by Harry L. Rinker
A September 7, 2018, email from Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, my good friend and sister in all but name, contained a graphic showing survey results from a question that asked former Toys ‘R’ Us shoppers where they will purchase their toys and gifts for Christmas 2018. Walmart gained 1%, Amazon 5% and Target 4 %. The battle between the Big Box stores and the Internet remains. What was surprising were the lost percentages—Dollar Tree 1%, Dollar General 1% and Kmart 5%. I do not shop at any of these stores, albeit I occasionally buy on Amazon. I remain puzzled why eBay was not included in the survey mix.
Throughout my career writing about antiques and collectibles, I have and continue to hold firm to the belief that change is not an enemy. Change is inevitable. Denying its existence by taking a negative position towards change solves nothing. As Clint Eastwood, as Sergeant Thomas Highway in the movie Heartbreak Ridge (1986), noted, the key is to “adapt, improvise and overcome.” It is impossible to go back, albeit many movies suggest this is possible.
It is possible to reminisce about the past. When studying the results of where “Toys ‘R’ Us costumers will turn now that this last “Big Box” toy store has gone, I returned to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when buying Christmas toys and gifts was very different.
There were stores such as F. A. O. Schwarz in the big cities. I never visited one. The first shopping malls in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley arrived when I was nearing the end of my teenage years. By then, my interest had moved from toys to other things.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the primary sources for Christmas toys and gifts were: 1) local merchants ranging from drug to hardware stores that added toys to their inventory in late November and early December, often via specialized catalogs from which toys could be ordered in time for Christmas; 2) “Santa’s Workshop,” one of a variety of names used, in urban department stores; 3) mail order catalogs from companies such as Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck; 4) five and dime stores (although in fairness, I do not have memories of major changes in merchandise for the Christmas season); 5) redemption of merchant/trade stamps; and 6) neighborhood mom and pop hobby shops.
People often reflect on how fortunate they are to have lived through a specific time period. My life would have been incomplete without Mac’s, the mom and pop hobby shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
I am old enough to remember when collecting was a hobby rather than the serious endeavor it became in the 1970s and 1980s. A dictionary definition of hobby defines it as “an activity done in one’s leisure time for pleasure.” The pleasure was felt individually not collectively, albeit occasionally hobbyists would meet to share their accomplishments. The concept of financial gain was limited to select adults. Youngsters never entertained the thought. They traded and swapped, more often than not on a one for one basis.
In the 1950s, there was a clear distinction between hobbies and crafts. A dictionary definition of craft is “an activity involving skill in making things by hand.” My mother crocheted. It was not a hobby. She crocheted to relax and create things for her family or to use as gifts. In the mid-or late 1960s, my mother and her sister Jeanette became enamored with the creation of cracked/cooked marble jewelry. This a story best saved for another time. The good news is that none of their efforts appear to have survived in the family. The same cannot be said for some of the Prosser sisters’ other craft craze artifacts, again a story for another time.
Some hobbies such as coins and stamps had their own specialized shops. The rest relied upon a neighborhood mom and pop hobby shop. An Internet search for books or websites providing a history of hobby shops was unsuccessful. How is it possible that this important social institution has remained undocumented? Instead of finding a history of hobby shops, I found numerous references to family owned hobby shops going out of business. Those mid-twentieth century mom and pop hobby shops that survived into the new millennium were devastated by the 2008-2009 Great Recession:
[Author’s Aside: Some hobby shops remain in roadside malls. Many have transformed into gaming stores. The Hobby Lobby and Michael’s chains are arts and crafts supply stores, not hobby stores as defined using twentieth century terminology. Crafters and hobbyist are not synonymous.]
Those fortunate to grow up with a neighborhood mom and pop hobby store were blessed. I am one of them. From my childhood until I moved from Bethlehem to York, Pennsylvania, in 1972, and following my return to Bethlehem in 1977, I patronized Mac’s Hobby Hall. Gertrude Goodman Makagon (1907-2001), known as Mrs. Mac, established Mac’s Hobby Hall in 1946. Originally located at 516 Broadway from 1946 to 1948, the store moved first to 315 West Forth Street in 1940 and in 1970 to 721 Linden Street until its close in 2012. It changed hands a number of times and did its best to change with the times. The sale of Dungeons and Dragons materials was its last great hurrah.
Just as Barbara Bel Geddies as Katrina remembers her mother, played by Irene Dunn in the movie I Remember Mama (1946), I remember Mac’s. I am astonished by how much I remember. The memories’ list I made filled a page. My difficulty is that I am having trouble ordering the memories chronologically. They keep wanting to blend into single rather than separate memories. Hence, if what follows appears jumbled, I apologize.
When my family moved from Dundalk, Maryland, to 717 High Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in early 1946, we lived two years with my Prosser grandparents. Readers are familiar with my fascination with my Uncle Bill’s matchcover collection. Uncle Bill had another hobby—scratch building airplanes and assembling airplane model kits. Dozens of models hung suspended from his ceiling. I can envision him working on them.
Uncle Bill introduced me to the possibilities inherent in balsa wood. There appeared no limit to what could be built from it. I paid no attention to Uncle Bill’s source of supplies. My High Street memories are more attic than hobby oriented. Uncle Earl’s toy soldiers and Uncle Bill’s chemistry set were among the many toys located there.
My Mac’s memories start after the autumn of 1948 when my family moved to 50 West Depot Street in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. My father and I visited Mac’s to buy American Flyer train equipment and materials to build and use on our family train platform—an object that magically appeared the day after Thanksgiving on an annual basis until I left for college.
While I was a Cub Scout, Mac’s supplied me with the materials to make and enter a car in the Pinewood Derby. I also became enamored with making Plaster of Paris figurines and painting them. I bought the rubber molds and supplies at Mac’s. Mold subjects ranged from the head of an Indian to jewelry pins.
When paint by numbers kits became the rage in the early 1950s, my father, and to a lesser extent, I, took part. Mac’s was our supply source. When I was 11 or 12, I built my own HO layout and scratch-built several cars using materials bought at Mac’s.
Following Uncle Bill’s example, I tried my hand at building a few model airplane kits. I was tempted by the large scale, gasoline-engine-driven model planes but never succumbed to the temptation.
The plastic model kit era arrived when I was a teenager. Again, I tried my hand at building a few battleships and cars. What I remember more than anything else is Testor’s model cement, which managed to get on everything but where it should be and leaked incessantly from its tube, and Testor’s butyrate dope paint, commonly referred to as “dope” by hobbyist. Time certainly has changed the meaning of that term.
My view of Mac’s is shaped by my personal experiences. My recollection is that a mom and pop hobby shop was primarily male dominated. I question this. Neighborhood mom and pop shops must have had a female component.
Did you have a neighborhood mom and pop hobby shop near you when you grew up? If yes, please share your memories with me. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, I have added a history of mom and pop hobby shops to my list of book titles I hope to research and write. All I need is time. As I now realize, time is a formidable enemy. I hope I have enough energy to keep fighting it.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC 2018