The incoming-call telephone board at Mike's Train House in Columbia looks like a flashing set of Christmas lights as callers beg for Amtrak diesels and Pennsy GG1 electric engines, dining cars and cabooses to highball around their basement rail layouts.
This unadorned warehouse is the home depot of the country's No. 2 producer of O-gauge classic electric toy train sets and costly collector pieces, detailed steam locomotives that sell for $300 to $1,400 and occasionally jump in value the day they are delivered.
Presiding over the Lilliputian rail empire he established while a student at Towson State University is Mike Wolf, a 36-year-old Howard County resident. Some observers say he compares favorably to the late, legendary Joshua Lionel Cohen, whose middle name is virtually synonymous with the hobby industry.
"It's the hottest stuff on the market today," said Chris Gans, owner of Nicholas Smith, a busy Broomall, Pa., toy train store in the Philadelphia suburbs. "He's a leader in the industry and he's nipping away at Lionel.
"The only problem is that there is such demand and that Mike can't get production up to meet it. I'm double sold out on some of his items. He made a model of a Philadelphia streetcar, and I got an allotment of 78. I could have sold 500, maybe more," Gans said.
"Mike Wolf is a tremendous entrepreneur. He has an absolute sense of where the toy train market was, where it is today and where it is going," said George Hoffer, a professor of economics at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the model train industry.
Wolf says he is a fanatic about quality and the running performance of the miniature versions of his 1920s steam behemoths outfitted with metal handrails, operating headlamps and pulsing pistons. He demands absolute color matches to paint schemes on diesel locomotives: tropical orange-red for the Florida East Coast Railway; the deep navy and warm gray of the Baltimore and Ohio; and the Union Pacific's sunburst yellow.
"I make what my customers ask for, high quality at a good price," said Wolf, a former wrestler at Atholton High whose office is a railroad yard of the trains he's manufactured over the years.
Wolf states outright that he is not the kind of train fan who spends his weekends at Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pa., or walking the right of way of the old Ma&Pa; (Maryland & Pennsylvania) Railroad in Harford County.
"I'm a Miami Dolphins fan. I used to be a big Colts fan, but when Don Shula got sacked, I switched to the Dolphins," said Wolf. A corner of his office looks like a shrine to that team and its quarterback, Dan Marino.
"He's better known nationally than he is around here," said Charles Tirschman, a Perry Hall train collector who works for the Social Security Administration. "He has a reputation for listening to the market. He sells what people want to buy."
It was customer requests that led Wolf to make a new product this year, an operating city streetcar -- the variety that ran on Baltimore's Greenmount Avenue and York Road until 1963. Almost identical models ran in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Toronto and San Francisco. Wolf plans to produce a motorized $100 model each year painted in the color scheme used by the transit companies in each city. The Philadelphia model is out this season. San Francisco's is due next year.
Despite Wolf's vigorous position within the industry, he has no retail store in Columbia. He has mail-order customers and dealers throughout the country who stock his line. Much of the inventory is pre-ordered through the glossy, lushly illustrated 56-page catalog that is issued three times a year.
Its pages are filled with miniature versions of the deep maroon (rail fans call this shade Tuscan Red) Pennsylvania Railroad coaches. Each sells for $35 and is lighted with outlines of passengers at the windows. A safety yellow C&O; caboose goes for $35. His 6-ounce bottle of liquid smoke is $8.
Virtually all the engines, passenger and freight cars sold pass through his 16,000-square-foot Columbia warehouse on Gerwig Lane. It is the distribution point for the products that some 550 workers cast, paint and assemble in Seoul, South Korea, or other Asian countries. All the master technical design is done by the MTH staff. In all, the company has 26 local employees.
Wolf grew up in Laurel. His father worked for the National Security Agency, his mother was a homemaker.
To make extra money, he went to work assembling couplers for " another local electric train maker, Williams Electric Trains, a pioneer in the Baby Boomers electric train market.
By 1980, Wolf had his own business, assembling trains in his parents' basement. Mark Hipp, his brother-in-law, who still works for the company, painted the parts. They moved them from garage to basement wherever they could find enough space for their wares.
"I know it sounds crazy, but as a kid, I collected playing cards, you know, the 52-in-a-pack kind. But I think that if you are a collector, you'll branch out and collect a lot of different lines," he said.
"Mike is up and coming, producing wonderful, beautiful products. He is aggressive and energetic," said Dick Christianson, assistant publisher of Classic Toy Trains, a magazine published in Milwaukee with 73,000 subscribers.
Wolf visits toy train fairs and collectors' meetings. He listens to his buyers, who are willing to pay each other more than the published catalog price for certain pieces they covet.
"The average age of our customer is 52. The average customer spends $4,200 a year on the hobby," Wolf said.
Take, for example, the Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive depicted on the cover of Wolf's spring 1997 catalog. It will be sold for $1,395. "Every unit we make of it will be sold out before it arrives from Korea," Wolf predicted.
He also likes to take the technology of the 1990s and impose it on the basic toy train engineering of the 1940s and '50s. His employees recently took a tape recorder to Bayview Yard, a sprawling rail complex behind the Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Amid the clanking of the box and coal cars, they recorded the sounds of air hoses hissing and couplers banging. These sounds are now in computer chips that can be played through a device the size of a transistor radio and inserted into a toy locomotive.
"Train collectors are some of the most educated consumers around. They meet and bring their latest buys with them. They compare and demand quality," said Wolf.
While many of the pieces in his catalog are designed for advanced collectors, he is trying to sell into the middle-level train market, people who pay $300 for a top-quality locomotive.
"Look at this," Wolf says, as he holds a Berkshire-style steam locomotive. "Guys want an engine that is heavy, the way they remember the Lionel engine they got for Christmas in 1955."
The Mike's Train House engine retails for $295, weighs 8.1 pounds and can pull 50 freight cars. Because of his company's reputation, the model can be difficult to locate this Christmas season.
"I know we are the No. 2 producer behind Lionel. That is a name that is hard to overcome. I've heard it said that Lionel is second only to Coca-Cola in name recognition. But what I tell people is to take the Lionel product that is being made today and put ours next to it. That is the way we make sales," Wolf said.
Pub Date: 12/22/96