The following review of The Madison Hardware Story was written by Dr. Bruce Greenberg. Dr. Greenberg is an authority on Lionel Trains, and has written and published numerous books on the subject. My sincere thanks to Dr. Greenberg for his review of the book and his help in its publication.
You can order Dr. Greenberg’s latest book, Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Standard and 2-7/8″ Gauges 1901-1940 by following this link
– Derek Thomas
The 152 page Madison Hardware Story by Derek Thomas opens with a brief history of the store in New York City, from its beginnings about 1909. Its focus is the store’s glory years from 1970 to 1985. In 1989 it was acquired by the noted entrepreneur Richard Kughn, redeployed to the Detroit area, and finally closed in 2001.
The story is told through nine insightful essays by Madison customers and employees with vintage photographs and the iconic paintings of Angela Trotta Thomas (no relation to author Derek Thomas). The stories provide differing perspectives on the store’s owners, the brothers Lou and Carl Shur, as well as Madison’s customers and the larger toy train world.
Romance and mystery are two sides of Madison Hardware. The Shur brothers were very reticent about how they operated. It was obvious, though, that Lou and Carl bought like collectors and did not sell “their treasures” in a businesslike manner, retaining much more than they could expect to sell. Madison’s inventory, only partially organized with much entirely disorganized, was stored in huge warehouses with rental charges running almost $180,000 per year. When Kughn moved “his Madison purchase” to Detroit it took sixteen tractor trailer loads!
Dealers in collectible items, such as Madison Hardware’s toy trains, have the on-going challenge of obtaining merchandise. Unlike buying new goods from known vendors at known prices, the constant hunt for new sources of goods and the accompanying negotiation of prices are essential features of everyday business in collectibles.
In the case of Madison Hardware, the Shur brothers recognized that they were depleting certain portions of their Lionel parts inventory. Eventually they invested in tooling to manufacture parts that were in demand, a sensible step forward that turned out to benefit the train-collecting hobby.
Lou and Carl manufactured parts to complete the assembly of existing Lionel engines and cars. They arranged for the painting of a large number of remnant plastic bodies so that they would match previous Lionel production. Some accused them of fraud. The brothers were not themselves collectors, or railroad enthusiasts for that matter: their business purpose was to satisfy the needs of their customers. When it came time to retire, they did not look back.
The Shur brothers had starkly different personalities and interests. In the store one could feel the tension and conflicts between them. The essay writers discuss these relationships and those with their customers. Some customers became part of the Madison Hardware “tribe” and received special treatment and consideration. Most customers were just customers.
The world of Madison Hardware, while it prospered, revolved around the brothers. In their times, in the larger scheme, the toy train market consisted of three major manufacturers and about 500 small, mostly mom-and-pop stores with new and used merchandise. It also consisted of hundreds of toy train marketplaces selling new and used toy trains. Most of these ad hoc markets were small, usually under 75 tables, except 20 or so large annual shows with over 250 tables. The toy train market peaked in the early 1990s.
Derek Thomas’s book of essays is an extraordinary report on the thinking and activities of toy train collectors and dealers and of one extraordinary store, Madison Hardware. This is a book that invites the reader to pause. I didn’t feel compelled to read it at one sitting; yet I returned with pleasure to each new story. I enjoyed reading this book. It is informative and engaging. I highly recommend it to my fellow toy train enthusiasts.