By Clare Cameron
For generations, anyone in Niagara who ever entertained the notion of becoming an artist, jeweler, model railway engineer, sculptor, kite flyer or pom-pom collector had every possible wish for materials, advice and supplies satisfied by the existence of Niagara Central Hobbies, otherwise known as the Hobby Shop.
This iconic business, a staple of St. Catharines downtown’s commercial landscape for nearly 70 years, officially closed its doors on August 29. Only three years ago, the St. Catharines Downtown Association described Niagara Central Hobbies as “a model of success,” lauding its 65th anniversary of operations with a feature in StreetSeen. At that time, the business was said to be thriving because of “loyal customers, coupled with longstanding service excellence and outstanding products.” From 2012 to 2015, what happened to the Hobby Shop, and what does its closure mean for arts and culture in St. Catharines?
The first Niagara Central Hobbies was established on King Street in 1947 by friends and former McKinnon’s employees Jack Stewart and Henry Bartel, as a retirement project. In 1954 the store moved to 236 St. Paul Street, an address that is now coincidentally part of the new Marilyn I Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts. The Hobby Shop’s current location at 395 St. Paul Street opened in 1974, and the famous hand-shaped switch that could make a shop window model train run at any time of day was first installed in 1967.
Niagara Central Hobbies was a special place for many reasons including its sheer size and scale, variety of stock, and the charming oddity of offering courses in model rocket safety and kite flying. The business also prided itself on offering personalized customer service and a bottomless pot of coffee for staff and visitors alike.
Nostalgia can be a powerful economic force, but also has its limits. At a recent visit to the store, the wide array and visible age of some items on Hobby Shop shelves provided evidence of a business that may have been struggling to define their target customer.
Marvyn Rivett, a local artist and teacher with Snowbird Art, always appreciated the friendliness of Niagara Central Hobbies’ staff, but also found that it was sometimes necessary to purchase supplies in Oakville, Toronto or online due to a lack of particular brands or materials locally.
Rumblings of a potential closure first surfaced in 2008, when Ray and Marie Lounsbury retired from running the store; soon after, their son Mark and his wife Cheryl took over the business, and made the decision to close this year. Over the last 7 months, online reviews of Niagara Central Hobbies were not favourable, and expressed frustration with the quality of customer service and pricing methods.
Don Fraser’s July feature on the closure of Niagara Central Hobbies suggested that the decline of this business was due to external factors including road work, sewer reconstruction on St. Paul Street, and the general economic downturn since 2008. Requests to Cheryl Lounsbury for further comment on how the decision was made to close in August did not receive a response.
Rivett observes that in today’s business climate, “It takes a great deal of marketing strategy and knowledge of art materials to be successful.”
Despite a central location less than 500 metres from the prospering James Street strip, the Hobby Shop appears to have operated in a bit of obscurity, described as a “well-kept secret” in an online letter by a loyal customer named Dar.
With the new Marilyn I Walker School for Fine and Performing Arts now housing Brock University faculty and students in the heart of downtown St. Catharines, it is possible to view the Hobby Shop’s closure as a missed opportunity to connect with a new generation of artists. The Niagara Artists Centre certainly expressed disappointment in this unfortunate timing, because with so many students close by “it would have been ideal to have art supplies available downtown.”
It remains unclear why Niagara Central Hobbies did not offer online shopping as a service. The Standard observed this gap seven years ago, describing online sales as “not this store’s forte.” As with many lines of retail business, the hobby sector has faced huge competition from big box stores, online competition and changing cultural trends. Stephen Remus with the NAC has observed the decline in traditional hobbies and says “It’s a strange thing to get nostalgic about, but I wish kids were still making plastic models of Rat Finks as opposed to playing Call of Duty all day.”
Art supply providers do not face a completely hopeless landscape, however. 40 minutes down the road in Hamilton, a very different story of growth and prosperity has played out at Mixed Media, an arts and culture supply store that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Owners Dave Kuruc and Teresa Devries were first drawn to the James Street North neighbourhood in downtown Hamilton when a longstanding local art supplier relocated to Vancouver. From their beginning in 2005, “we didn’t want this to be any old art shop. In order to survive, we needed to create a whole new experience.”
And they have done exactly that, while facing very familiar external pressures and economic concerns. “Many years of neglect and a general shift away from downtown shopping really left its mark on James Street [North],” Kuruc says. “The clustering of like-minded neighbours helped to change the stigma attached to the place. Through hard work, creativity and passion we helped bring people back to the neighbourhood.”
As economic activity increased in the immediate area, elected officials in Hamilton started to take notice of achievements that for many years remained “invisible to most at City Hall.” Kuruc recalls “years ago inviting a senior city staffer on a walking tour of the street because I wanted to highlight all our achievements. He declined even though his office was a block away.” Thankfully, those attitudes have changed.
In the face of potential competition from online and big box retail, Mixed Media has committed to offering a unique in-store experience that customers “must do in person.” Though nearly all of the store’s stock could be found somewhere else for sale online, the product mix available in-store is impossible to replicate. In Kuruc’s words, “there is no other place you can find these combinations.”
Active participation in downtown events like the James St. North Art Crawl and Supercrawl seem to have cemented Mixed Media’s role as a hub for arts and culture in a historically struggling area that is finally taking off, described by the Globe and Mail as a “great leap” for the city this year with condo development and GO train infrastructure appearing in post-industrial locations that were once considered derelict. Kuruc’s business has played a real and meaningful role in this transformation.
Back home in St. Catharines, the closure of Niagara Central Hobbies is a sign that there are some limits to downtown’s apparent rebirth. While decision-makers and community leaders celebrate completion of the new Marilyn I Walker School as a major accomplishment for downtown, the Hobby Shop’s closure offers an awkward reality to advocates of Niagara as a cultural hub: that steps from the Niagara Artists Centre and a beautiful new facility devoted to the arts, a business that provided creatives with raw material for their work could not survive.
It is hard to avoid cynicism when a closure like this happens: in Stephen Remus’ view, “despite politicians constantly extolling the virtuousness of the small business owner/operator, not much is done to create an economic environment where they can thrive.” And for many Niagara area residents, downtown St. Catharines remains an occasional destination rather than a bustling place to live, work and play.
As for future plans at the 395 St. Paul St. location, the west wing of the store still contains a complete trolley car that someone has expressed interest to Lounsbury in using as a wine tasting bar, with plans to showcase some of the larger model train sets in a new food and beverage destination. Dani’s Bistro has had some success in putting downtown St. Catharines on the Ontario Wine Route map, and further growth in that sector could be possible.
Former customers of Niagara Central Hobbies can only hope that somewhere in the local arts and culture community, there is an entrepreneur with the vision to make new life possible at 395 St. Paul Street.
Until that happens, the Hobby Shop is gone. Walk past its windows, and make that model train run one last time.