Theodore Klein, who as proprietor of M.B. Klein Inc., a major supplier of model railroad equipment and supplies, helped turned hobbyists’ fantasy railroads into a reality of rolling trains, cities and country villages, died Sunday of undetermined causes at his home on Upper Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore. He was 84.
To every model railroader, young or old, who ever dreamed of building a miniature version of the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, Atlantic Coast Line, New Haven, Reading Co. or any other railroad in the basement or attic of their home, there was only one place to go to make it a reality, and that was M.B. Klein Inc. at North Gay and Saratoga streets.
Theodore Klein, son of Morris Benjamin Klein, founder of M.B. Klein Inc., and his wife, Sarah Miller Klein, a homemaker, was born and raised in Northwest Baltimore.
Mr. Klein dropped out of Forest Park High School in 1953 and went to work for his father, who had established his namesake commercial and residential hardware business in 1913 originally at 206 N. Gay St. The business moved in 1966 to 162 N. Gay St. after its original location was condemned for an extension of Interstate 83.
“Prior to 1930, model trains manufactured by Lionel, American Flyer, Ives and Voltamp were considered seasonal toys for young boys,” Frank A. Wrabel, M.B. Klein director of operations, wrote in a biographical profile of Mr. Klein. “In that era, hardware stores sold trains at Christmas and M.B. Klein was no exception. That market expanded during the 1930s when scale model railroading became a popular, year-round adult hobby.”
Mom-and-pop hardware operations began to decline in the 1950s and 1960s, with the coming of chain hardware store operations, but “despite those trends the model railroad hobby line flourished,” wrote Mr. Wrabel, a Timonium resident and author who writes widely on railroading.
“In that same period, M.B. Klein expanded their traditional line of Lionel and American Flyer trains by their close association with Sol Kramer, owner of Kramer Brothers Hobbies, a thriving Baltimore-based distributor of Revell and Life Like Products,” Mr. Wrabel wrote. “The former offered a complete line of plastic building kits and the latter model railroad equipment and scenery products. Eventually, they acquired Varney, an early manufacturer of HO trains.”
It was Mr. Klein who persuaded his father by the 1970s to jettison the hardware business and concentrate on model trains and equipment.
Mr. Klein possessed the ability to see what his customers wanted or might want, negotiate solid deals, and offer discount pricing, which led him to make the business, which sold no model airplanes, cars or boats, one of the most successful model railroad businesses in the East, with customers driving from five or six nearby states.
When brass model railroad equipment became fashionable and much sought-after by collectors, he became an expert and only purchased from the finest manufacturers, many of whom were from abroad. In addition to trains, he added railroad-related books, technical manuals, magazines and calendars.
Martin “Ken” Van Horn, a Towson resident who is a model railroader, author and rail historian, is a longtime customer.
“I first got to know Ted around 1956 or 1957 when he would come to traction modeler’s meetings at Irv Kopp’s house on Echodale, selling trains,” Mr. Van Horn said in a telephone interview. “I used to go to Lloyd’s Hobby Shop on Charles Street and worked there part time.”
In 1963, Mr. Van Horn went to work at the Municipal Office Building in downtown Baltimore. “It was just around the corner from where I worked and that’s when I became a customer,” he said. “Ted was a great guy who always treated me right.”
James Genthner, a Timonium model railroad collector, was a longtime customer.
“Ted, by his skillful merchandising tactics, killed off Lloyd’s and other hobby stores. He was able to discount by stocking the most popular items,” Mr. Genthner said.
Not only was the M.B. Klein Christmas garden central at Christmastime, but crowds of regular customers on Saturday mornings would regularly jam the sliver of a store that was packed from floor to ceiling with inventory. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there were often lines of people waiting to get into the store.
When Mr. Van Horn was faced with being laid off from his job, Mr. Klein offered him a tryout to be a store manager.
“It was on a Saturday and it was a madhouse,” Mr. Van Horn said with a laugh. “Fortunately, federal funding came through and my computer programmer/analyst position was spared and saved me from a nervous breakdown. And whenever I shopped there, I was given the employee discount, even though I never worked there. That was Ted’s doing.”
Mr. Klein could often be found on the floor answering customers’ questions and completing transactions on the back of paper bags where he figured the pricing and discount in lightning speed and eschewed any need of a calculator.
In 2007, Mr. Klein relocated the business to Cockeysville Road in Cockeysville. When N and Z scales became popular, Mr. Klein wasted no time in expanding his line of products while creating a fully interactive website that drew customers from all over the world.
“Ted had good instincts,” said Richard D. Horn of Potomac, who holds Mr. Klein’s power of attorney. “He made the decision to become an e-commerce business. And for a guy of his age to see the value of the internet meant that he had made the right decision.”
In recent years, Mr. Klein was an infrequent visitor to his store, monitoring the business on closed-circuit TVs from his Northwest Baltimore home. Late last year, he made the decision to close his showroom and convert the business to a strictly online operation.
Despite his life’s work, Mr. Klein had absolutely no interest in either railroading or model railroading, and preferred spending his time gambling in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
The Morning Sun Newsletter
Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
“Blackjack was his game,” Mr. Horn said. “He was well known in all of the casinos and was escorted from most of them because of counting cards. In recent years, he didn’t go much anymore because Ted didn’t like to fly.”
“The casinos had pictures of all of Ted’s various disguises,” Mr. Horn said.
It was Mr. Klein’s intent to keep the business in operation after his death “because it was his employees’ livelihood,” Mr. Horn said.