By Lisa Beckelhimer
Tom McComas was in his early 30s when he acquired his first toy trains, which he didn’t want. “I lived in a small Chicago apartment,” he says, “so the last thing I needed was an old train.” The 1960 graduate received four boxes of old trains in lieu of payment for a job he did. The trains went directly to the basement and were immediately forgotten about until a year later, when a dinner guest turned out to be a train collector. The guest offered McComas $7,500 for the boxes, which included a Lionel Hiawatha set, an O-gauge Blue Comet, a Hudson with passenger cars, Union Pacific and Flying Yankee streamliner sets, and more.
McComas politely declined. The offer, though, piqued his curiosity, and he set out to find a book on the value of toy trains. He found none. “There was a huge group of people interested in toy trains,” says McComas, “but their whole body of information was disseminated by word-of- mouth. It dawned on me that a book would be a wonderful resource.”
So he contacted a friend, journalist Jim Tuohy, about writing a history and collector’s guide for the most popular trains, 1945-1969 era Lionels. The two sat down, put together the book, then took out a $20,000 loan to publish 10,000 copies. They then set up a table at the national convention of the Train Collector’s Association and quickly sold the several hundred copies they brought with them.
“It was unbelievable,” says McComas. “I stacked the books on a table and it was like selling cold beer in Brooklyn on a hot summer night.”
When he returned home from the convention, another 1,200 orders were in his mailbox. All 10,000 books sold in less than six months. McComas subsequently quit his job as a documentary and advertising film producer, and founded a company with Tuohy, TM Books & Video. Now, 30 years after stumbling into the toy train world, McComas is considered the country’s foremost authority on the subject, with more than 60 videos and 20 books to his credit.
Thanks in part to McComas’ work, toy train collecting picked up steam in the 1980s. Trains that sold for $1,000 in the early ’80s went for $5,000 by the end of the decade. Membership in the national association soared and the hobby began to boast of some celebrity collectors. McComas remembers one phone call in particular.
“I’m calling for Frank Sinatra,” the voice said. “He’s in town and wants some information on a Lionel train he’s buying.”
McComas passed the phone to Tuohy, a huge Sinatra fan. “He asked who it was and I said, ‘Frank Sinatra.’ Tuohy said, ‘Oh, sure,’ and answered the phone. It was Sinatra, and Tuohy almost fell on the floor.”
Other well-known collectors include broadcaster Tom Snyder of CNBC’s “The Tom Snyder Show,” who provided narration for McComas’ video on the 100th anniversary of the Lionel train. In addition, rock star Neil Young is part owner of the Lionel company.
TM followed its book series with many other successes. A hardcover book called The Great Layout featured famous toy train layouts, including a set owned by Sinatra. Part two of the six-part video series based on that book was named one of the top 10 videos of 1989 by People magazine. TM began producing video catalogs for Lionel and started Toy Train Revue, a quarterly collector’s magazine in print, video and online.
Another product, one of TM’s most popular items, was created by accident in McComas’ home. To keep his young son, Jeffrey, occupied while he worked, McComas threw together some train video, jokes and music. His wife, Charyl, suggested that maybe other children would like similar videos, so they produced “I Love Toy Trains.” McComas took it to a trade show in Las Vegas and came home with orders from Blockbuster and Toys R Us. The video’s now expanded into a seven-part series that has sold more than 1 million copies. “When I get angry at Jeffrey, my wife reminds me that he gave me the idea for ‘I Love Toy Trains,’ ” says McComas.
McComas moved the company from Chicago to an 80-acre farm in northern Indiana in 1987. His family lives in a 100-year-old farmhouse and operates TM out of three barns. “We needed space for studios where we could set up train layouts, and that would have been a prohibitive cost in Chicago,” says McComas. “Besides, I like to listen to the Chicago traffic reports as I pass a rabbit or woodchuck on my way to work.”
Inside the barns, TM’s eight-member team produced the first train-collecting book on CD-ROM, and started producing material on DVD. The change in tech- nology has been incredible, says McComas. “When we started, I worked with a typesetter. Now we’re taking orders online.”
The irony isn’t lost on McComas. “We’ve been able to utilize all these changes in our lives to preserve something that isn’t new,” he says. “And it isn’t just toy trains. Some of us had G.I. Joe toys and Schwinn bikes. Nobody should throw anything away. All you have to do is look on eBay to see how valuable collectibles are.”
McComas believes it’s a combination of nostalgia and entertainment that keeps collectors young and old hooked. “The impact of your youth stays with you,” he says. “If you received a train at Christmas, you might identify it with good memories such as play-ing with your father. There’s a natural inclination for people who grew up in the ’50s to recapture their youth and buy toys as they remember them.”
Besides, he adds, trains are also quality toys for today’s kids. “If a die-cast train sat in your basement for 30 years, chances are if you hooked it up again it would still work. What plastic toy today is going to last for 30 years? ‘I Love Toy Trains’ videos are geared toward kids age 2 to 6. Kids make a connection with toy trains. Because of that, I think our stuff will go on long after I’m gone.”