Manager Roy Ballard, a 24-year veteran of The Loose Caboose hobby store, considers himself a lucky guy.
“Any job that you enjoy, let alone love, where people come to your store in a good mood, is something to be grateful for,” says Ballard. “People don’t come here because they have to; they come because they want to.”
The Loose Caboose was begun by Ray Dahlgren in 1995, according to Ballard, because he couldn’t find the large outdoor model trains that he liked. “I happened to walk in around that time and Ray asked me if I wanted a job and I said yes!”
How does a smaller store like The Loose Caboose compete against the big-box stores?
“For us, the trick for survival for this kind of business is to specialize, even super specialize, and to diversify,” Ballard said. “We could have gone all trains and concentrated on nothing but that, or can go the way we chose because Carl’s Hobby Shop went out of business at that time. That meant we had more and more call for general hobby stuff like paint, glue, models and kites, so we decided to diversify and carry a bit of everything.”
The Loose Caboose carries all kinds of things and appeals to all ages. The store has puzzles, slot cars, Thomas the Tank Engine, as well as Brio and other wooden trains that are consistently popular.
“We have Duplo/Lego for younger kids,” Ballard said, “as well as Dungeons and Dragons and other war games, board games and model rockets are very popular. We do very well with the rockets because there are lots of Science Clubs and even teachers who teach model rocketry. “
A nod to a current trend are the drones the hobby shop carries.
“Drones are a very tricky market because people have different ideas about what they are, what they can do and how much they cost,” Ballard said. “For a drone that does everything that people think of when they think of drones, you’re looking at around the $1,000 range.”
“Those are the kinds of drones that travel in a pattern, they go out and can come back to you, have GPS and you can do waypoints and consistent altitude and things like that. We even have one customer who is a professional drone pilot licensed by the FAA.”
But if you just want to practice with something less advanced, The Loose Caboose also carries smaller, less expensive toy drones.
What’s the most surprising thing about The Loose Caboose to first-time customers?
“People are often surprised to find there’s a hobby shop that’s still in business,” Ballard said. “We get a lot of foot traffic from people who are walking along the river walk, people who come in from all over the country. But we couldn’t survive without our local customers.”
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the store?
“Well, other than killing most of our business, we’re very fortunate that we have a great landlord,” said Ballard. During the shutdown, the Loose Caboose was able to do some internet sales, he said.
He’s thankful now that Napa County has moved into stage 2 of the recovery. With proper precautions, that means shoppers can once again come inside the store.
Which hobbies stand the test of time?
“Many people have a tradition of putting a train around their Christmas tree,” Ballard said. “So trains and radio-controlled (RC) cars are always popular. We even have remote-controlled boats, which are very maneuverable and great for pools. Then, of course, there are Legos, the magic brick, which archaeologists will be finding in backyards for thousands of years to come.”
The Loose Caboose gets a wide variety of customers and tries to stock for everyone.
“We don’t get as many girls as we do guys,” Ballard said. “But we do have girls’ Legos and puzzles, and a lot of generic craft things like scenery and lights which a lot of people use for doll houses.”
The hobby store space shares its 4,400 square feet with another business, RPals Music, which rents musical instruments.
“It’s a good draw for customers especially around the beginning of the school year,” said Ballard.
The Loose Caboose is located at the northeast corner of Soscol Avenue and Third Street in downtown Napa, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday from noon-5 p.m. and is closed on Monday. Their phone number is 707-258-1222 and you can find them on the web at loosecaboose.com.
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