In the small borough of Knox, PA, lives a model railroad hobbyist who keeps a memory alive by custom building model railroad accessories.
While Alan Dechant opened his online store, MrTrain, thanks in part to his own childhood memory, he finds himself also inspiring the memories of others across the world.
Dechant says he hears countless stories of customers buying his items as gifts for family members who worked on the railroad, or for themselves, having started a collection for their kids to carry on a family tradition.
With the holiday season, Dechant will see an increase in his business’ production, because—of course—Christmas is the time of year when warm, nostalgic memories are welcomed and model trains loop around Christmas trees.
A gift from Santa sparks interest
For Dechant, childhood Christmas memories are a little different than they are for others. His family lived on a dairy farm, so Santa visited early because Christmas morning was spent milking cows.
Santa knocked on the Dechant family door every Christmas Eve and sped away before the kids could see him. When the family answered the familiar knock in 1972, a pile of toys for each child lay on the porch. A boxed train set had a tag with Dechant’s name on it.I soon realized other people may have a need for my model railroad display shelves, and that is when I began selling online
Since then, he’s collected model trains and places his original set under the Christmas tree every year.
“It has been a family tradition that my wife and kids have loved to see, year after year,” the model railroad hobbyist adds.
In 1999, he began building for himself a train room and designed an aluminum shelf system that didn’t require brackets for his heavy locomotives.
“I soon realized other people may have a need for my model railroad display shelves, and that is when I began selling online,” he reports.
Dechant added personally handcrafted buildings, bridges, pine trees, trestles and other railroad accessories for his layout, and also put them up for sale. Today—11 years later—Dechant sells more than 120 different handmade model train accessories on MrTrain.com, Bonanza, Etsy, eBay and Amazon.
He targets male shoppers on eBay and says women often go to Bonanza and Etsy to shop for gifts there.
While Christmas is a time for customers to buy his products as gifts, it is the post-Christmas season when Dechant is busiest, he says. That’s because after the gifts have been received, shoppers want to buy more accessories and work on their train layouts.I have no formal schooling for being a business owner, just a need to do something I loved to do instead of going to work for a paycheck
Doing what he loves
Before the model railroad hobbyist turned his pastime into a successful online business, he spent 17 years as an electrician. Starting a business was a new adventure, and he had to learn the tricks of the trade as he went along.
“I have no formal schooling for being a business owner, just a need to do something I loved to do instead of going to work for a paycheck,” he tells us.
Dechant works a full schedule and often starts the day in his workshop at 3 a.m., when the holiday season arrives. His wife, Kim, manages the online portion of the business and writes ads for the company.
Each of the five online stores they operate requires its own advertising method, Alan Dechant says. They utilize all the popular marketing resources like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, but they also market through the Train Collectors Association and railroad magazines.
“Word-of-mouth is our best advertiser, though, and sometimes the word spreads faster than we can build products,” he adds.
‘Layouts unlike any others’
New and repeat customers are always attracted to Dechant’s items, he says. They often comment that his products allow them to create layouts unlike any other model railroad hobbyist’s setup. Plus, Dechant thinks another appeal is that his products are made in the U.S., ship quickly and are reasonably priced.
Regardless, Dechant can reach a worldwide market because he sells online.If we only had a brick-and-mortar store, we would be very hungry while we wait for a walk-in customer
“If we only had a brick-and-mortar store, we would be very hungry while we wait for a walk-in customer,” he adds.
And after selling online for more than 11 years, Dechant is pretty confident he knows “every shortcut there is” to shipping. Though he appreciates Priority Mail options, he thinks they have become too expensive. Instead, Dechant purchases brown boxes through Uline.com and ships his small, lightweight items First Class. By doing so, Dechant says he has increased his revenue by more than $20,000.
“The items get to their destination just as fast—if not faster—and the cost is about one-third of Priority Mail,” he says.
From history to the present, for the future
Dechant’s mission is to make memories come alive for people through his products, he says.
“If just one of our products reminds someone of their relative working for the railroad, or going on train rides as a kid, or just puts a smile on their face, then we are doing our job,” he notes.
His mission is always wildly successful when he builds custom-made model train accessories.
“For instance, if someone has a picture of an old trestle that they used to play on as a kid, I can build something very similar, just by looking at that picture,” Dechant says.If just one of our products reminds someone of their relative working for the railroad, or going on train rides as a kid, or just puts a smile on their face, then we are doing our job
Recently, Dechant created a custom-built brick wall for the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Museum officials told him it will be part of their exhibit for hundreds of years, Dechant says. That’s when he realized what he’s doing is making something that will be a part of history.
And that’s what MrTrain is all about, really: taking an important part of the past and recreating it today to be enjoyed for future generations.
“By introducing children to trains and railroading, you are keeping history alive and showing them how much fun they are,” Dechant says.
In his hometown, the Knox and Kane Railroad retired its 26-year reign, after its freight services declined and a series of inclement weather and arson ended its tourist service. The station in Knox has, itself, been closed and unused since the 1980s.
Dechant never worked on the railroad, and he doesn’t really understand how he fell in love with trains.
“The only thing I remember is how happy I was when Santa gave me that Lionel train set in 1972 and how happy that train set makes me today as I set it up on the train layout or around the Christmas tree,” he says.