'll tell you what happened, it really wasn't so. At that time, the Toy Manufacturers Association had a woman as President, and she said kids don't ride in trains, they ride in cars, and the whole thing of racing had gone crazy in popularity. She was so wrong it wasn't even funny. When the smoke cleared, there was the train hobby stronger than ever.
B: You folks, Polk's Hobbies, had a race track?
N: Well, yes, we were the first ones to have the gas engines power the cars to run on rail tracks outdoors. And we always said if we could electrify them, and bring them into the house, it would be the biggest hobby in the world. And sure enough, we found Freddy Francis in England, who made a car called Scalextric, which you pulled back on a spring and you let go and it went forward. We got him interested in making this electrical racing slot car. We couldn't afford to use brass or plastic, so we made the roadbed out of rubber. We imported those slot sets, we would fly them in by British Air, that's how "hot" they were. We got Bobby Coogan, Jackie Coogan's brother, who was a racing nut, to come and do the layout for us and pose for all the pictures. And we took off with slot racing, you couldn't believe it. It became Scalextric, and a few years later, our partner, Freddie Francis, sold out without advising us to the Lines Brothers. Graemme Lines said,' I know you are involved in this thing and I'm going to give you three years exclusively on your own in America,' which he did. He was a gentleman. Well, I tell you, we built that slot business, the whole slot racing industry became a billion dollar business. Everybody made slot racing things. Of course, we couldn't cash in on it, unfortunately, but what the heck, that's the way it is. Anyway, we did do very well. But, of course, it died at the same fast rate that it lived and that was unfortunate, because right in the middle of it came those racing parlors, you know, the commercial racing stores.
B: You put a quarter in to race a car for a few minutes of play.
N: Not a quarter, you paid a dollar minimum. For an hour, they would charge you a $1.50 to $2.50.
B: In the 1960's, in California, they had one or two in every town.
N: They had them in Jersey City, NJ. What happened was the promoters would promise the world, they were "suede shoe guys" that sold slot racing track stores, and they couldn't care less whether they continued or not, so they sold them to everybody. We had doctors investing in them, and so I said, listen, we can't support that many race centers. And, all of a sudden, a man would find out that his son was spending more in the raceway than he was spending on his bowling league. Unfortunately, the buyer of toys, when they heard of the demise of Racing Centers said, the racing business was finished. No, the home sets were not finished, the kids still loved them. What happened was the toy buyers stopped buying the home sets and accessories thereby killing a tremendously good industry. Home racing sets are still around and selling. Scalextric sells very well in England to this day. And you know Carrera in Germany is selling very well all over Europe.
B: Scalextric, were they tied with Lionel?
N: Yes, well I did that. We were the agents for Scalextric. I just told you what happened there. They practically sold it out from under us since we had it three years alone. We told Alan Ginsburg, President of Lionel, look, this is how you get into this and that's exactly what they did The same with Rivarossi, I said you keep selling Scalextric until you make your own line, which they did. They also got into HO with Rivarossi (for which we were the agents) as a starter for HO.
B: Another interesting company Ron Morris wants information on is Shelley.
N: Armour Shelly. We used to buy from him in the early days, I'm talking about the mid-thirties, he made World War I bombs that you would attach to your solid model airplane. After WWI, he made machine guns and all kinds of castings. Eventually, he began to make castings for HO model railroads.
B: I remember visiting them in a rundown shop on Gates Ave. in Brooklyn, after WWII. Did they make an HO ore car?
N: Yes, they did it because it was a casting. You know the two sides and the end. He had all these sludge molds. I used to go out there quite often. He was an interesting guy, and he wanted to get into model airplanes in a big way. Eventually, he created a fuselage that was not made of paper covered wood like everybody else. He took cheese cloth and wrapped it with wax or something and molded it and it was called Shelley Tex. That meant you could build up the whole fuselage. It was rubber band powered and had a one piece wing that was made out of Shelley Tex which was joined right at the fuselage.
B: I believe Bowser Manufacturing purchased their molds and are still using them. Another early railroad manufacturer was Rollin Lobaugh.
N: Lobaugh was in California. A very interesting man, he was in the San Francisco area, out on the Peninsula. The interesting part in going to see him - his wife used to take a handkerchief and rub it across the drapes and say, "See, I haven't cleaned the drapes in three years and there's not a bit of dust on them." Out on the Peninsula, you had the fog and you had no dust at all. He was an interesting manufacturer because he made O gauge and he made it beautifully. But his price didn't make it sufficiently marketable to become a growth company. It was a hobby type of company. Lobaugh was superb merchandise, but certainly not made in volume.
B: Another early company was Megow.
N: Fred Megow was in Philadelphia. He was one of those model airplane men who eventually made some 69 cent railroad kits and also made some buildings. He started with 10 cents, 15 cents, 50 cents, and 1 dollar airplane kits. He and Comet were competitors, they were the two biggest competitors. Comet in Chicago, Megow in Philadelphia.
B: When did Testors get into the act?
N: Mills Testor was from Rockwood, IL. That's where the Swedish population was in Illinois. In Rockwood, if you look in the phone book, you aren't going to find any Smiths. He really started in model cement. Testor was in the nail polish and shoe polish business originally, and he went bankrupt. He used to supply Woolworth's and the 5 and 10's eventually broke him because of the prices. When they did that, he got into the glue business for models and then paint right after that. He grew from there because he was a very energetic, hard working guy. He wasn't going to let the fact that he had failed in one field put him down.
B: Didn't they call glue and paint dope in those days?
N: Yes, they used to call any paint dope because in the beginning airplanes were covered with cloth. To get them stretched and to paint them, they had a paint that was called dope. In the real or prototype airplane field, the paint was also called dope. So, the model industry called it dope as well, because it would do to paper what it did to the cloth on the real airplane, it would shrink it. They didn't call it dope because of the models, it was called dope on the real aircraft. The Berry Brothers in Detroit were the biggest manufacturers of paint for aircraft at that time - they were called Berry Loid. We used to get money from them to help sponsor model airplane contests.
B: Another name that seemed to stay around for only a short while was Midland Models in Scotch Plains, NJ.
N: Oh yes, Fred Shimidoin. Very interesting, meticulous sort of guy. Had a little moustache, very dapper, a very good, hard working manufacturer. He was really excellent. He was very difficult to deal with. At one time, I think he made cork roadbed. He played a big part for about seven years.
B: Do you know Tony Koveleski?
N: Yes, sure. Tony Koveleski is actually Oscar Koveleski's father. Oscar is a race car driver. Tony had a big grocery store in Scranton, PA, and at one time, the President of Comet Airplanes, who would open an account anywhere, was going through Scranton. It was raining hard and he had to eat lunch. In those days, we all ate lunch by buying a loaf of bread and bologna and we would eat in the car. After all, nobody had a lot of money. He went into Tony's grocery store and looking at this young guy said, for crying out loud, what's a young guy doing slicing bologna and bread, you should be in the model airplane business. And guess what? He made Tony a distributor and he became Scranton Hobby Distributors. That's how he started.
B: He made those little car kits, Hudson Miniatures. Louis Hertz dedicated his book, The Complete Book of Building and Collecting Model Automobiles to Tony, "An old friend and the man who, more than any other, spark-plugged today's model automobile enthusiasm." I think he sold them later to Revell.
N: No, Revell made them in plastic. They didn't buy them at all. He could not sell them to anybody, because the other people all invested and made them in plastic. He made them beautifully. I remember we were the first ones to advertise them in Esquire Magazine, and we did very well with them, because it was a novelty then. He is still around. Do you see him?
B: Oh yes, Tony is a train and toy collector. He goes to York and we see him at the flea markets. He still loves to tell his Polish Uncle Louie jokes.
N: His wife, Doris, at that time she was his girlfriend, and the reason the kits were called Hudson was because her name was Doris Hudson. I knew him very well. You know we were all friends in those days, because we did not have time to make friends with anybody else. This was not only the way we earned our living, this was also our social life.
B: They all influenced each other?
N: That's right and we were always with one another. It was not easy, and on the other hand, I would say we really enjoyed what we all did We felt we were playing a part in something. We weren't quite sure what it was.
B: Carmen Webster, of Model Railroad Equipment Corp., in NYC, did she cooperate or was she only out for herself?
N: No, she came into the hobby with a bitter pill to swallow because of her husband. He worked for the phone company and on the side had a store. He was the only guy we could get good three way telephone switches from. His name was Frank Webster. What happened was that Carmen and he didn't get along. She was a secretary somewhere in the city and he ran the store. One day, he came over and said to me, " Listen I'm going to be gone. I'm going to disappear. I can't stand my home life any more and I'm going to go to California." So, he walked out. The war was just beginning and he went out to California and he made wooden western wagon kits. Carmen took over the store. She really had to struggle and she had to use all her wiles to get merchandise. For instance, Fred O'Donagal of Exacto, called me up and said, "Who is this woman? We can't sell her anything. We are only taking care of the customers we had before the shortages started." I said, she had an unusual situation and he said, "Well, I'm sorry, I just can't do anything for her. But she is so persistent I had to find out who she was." She was indeed persistent. She used to come to our place to buy track. We couldn't sell her much because she wasn't a customer of ours either. So, she used to send the customers to us who didn't need that much track and gave them money, and they would buy a thousand feet of rail and take it to her. She didn't have it that easy, but nobody actually made it hard for her. We all knew each other but she fought like a tigress and was able to manage through the war. Then, after the war, her business really took off.
B: She did promote the hobby a great deal.
N: Yes, she had the catalog and she advertised. Later on, she came into the Hobby Association. Then, she became Chairman of the Promotions Committee. She's the one that came up with the idea of putting model railroad magazines into the dentists' offices and she ran that for the industry. She did nice work as a Committee woman I liked Carmen. You know I had my battles with her, but I liked her.
B: A hobby shop I remember, Nat, in lower Manhattan was Trymo.
N: Trymo, yes. They were more of a model airplane shop though they had some trains. The name was Mo something or other, I forget his name. But there was such a place. They would say if you can't find it anywhere else Try-Mo, that's how that name came about.
There was a store across the street from 200 Fifth Ave.(The Toy Center) on 23rd, they had two floors. He was a Gilbert distributor. Did you know him Bruce?
B: Very well. I knew them for over thirty years. Their name was Savoy Merchandise. Tell us about Savoy. What was their tie-in with Gilbert ?
N: I don't know. The only tie-in they had was with the salesmen in the Gilbert Hall of Science. They would send the customers over there and they would take care of the salesmen, which was fair enough.
B: If you brought something into the Hall of Science for repair, occasionally they would tell you to take it upstairs where they had a repair shop. But more often than not they would send you two blocks downtown to Savoy. And the interesting thing was when Savoy got to know you they would sell you trains at a 30% discount. Of course, the Hall of Science sold only at list.
N: Well, they were kind of peddling merchants. They would sell to small independent stores. They didn't have what you today call the Sunday flea markets, but there were all kinds of small discounters around before- the large discount stores opened. Many businesses big and small, banks, utilities, etc. had clubs for social events and for discount purchasing. The club gave members a card and a list of discount stores.
B: My first job was at Chase National Bank and they had such a club. Some of the discount stores reminded me of a speakeasy. You knocked on the door and showed your card.
B: Going back to the Hall of Science. What was the reason for Gilbert opening it in 1941?
N: The Hall of Science was strictly number one in the toy trade. It gave Gilbert a very visible New York location for the trade, and it also gave them a public showroom, so that the public could come and see what they had, and this was some sales tool.
B: It was a neat spot and a great location.
N: Yes, it was a heck of a location. It was a sales tool, people do that in larger industries. Chrysler had a showroom in the Chrysler Building on 42nd Street, but in our industry nobody had such a showroom.
B: Lionel had their showroom on 26th St., but it was on the second floor and not as visible to the public.
N: I had a big problem with Lionel. I would call Lionel up and ask the girl where can I buy Lionel trains and immediately they would say Madison Hardware. Well, I would raise all kinds of heck. I felt they should name at least three or four locations. Finally we made our point and the girl would name several locations, not just the one.
B: Was there some kind of a connection between Lionel and Madison?
N: Well, yes, they had connections with the people on 26th Street and the minute Lionel would discontinue an item someone at Lionel would pack up all the remaining inventory and send it to Madison. They were doing Lionel a favor. They didn't have to pay for disposing of the material.
B: They were smart.
N: Listen, if they had given it to me I would have taken it. The price was right. I would have taken it. I would have come in and swept the floor for them.
Nevertheless, we didn't know about it. We didn't know what was happening until much later. We only knew that they were the only ones that had parts.
B: They had enough money that they were able to store things and not worry about it.
N: In the end they were not getting any younger and they did very well with Richard Kughn buying them out and moving the whole concept of the store to Detroit.
B: Someone you probably didn't know, for he had trains in the back of a store on 23rd St. was Julius Simon of Julie's Trains.
N: I did know him. Nice enough fellow. Yes, he had his own little following. If you take a look at the years we are talking about, the sales of Gilbert and Lionel were sliding down and HO was coming up fast. That was when Louis Hertz worked for me as my advertising man. He was a collector and at that time all we were doing was trading in Lionel Standard gauge for HO. People were downsizing because they had no room. So all the trains we took in trade we sent up to Louis and I filled three stories of his house from basement to attic. Hertz, at present, is supposed to be doing a history of our company.
B: I used to go out to a shop on Sunrise Highway on Long Island called the House of Mulraney, and they did the same thing you did. Kids would come in with a bunch of Lionel O gauge and trade it in for HO.
N: That was the way. People were moving into apartments not houses. The guys that came back from the war, they got jobs, they got married, and they moved right into apartments. Rents were reasonable enough at that time.
B: I remember in the early sixties that you were selling used trains. When did Polk's start selling used trains.
N: When I realized Louis Hertz's house was full and people were starting to come in and look for old trains. That's when we began to hold on to it, put prices on it and then we would sell it.
B: When the Girl's set bombed, it wouldn't have been a bad idea to put them away.
N: You sure could have, but who thought---it was a disgusting item, it was ridiculous.
B: Where do you see our hobby going in the future?
N: Well, the collecting is going to become greater and greater. It will become greater because people understand value. You see, I subscribe to all the collector's magazines, nothing to do with trains. In fact, I just saw Oprah Winfrey holding up an item she was going to have on her program the next day. Do you know what that item was? Would you believe that it looked like a piece of Junk, but it was worth $25,000. Hang on to what you have and look it over carefully.
In other words, this is what's happening. Our fellow members still think they are going to find a little old lady with a bunch of trains in the attic. Those days are disappearing. The collecting thing generally is going to grow and grow. More and more people are holding on to their trains and they're not moving or trading. They're holding on to their collections. The only time you get some really old quality stuff is when someone dies and the estate sells his trains. The collecting thing is going to go on and on.
The local hobby shop can't pay the Main Street rents, but they can sell it to you on the third floor or from the basement because we still have the rugged individual who would rather own his own business. Rather than work for someone else, he'll work for less for himself. He doesn't mind. In other words, a good hobbyist will walk up three flights of stairs to get what he wants. All you have to do is have what he wants and you have a business. You haven't got a business that will pay Main Street rents, but you have a business that can make a living for you. You can support a family on it if you don't want to live the fancy life.
B: Nat, I was worried we couldn't talk for 15 minutes. We've been going and going and going, enough for six installments.
N: Yes, listen we could talk for hours more.
B: Nat, God bless you. We will be back again to talk some more.
N: My regards to all the boys and the girls!
Update, 1st October 2013.
POLKíS MODEL CRAFT HOBBIES, INC.
ARISTO-CRAFT/CREST/RMT by AristO
698 S 21ST STREET
IRVINGTON, NJ 07111
Polkís Will Close Its Doors 12-31-13
October 1st, 2013
Since 1935, we have provided service and innovation to the Hobby industry. In this latest downturn, we cut back staff to the minimum required to survive. Then the government battle over the debt ceiling drove the consumer market down even further.
Weíve managed to stay in business, but the continued depression for the consumer has caused us to fall into debt that is unsustainable. We have put several million dollars into product development over recent years, but the need for customers to cut back on non-essentials has caused this investment to be lacking in returns.
We have seen leisure activities like golf courses plunge in popularity, as funds for such recreation have dried up. It seems to be the same for hobby time investments. Our products are no longer inexpensive as they were in the 1930s-era Depression. The cost of manufacturing along with minimum production runs and long lead times has caused a lack of ability to continue as a sustainable entity. Itís no longer a business!
It has been a pleasure to help our creative consumer base to enjoy their hobby and we have no regrets in doing so. Our business grew every year until the 2008 as the recession caused a shrinking of the mindset to stay active in our large-scale model train arena. We know that smaller scales have remained viable, but the higher cost of Large Scale trains and the space required to run them have not maintained their share of the market. Our airplane R/C portion of our business was lost when our patented frequency changer was lost to the 2.4Ghz portion of the marketplace, with no frequency compounds needed any longer.
For 80 years, the Polk family has made a fair living in the Hobby industry. I canít help but remember the scores of co-workers that have helped make this organization as special as it was. Thanks to them all, but notably: Gil Rose, B.M. Song, J.K. Kim, Sam Kimm, Tom Flynn, Cliff Crane, Charlie Binder, Marvin Binder, John and Sherry Shievdayal, Aixa Lebron, Joe Bamberger, David Newell, Walter Matuch, John Mikesh, Navin Shievdayal, Marguerite Hubert (Rose), Michael J. Vickey, Jonathan Polk, Scott Polk, Fred Polk, Irwin Polk, Nathan Polk, Maryann Polk Bob Calandra, George Adams, Michael Hauptmann and so many others, it would take a book to list them all. While I canít list all the hundreds that were part of the team, they remain in my heart and mind.
Our humble thanks to our loyal customers. Our apologies for not being able to keep this almost 80-year-old business, going. Itís a heartbreaker for us all.
All the best,
The Polk Family
Memories, 2nd October 2013. I have taken the liberty of copying this post from the OGR forum, only because 'living history' is always worth both spreading and preserving. For several years in the late Ď60s and early Ď70s I worked for Lewis Polk at 314 5th Avenue, the site of the legendary five floor flagship of Polkís Model Craft Hobbies. It was an experience that I perhaps value more from the perspective of personal history than I did as I lived it. In any case, it was where I got my start in model train retailing, something Iíve now managed to do in half a dozen different shops on both sides of the country. The key figures there in my day were founders and owners Nat and Irwin Polk, who still came in most days and attended to the import and distribution business from the lofty heights of the fifth floor offices, newly appointed store manager Lewis Polk of the family's next generation, and assistant store manager Bob Calandra. The railroad department staff comprised manager Sol Berman and train salesmen Jack Hill, Al Matte, and Alan Spitz (a name that some of you will no doubt recognize) who left to open his first iteration of The Red Caboose just as I came aboard. While the model railroad department occupied the entire third floor, Polkís, of course, was much more than a train store. Toys, games, and lead soldiers, many of them handmade and exclusive, occupied the ground floor. Model ships and flying models shared the second, and plastic kits and slot cars filled the fourth. It was an amazing place, very well situated just a block below the Empire State Building, and it had a clientele to match. The store often worked some democratizing magic at its counters as celebrities and uptown swells frequently exchanged modeling or operating experiences with our more down-to-earth core customers. And I imagine that most long term readers of this Forum will know that the Christmas shopping scene of The Godfather was filmed there. Polkís was also a much bigger operation than just the 5th Avenue store. There was the aforementioned import and distribution business, the warehouse in Jersey City, the house brand of hobby products, Aristo-Craft, and for a time, a network of satellite stores on Long Island and in New Jersey. At the time it was probably as close to an empire as a company in this business could get. I left Polkís and New York in the early Ď70s and each time I came back to visit over the next two decades it was increasingly obvious that the local retail hobby business was fading. The store eventually consolidated into the basement of the building and the floors above were leased to other businesses. As I recall, by 1991 or so the retail operation was completely gone, leaving the import and distribution business to show the flag. When he hired me, Lewis Polk did me a great service although neither he nor I realized it at the time. Iíll always be grateful for my time in his employ. Now that Polk's and Aristo-Craft will be leaving the layout for good, I'd like to extend my regrets and my best wishes for the future to all who are left. Thanks for the memories. - Mike (Mike Casatelli, October 2013)
698 S. 21st St.
Irvington New Jersey 07111
Polk's Catalog, 1952
Memories, 2nd October 2013.
I have taken the liberty of copying this post from the OGR forum, only because 'living history' is always worth both spreading and preserving.
For several years in the late Ď60s and early Ď70s I worked for Lewis Polk at 314 5th Avenue, the site of the legendary five floor flagship of Polkís Model Craft Hobbies. It was an experience that I perhaps value more from the perspective of personal history than I did as I lived it. In any case, it was where I got my start in model train retailing, something Iíve now managed to do in half a dozen different shops on both sides of the country.
The key figures there in my day were founders and owners Nat and Irwin Polk, who still came in most days and attended to the import and distribution business from the lofty heights of the fifth floor offices, newly appointed store manager Lewis Polk of the family's next generation, and assistant store manager Bob Calandra. The railroad department staff comprised manager Sol Berman and train salesmen Jack Hill, Al Matte, and Alan Spitz (a name that some of you will no doubt recognize) who left to open his first iteration of The Red Caboose just as I came aboard.
While the model railroad department occupied the entire third floor, Polkís, of course, was much more than a train store. Toys, games, and lead soldiers, many of them handmade and exclusive, occupied the ground floor. Model ships and flying models shared the second, and plastic kits and slot cars filled the fourth. It was an amazing place, very well situated just a block below the Empire State Building, and it had a clientele to match. The store often worked some democratizing magic at its counters as celebrities and uptown swells frequently exchanged modeling or operating experiences with our more down-to-earth core customers. And I imagine that most long term readers of this Forum will know that the Christmas shopping scene of The Godfather was filmed there.
Polkís was also a much bigger operation than just the 5th Avenue store. There was the aforementioned import and distribution business, the warehouse in Jersey City, the house brand of hobby products, Aristo-Craft, and for a time, a network of satellite stores on Long Island and in New Jersey. At the time it was probably as close to an empire as a company in this business could get.
I left Polkís and New York in the early Ď70s and each time I came back to visit over the next two decades it was increasingly obvious that the local retail hobby business was fading. The store eventually consolidated into the basement of the building and the floors above were leased to other businesses. As I recall, by 1991 or so the retail operation was completely gone, leaving the import and distribution business to show the flag.
When he hired me, Lewis Polk did me a great service although neither he nor I realized it at the time. Iíll always be grateful for my time in his employ. Now that Polk's and Aristo-Craft will be leaving the layout for good, I'd like to extend my regrets and my best wishes for the future to all who are left.
Thanks for the memories.
(Mike Casatelli, October 2013)