Wednesday, November 18, 2009

All Aboard!

Pop-up stores are all the rage in retailing these days. For the uninitiated, a pop-up store is a temporary location, usually a kiosk or vacant storefront, in a high pedestrian traffic area. Retailers and consumer goods marketers use pop-up stores to promote new products or take advantage of prime selling seasons in areas where they have no stores. In the past, pop-up stores in Manhattan have featured Charmin’ toilet paper and Meow Mix cat food. Target has plopped a pop-up store in Manhattan, where it has no outlets.

The latest pop-up store to crash the NY market comes from Lionel Electric Trains. The 109-year-old company opened its first ever retail location Thursday at Rockefeller Center, on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues (editor’s aside—I particularly liked the fact that Lionel’s release said 6th Avenue and not Avenue of the Americas). The 1,100 sq. ft. store will stay open through January 5.

Train sets and the holidays go hand in hand. The Citicorp Center between Lexington and Third Avenues at E. 53rd St. turned its basement atrium into a model railroad paradise for some 20 years. But the bank announced last year that it would not lease the 31-train display as part of its fiscal belt tightening. Reuters reported the savings would be about $240,000. Bad news for the some 125,000 people who came each year to view the trains circle a route from Weehawken, NJ, to a fictional town in the Hudson River valley, then up to the Catskills and the Adirondacks.

One of my favorite toys growing up was a Lionel train set. Even more fun than just playing with it alone was when I combined my tracks and cars with those of my friends Lenny and Richie. We’d spend hours trying to assemble the best layout, hooking up our three heavy transformers, and then, just when we were ready to chug off, one of our mothers would end the fun by calling out, “Supper time.” Then the disagreements began over who owned which track. We’d argue and vow never to share again, a preview of modern-day merger and acquisition corporate fallouts. Our pique usually lasted until the next day.

The best train set-up I ever saw as a boy was in my cousins’ home in Garden City, Long Island. In the sub-basement of their split-level home, Uncle Ben had built a massive landscape, elevated on plywood sheets. It was an HO gauge model, smaller than a Lionel set. But it had lots of moving parts, a platform where milk cans could be loaded onto a freight car, blinking lights warned of approaching trains, and a gate came down to block cars from crossing the track when the train whizzed by.

Trains, real or models, are a constant source of fascination. A train is said to be among the best locales for a movie or play (think Twentieth Century, or Murder on the Orient Express, North by Northwest, Silver Streak, The General, The Lady Vanishes or Van Ryan’s Express, to name just a handful). They bring out the inner child in us. And there’s nothing wrong with that.