PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — In Pinellas Park, there’s an age-old business that not only survived the pandemic but grew stronger because of it.
Like the real-life steel titans, their models are made to replicate, which doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.
HR Trains and Toys has been supplying model train owners with everything they need to make their railroad dreams come true for 45 years. They sell all types of model trains, all the fixings that make those sets come to life, and repair models for customers.
They’re also in the business of making dreams come true for people of all ages.
“We facilitate people in a hobby that is probably one of the oldest hobbies around,” Dennis Hoffman, owner, operator, and train enthusiast told me.
When I arrived to meet Dennis Hoffman, I thought I might actually be interviewing Santa Claus. He even showed me his holiday train that runs year-round and a puzzle with his likeness. I had forgotten how much people do love to put trains around their Christmas trees and suddenly remembered that I had one.
My grandfather, George Apthorp, was a conductor on the Erie Lackawanna Conrail Railroad in Upstate New York, and I just so happened to have an industrial rail yard right behind my house. On certain days I could go out the backdoor, walk down the hill to the tracks, and my grandfather would pick me up. He would let me ride with him a few hundred feet until I had to get off. I was only about four or five years old, but it’s a memory that still sticks in my head.
He also had a big model train set in his basement. I remember going there and watching him play with his trains. He even gave my father a set that we still have in a box in their basement.
Enough about that for now.
Dennis was born into this hobby. His father was a model railroader and started the business with his wife back in the ’70s. Now Dennis and his mom run the shop trying to pass their love for this on to more generations.
“We get our kids in here with Thomas the Tank trains. Then they move on to some of the smaller models. We get the grandmas and grandpas that want to build train sets they had when they were kids. We also get the railroaders that have been doing it all their life,” Dennis told me.
While the pandemic hurt so many businesses, HR Trains thrived because as he put it, “model railroading is a stay-at-home type of hobby.”
It’s the largest model train store in Florida. Having a shop that size with the number of products he takes in on a daily basis requires the right employees to make it run smoothly.
Dennis is the conductor here, but he admits he’s not the most knowledgeable person at the store, and that’s when I met his engineer.
Working away in a workshop in the back of the store, I met Marco Camuzzi. On this day it was his birthday. He’s 18 years old.
Marco started here as a customer and now for the past year has been Hoffman’s right-hand man, repairing models for customers, stocking shelves, and helping customers pick out the right train.
Today he was repairing a train’s electrical that shorted out after the owner accidentally put the wrong component in to make the smoke stack work. He was also supplying me with a history lesson.
Like Dennis, it’s in his blood.
“My Uncle had model trains. He built a table. He built a table for my cousin. When he grew out of it, I got all the stuff. My grandmother’s father was a conductor for the railroad in Cuba,” Marco Camuzzi said has repaired a customer's train.
Model railroading isn’t Marco’s only thing though. He’s been singing and playing the violin since he was eight and also does musical theatre.
“I’m the kid that wants to sing and act for a living but does model trains on the side,” Marco said with a smile.
Even if he doesn’t stick to model trains as a career choice, Dennis is grateful to have such an enthusiastic person helping guide the store for a new generation.
“He’s a go-to person if you want to know something about European trains, digital, and American trains. He just knows everything,” Dennis said.
He knows it so well that he successfully fixed the train he was working on while we were talking.
His excitement for this is contagious. So contagious that I went searching for my grandfather’s railroad car and actually found it.
From the realism of these models to the technical skills they require to keep up, there’s no denying they’re doing much more than just playing with trains at HR Trains and Toys.
“I just love it and when you love something as much as this you just learn as much as you can about it,” Marco said.
You can visit H-R trains and toys on 49th Street North in Pinellas Park.
They're open six days a week but expand to seven days during the holiday season. You can also shop online.
The store is also preparing for a massive train show this October, which will include lessons, speakers, and the chance for kids to build and race their very own trains!