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Hobby highlights
Here’s a comparison of hobby sales since the recession:
•Model railroad/trains – $409 million to $424 million
•Plastics and die cast – $259 million to $305 million
•Radio-control products – $357 million to $362 million
•General hobby items – $247 million to $377 million
Source: Hobby Manufacturers Association
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Steve Gieseking pulls a radio-controlled airplane down from the ceiling to be cleaned at Phil’s Hobby Shop, 1722 Lake Ave.

Pursuing pastimes – and profits

As hobby sector rebounds, local stores expanding

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Hero action figures are a big seller at Intergalactic Toys.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Mickey Speidell holds granddaughter Taylor Wolf, 3, as David McKnight rings up his purchase at Phil’s, 1722 Lake Ave.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Michael Schott, owner of Intergalactic Toys, has had to move his store three times in the past two years due to growth in his business.

– Hobby enthusiasts are telling tech toys to go fly a kite.

The days of Johnny racing home to finish his model airplane are making a comeback, if annual sales from the Hobby Manufacturers Association are any indication. The industry recorded $1.4 billion in sales in 2010, compared with $1.3 billion a year earlier and more than the $1.2 billion when the recession hit in 2007.

Steady gains, to be sure. And officials expect 2011 figures to keep pace as hobby shops have seen growing interest in several key areas, including model trains and radio-controlled vehicles.

Prospects are so promising that Phil’s Hobby Shop of Fort Wayne is adding a third location after 37 years in business.

“A lot of parents want their children to learn while using their hands,” said Amber Mynhier, an executive assistant at Phil’s, which will open a new location inside the Parkwest Shopping Center in coming weeks.

The retailer will still maintain its locations at 1722 Lake Ave. and 3112 N. Clinton St.

“We participated in a home-schooling convention at the Coliseum this year and we’ve built a relationship with the Boy and Girl Scouts.”

Establishing contact with those groups might not pay immediate dividends, but co-owners Steve Gieseking and Paris McFarthing view networking as an eventual business builder.

“Things like that take time,” McFarthing said.

Getting kids to “unplug” has been a battle cry sounded by various parental groups and schools. The hobby industry could benefit by catering to those worried about sedentary activities like texting, surfing the Internet or excessive video-game playing.

“Parents are concerned about doing things with their kids and hobbies increase their thinking ability,” said Patricia Koziol, executive director of Hobby Manufacturers Association. “Model kits, radio-controlled cars; we definitely encourage parents to bring some of that back into their children lives.”

Miriam Lunz doesn’t need a pep talk. The Fort Wayne mother of four said she has always kept an eye on her children’s television, video-game and Internet usage.

“Especially in the summer,” said Lunz, 37. “We try to get outside and do something almost every day. Bike riding, baseball (leagues), volleyball and badminton are some of the things we do. Getting them into hobbies helps a lot. I don’t want them camped out in front of the TV.”

Neither does Mike Schott. He owns Intergalactic Toys in Fort Wayne. The outlet offers unique collectibles, action figures, posters and pop culture merchandise.

The store is inside the Georgetown Shoppes on Maplecrest Road but has moved three times in the past two years.

“Our customer base grew, our inventory grew and we needed more space,” Schott said. “We want to make this a place where people can come a buy and trade and talk about their collectibles. We were going to install a TV, but we went against that route. We want people to socialize (face to face).”

Bruce Throne, president of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association Inc., has noticed that when it comes to buying children games and other products that entertain, gramps is old school.

“It’s definitely the grandparents who want the kids to get back to the traditional hobbies more,” he said. “They want them to do something with their hands, not just sit there.”

But while Phil’s Hobby Shop prepares to move into the Parkwest Shopping Center, another local hobby chain has fallen on hard times, as McVan’s Video Games is going out of business. The Fort Wayne buy-and-trade outlet operated in the city for nearly 19 years. Operations Manager Chad Guy blamed the closing on changing gaming habits.

“The way it is now, kids that used to play games on GameBoys and things like that are using smartphones, tablets and other ways to play,” Guy said. “Nobody wants physical media anymore when they can get it digitally.”

Guy said that is one of the factors that dogged Best Buy. Though the retailer had digital products, it was slow to respond to shifting consumer spending habits, he said.

“That’s why they’re closing stores,” Guy said.

Analysts said retailers like Best Buy are shrinking the big box.

In Best Buy’s case, it’s reducing store size and concentrating on cellphones. In April, the retailer announced a restructuring plan that includes closing stores, eliminating 400 jobs and cutting $800 million in costs.

The hobby industry is trying to seize this opportunity.

“There is a definitely a market on the southwest side of town that has not been tapped into,” Gieseking said. “Interest has really gotten bigger over the years.”