Bob Mehler, owner of Esther's Hobby Shop, stands in front of the entrance to his hobby shop.
Some of the models at Esther's Hobby Shop in Millvale. The shop will celebrate its 75th anniversary in January. It's one of fewer than a half-dozen hobby shops left in the area.
By Roxanne Tuinstra
The motto painted on the white bench outside Esther's Hobby Shop in Millvale is the creed of shop owner Bob Mehler -- "Relax ... with a hobby."
In January, Mr. Mehler will celebrate his store's 75 years of business, attributing his unusual success to a loyal customer base and enjoying what he does.
"I think back to my mother and how she had to have enjoyed what she did to open up such a store during that time," he said, referring to the Great Depression. "But if you enjoy helping people, then the rest comes naturally."
Mr. Mehler's mother, Esther, opened the store in 1938 after her sister saw it was for sale. At the time, Ms. Mehler was delivering pies for a bakery in Millvale to make ends meet as a single mother. She was encouraged by her sister and her father to purchase the store.
It operated for several decades as a general store, first at 303 North Ave., then several years later at its current location, 219 North Ave. According to Mr. Mehler, the store always sold trains, but it started out as a coffee and ice cream shop.
"We also had a malt beverage license," Mr. Mehler said. "I remember four benches in the back where men could go and order bottled or draft beer. On the weekends and after school, I would clean up all of the bottles."
Ms. Mehler made enough to send her son to St. Vincent Preparatory School in Latrobe for high school. After graduation, Mr. Mehler decided to stay on and help his mother in the store. His love of the public kept him at the shop and still does to this day.
"I love talking to people. There are some customers who have been coming in here a long time and we have fun with each other, making comments here and there, and I like that," Mr. Mehler said.
Mr. Mehler scoffs when he hears a negative comment coming from a spouse about this hobby, or its expense.
"When I see a particular man is getting a hard time by his wife, I simply say, 'Don't mock what he's buying. Would you rather have him spending money down at the local bar?' "
After Ms. Mehler's died in 1984, the store evolved from a general store to a hobby shop. By the mid-'90s, Mr. Mehler stocked his inventory full of only HO, N and Z scale trains.
Mr. Mehler attends about two conventions a year with a few men whose passion is N scale trains, which are nearly half the size of HO models. They call themselves the Steeltown N Scalers. Together, they may set up a layout for a budding hobbyist or work at a convention. They are working on a layout with a pastor in hopes of bringing N scale model train displays into retirement homes.
"It would be really nice to see some of our work in these homes and teach them about these wonderful trains," Mr. Mehler said.