Trains are a big part of the Chiarello family history. For more than 40 years, Tony Chiarello’s father, Louis, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a repairman out of the Morrisville rail yard, and every Christmas he would buy a new model train for his son.
The annual gift instilled a love of trains in the boy that continued into his adulthood and moved Chiarello to eventually open his own model train shop in town — Trains & Things, located in the Glen Roc Shopping Center. In November, the store relocated to a new and bigger location in the center, just in time for the holiday season, their busiest time of year.
While Chiarello never spent a day working on the railroad himself, his history with trains dates back to before his childhood. “My father bought me my first train set before I was even born,” he said, noting that he still has all the model trains he collected during his childhood.
Chiarello, a long-time Ewing resident, said that like a lot of families in the 1950s, his family built their collection a little at a time. “My dad would sell scrap metal to get enough money to buy the trains, and he would do that for months and months until he could afford to buy one,” said Chiarello. “I was the luckiest kid in the neighborhood. I had the largest collection, which was set up permanently in our attic. It was more than just at Christmas time.”
That’s not to say that the family didn’t also engage in the annual tradition of setting up a special layout every Christmas. “Every year we’d bring two sets down and run them around the tree,” Tony said. “Family would come over and, of course, they all wanted to see the trains. Every year we’d change something on the layout or make it bigger. It was a tradition.”
Chiarello believes that the tradition of placing train layouts around the Christmas tree began in New York City in the early 1900s. He explained that when model train maker Lionel first got into business, the stores in New York set up moving displays to showcase the products, and customers wanted to buy the whole setup.
“People saw the displays in the store windows and wanted them, so that’s what Lionel started making,” Chiarello said. “The people brought them home and set them up around their Christmas trees.”
As he grew up, collecting model trains morphed into a business. “It’s a hobby that got out of hand,” Chiarello said. “I could not afford to buy the expensive ones, so I started buying and selling.”
Trains & Things was born in 1977, when Tony opened the basement of his home in Ewing to train enthusiasts as a way of supporting his hobby. The tiny basement business soon needed more space and moved to the home’s upper level after Tony made a deal with his wife, Nancy. She got a new kitchen, and he got to move the business to the garage.
It worked well for a few years until the business got too big for the garage. In 1992, Trains & Things moved into its first retail store in the Glen Roc Shopping Center. Over the years, it has relocated several times within the center.
One of those moves came in 2006, when a fire tore through a section of the shopping center, destroying Trains & Things and six other businesses. The structure and all merchandise were destroyed within two hours. As the fire burned, Tony contacted the landlord and prepared to move to a temporary location in the complex that hadn’t been impacted by the fire.
“He knew in his heart that Trains & Things wasn’t dead,” said Chiarello’s daughter, Krissy, who balances her full-time night job at the State Police as a 911 operator with helping her dad tend the store during the day. “With nothing salvaged, my dad rebuilt from acquired collections and great relationships he had built with distributors and manufacturers.”
The impetus for the most recent move came in April, when the Chiarellos were asked by the Glen Roc landlord to move to a different — and bigger — location in the center in order to make room for a liquor store in their spot. After a number of delays, they finally passed all township inspections and opened on Nov. 15.
Krissy said she expects that the new spot will be the store’s permanent home. “My dad says it is the last and final time moving. No more. Never again.”
These days, Tony has a lot more time to spend at the store. After 47 years working with the Coleman Auto Group on Olden Avenue, Tony retired three years ago from his job as service director.
He doesn’t see tending the store as work, though. It’s the perfect retirement — he gets to be around trains and train hobbyists all day. And he loves to talk about trains too.
When asked about his favorite model train, Chiarello quickly responded, “the Pennsylvania GG1,” with a gleam in his eye. The Lionel-made engine was first released in 1947. “It was one of the most expensive trains,” he said. “We actually had to wait until the 1960s for the price to come down to the point where we could buy one.”
The real-life version the GG1 — also known as “The Congressional” — ran between Washington D.C. and Trenton on the Northeast Corridor line through Trenton. He fondly recalls “running behind” the GG1 many times, which he clarified is not physically chasing after the train, but riding in one of the passenger cars being pulled by the locomotive.
“My mother would actually take me out of school to go to New York to see the tree at Rockefeller Center,” he said. “My dad, since he worked for the railroad, would pull a (free) pass for us, and we would go every year. We never missed the tree.”
For Chiarello and his family, there are many aspects of being model train hobbyists that are important to them. “You learn about electricity, building, construction, model making. You can create your own world.”
Krissy added that she and her brother, Anthony, used the knowledge they gained from the hobby in school projects and in college. “I even built a layout for a college final exam (for which she received an A grade). We’ve utilized trains in every aspect of our lives.”
Chiarello added that Anthony, who works in facilities for the state Attorney General’s Office, did a project at Antheil School when he was young where he built a motor from a train engine to demonstrate how electricity works.
Krissy said that they especially enjoy when kids come into the store. “We get a kick out of seeing kids ask to turn on the trains. It resonates with us. We laugh because this is what we grew up with. I’ve been working here since I was 10 years old. To see kids who are usually so into video games really get into the trains means so much to us.”
She added that a lot of children with autism come into the store because they enjoy watching the trains. “Trains are their fix — it is their control. The second they walk inside it is like a switch goes off. The the colors, the lights, the movements.”
The hobby isn’t only for kids though. “A lot of baby boomers relive their childhoods buying the things they couldn’t afford when they were young,” Chiarello said.
For those interested in getting into train collecting, Chiarello recommends one of the starter sets he sells at the store. “Our basic starter sets is really nice — it talks and smokes. You can do that for just a little over $200, and then you just expand as far as your imagination wants to go from there.”
The Chiarellos aren’t alone working in the store, they’ve had help from a lot of people through the years. Krissy especially credits Ewing residents Ron Dykas and Charlie Pennypacker, “for many years of help and laughs.”
Also “working” in the store is Nicholas, the family’s husky who is there five days a week, greeting customers with his bright blue eyes and all-white fur.
“He is the nicest dog, very personable,” Krissy said, adding that his favorite activity is looking out the front door and watching the people visit the vaious businesses in the center. “He loves being at the shop. Everybody loves Nicholas. Customers bring him dog treats. Some even walk out if Nicholas is not working that day.”
In addition to those coming to visit Nicholas, Trains & Things attracts customers from all over the world, including Norway. They have been featured on Good Morning, America, and they also set up displays at a number of train shows in the region, including Bordentown’s annual Old City Hall Holiday Model Train Show.
Because of their notoriety, Krissy is not concerned about customers finding the family shop. “We could be under a rock, and people would find us,” she said.
Trains & Things, Glen Roc Shopping Center, 236 Scotch Rd. Phone: (609) 883-8790. Holiday hours: Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. During the off-season, the store is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., reopening after dinner from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Jacquelyn Pillsbury contributed to reporting for this story.