by Rob LeBlanc

The Toymaster of Middletown: Vincent Amato

Vincent Amato and his nephew Joseph Rios -- Photo by Dakille Studios of New Britain
Editor: Vincent "Vinny" Amato grew up in the Middletown area, the son of Italian immigrants. His dream, as a boy, was to become the pilot of a sleek aircraft, as Lindberg and the other heros of the new age of flight were hailed. He came remarkably close to achieving that dream but the end of the World War Two arrived before he could earn his wings.

So Vinny went back to his idea of building an empire based on his interest in model aircraft which also blossomed in other directions which included the world of model and toy trains. One of his dreams today is to create a museum personifying the age in which he grew up, showing the technology and ways of life of the folks during the years prior to and including the "war years." In this museum he'd like to exhibit the artifacts and toys of that age, a "Time Machine" of sorts.

Vincent Amato: "I guess I feel that you mostly have to pay for your space on Earth. We don't enjoy what we enjoy here because we're so brilliant. But, a couple hundred years ago, maybe more than that, maybe five hundred years ago, people started wanting more control of their lives. Especially here in the United States. A lot of people gave, ultimately, their lives to give you and me the right to sit here and talk. And not to have to be doing something that some central planning committee said we ought to do with our physical and mental energies.

So I feel we have to leave the world a little bit better, or at least as good as it was when we got here. And that we should be aware of the fact that we're only here temporarily and we have to leave our grandchildren space to live too. Even in my business I feel that I'm part of a tree. My grandfather, my two grandfathers I figure were extremely brave guys, a lot braver than I am. You might compare what they did coming over here, not knowing the language, or what they would do when they got here.

One of my grandfathers came from Sicily, my mother's family. She was born here. My father was born in Naples. His father came over here. He spent seven years before he accumulated enough money to send for his wife and three children. I would compare that with, say I decided, all of a sudden, well, I'm going to China and see if there's some way I can earn a living there. I don't know the language. I have no idea what I would do when I got there and I don't have any special skills.

My ancestors weren't doctors or lawyers, financiers or anything like that, they were just plain people. One was a farmer but I don't know what the other one did back in Italy.

That leaves us with a debt such that we should not spoil the resources that we were given nor waste them. We should enjoy them you know, we shouldn't live a life of poverty only to leave our children something. But we should leave them the ability to live as well as we did.

I got started in my business in the 30's. I was born in 1925, and by the middle 30's I was 12 or 13 years old and our heroes in those days were pilots like Lindberg and the others who did air racing and that kind of stuff, not like the orange haired basketball players who are 8 feet tall and make millions of dollars. So, like a lot of other kids, I built model airplanes, the kind you put together with paper and string and wood.

In 1940 there was a little store on Center Street where the River View Center is, a street that went down, like all the other streets to the river. A little store was run by Arthur Warmsley, photographer, and a friend of his that was a model airplane guy. The two of them had this store where they sold model airplanes and photographic supplies. They closed the store up when World War Two was eminent and so there was no place to buy model airplanes.

I was 14 and a sophomore in high school in 1940. I had worked summers on my father's trucks getting tools for the men, like any kid has to do when his father runs a business. Next door to us was a greenhouse and I used to work in there once in a while. So I had a hundred and fifty dollars saved up.

I asked my father if I could have a little space in his store which, at that time was the office for his plumbing and heating company. Shlein's furniture is in that building on Main Street now. My father said yes and he took me to the bank, which is now Webster bank, and opened a commercial checking account for me with that grand sum. Then I registered the name, Amato's Hobby Center with City Hall.

Before I went into the military there was only two months when I received a paycheck signed by someone else. Between high school and college I worked in New Britain in a factory for a couple of months. Then, when I was in college in the Fall of 1942 I was going to MIT, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer to go along with my aviation stuff. The Navy took over the college. The V-12 Program I think it was called. Wesleyan was in a similar situation.

The deal was, if you kept up your marks you were a navel cadet, you'd get pay and food, tuition paid to the school and all of that. If you graduated you would then have to serve two years as an ensign in the Navy. But I was fly happy. In those days, nobody wanted to stay home. And I, like everybody else, wanted to be a fighter pilot. I never got to be a fighter pilot but I signed up in a volunteer program which specified that if you did not get what you were asking for they had to discharge you.

They could, of course, draft you afterwards when you got back home. But they couldn't say we don't need a pilot right now, we want you to be a gunner, or some other thing. So, I went through the basic training and beginning courses where they sent you to a whole bunch of different airfields for parts of the training until you got to where you had to be separated to navigator, bombadier, or pilot.

Everybody wanted to be a pilot. I don't think anyone ever went in with the idea, "I want to be a bombadier." Well, you took all these physicals and mental tests. They were kind of crude like depth perception was two candles on the end of strings and you moved them back and forth with a pulley at the other end to line them up. That, of course, was very crude compared to today's testing.

In any event, many of us would pass all the tests since were around 18 at that point. I had to wait six months because I wasn't old enough and had my mother and father sign a paper saying it was okay for me to do this. I passed all the tests. We got called in by the guidance counselor, a high ranking officer who talked to you.

By that time it was around 1944. He said, "Look! I imagine you want to be a pilot just like everybody else who comes in here." I said yes. He said, given the contract we have with you, if you insist on being put in the pilot program I'll have to put you in there. But I'll tell you right now I doubt very seriously that you'll ever be a pilot unless the war in the Pacific goes a lot longer than we think.

I said, "Why is that?"

He replied, "Well, we have thousands and thousands of pilots in the European Theatre which is winding down at the time. In the Pacific we're using B-29s which are the most expensive airplanes in the world. We're not going to turn these over to a nineteen year old beginner when we've got "old" men of 23 and 24 who have hundreds of missions flying the other planes. If you insist on staying in the "pilot" program I'll have to put you in it, but I think what you'll do is be an "on the line trainee" as they call it.

All that amounted to was, rather than discharge you, you went to an airfield and stayed there for a few months and then to another one and you helped them fill up airplanes with gas or go out and turn on the motors and that kind of stuff. That didn't sound very intriguing to me. So I chose navigator. I figured bombadier was extremely important. That was the only reason they sent an airplane anywhere was for what that guy had to do for about 60 seconds. But, I chose navigator, figuring that that was a more meaningful job.

And so I went through training and got to be a navigator. I was assigned to a crew . I was sent to Davis Monthan  Air Force Base in Tucson Arizona.

I was there for about four months. That's where they put you in a team, pilot, co-pilot, and the whole crew of ten men who were the members of a B-29. You trained as a crew, just as an athletic team, getting to know one another and familiarizing yourself with everything. We would make practice flights. Our favorite thing was to takeoff and go up and bomb Portland, Oregon.

We would fly out to the coast of California and fly up the coast to Portland and make believe you bombed it and come back. We'd take-off with increasingly heavier loads on the plane. By the time I finished that it was in August of 1945. Hundreds of crews were put on a big troop train slowly wending its way from there to Kansas City where they built B-29s. Each crew would pickup a plane and get its orders as to an island out in the Pacific to fly to.

Well, we got out about 5 or 6 hours from Tucson, a very slow moving troop train, which pulled into a little station called Douglas Arizona. Like for instance you pulled into a station at Moodus, small town, where everybody was screaming and hollering, the whistles were blowing and the bells were ringing. We asked what's happening in this town. Well, the war was over. So I never did get anywhere.

During that period of time, after the war was ended, there was a lot of screaming and hollering from the public who wanted their sons home. They set up a system of points. You got a certain number of points for the time you put in. A certain number of points if you ever were in combat, a certain number of points if you were wounded.  And so obviously the guys who had been in Europe had enough points to get out right away. What happend was the air crew except for the navigator and the radar operator were all old men, they were 25 years old and had been in 4 or 5 years and some of them had hundreds of missions and lots of them had thousands of hours flying time.

So when we were ordered to a base for our orders to Japan for occupation duty, first we got a last leave before going overseas. We got home and when we got back to the base a couple of weeks later, the older guys had gone, the points had been lowered and the guys had been discharged.

This happened about 3 or 4 times to me. I think I had 3 or 4 last leaves before going overseas. In the end we were going to go to Europe and be occupation troops. When I reported in 1946 to El paso Texas they called us into this big auditorium and an officer got up and said, "Look, we can't do this. We've been putting together crews, putting them through a few flights of training, sending men home for a last leave before going overseas and when they get back only a fraction of them are sent anyplace because of discharge rates. Anybody who won't sign up for 18 months of duty OUT, no matter how many points you've got.

I was engaged to be married at that point in my life and I had this little business which my mother had kept going for me while I was gone. It didn't amount to a very big business but it was still there. And, I didn't want to go back to college. My father insisted that I return but I wouldn't. Then I tried to go to Yale. I figured that would satisfy him and I could keep running my business and go to school here. So I went down and tried to get in.

At that time a lot of colleges still had quotas of various ethnic group, religious groups but even more important than that was that every college was obligated to take back the students who had left for the military. So when they looked over my record they said, "Hey! You could go back to MIT without any problem. So therefore we can't accept you. We have too many people coming back who were here before."

So in February of  47' I decided to go back to MIT and continue to try and run my business. Monday morning I'd get up about 6 oclock in the morning to catch the 7 oclock bus at the north end bus terminal. I would be up in Cambridge at about 8:30 and get to the first class at 9 oclock. We couldn't live in dormatories because they were just jammed full, barracks were full that the military had built up there. And so we lived at the Y, some of us. At 3 oclock on Friday I'd leave and come home and work Friday night, Saturday and Sunday in my business. Well, you can't do that at MIT. After one term I said, "This is ridiculous." I did not back." And I've been in the business ever since.

I have found that one of the reasons I like being in business, aside from being my own boss: There are things you can't do working for somebody else. I've always been able to just walk out of the business and go to a meeting. Yesterday I was at three meetings, one at 7:30 in the morning, one at 4 for an hour and I had to go to Common Council to be in favor of this Main Street unit which we're trying to start. But I couldn't do that if I worked for Pratt and Whitney or somebody else. I wouldn't be able to walk away and be on 30 committees.

And the other part which is just as important was that I thought my father had a pretty nice way of life. He had a business and saw every one of his children, every day of his life, except when I was in the military. Most of us worked in the business. The one who didn't was a teacher and lived at home.

There was a big difference in the way the USA was evolving, where you had 3 or 4 children, one in Texas, one in Oregon, and the other one in Florida and you get to see your grandchildren once when they're 1 year old and 4 years old and then when they're 10 years old. So, I just thought that running my own business . . .  you know, family life was a part of that decision.

But I think the main thing is that I enjoy business otherwise I wouldn't be here at age 75. I don't need to be here as my daughter does a good job of running the store from day to day and my two sons in New Britain run that store over there. I keep them from scrapping with one another and from spending more money than we have to pay the bills, and I get buried in all this paperwork.

My interest in trains, didn't start out as such. Sometime before I went into the military a customer of the store came in. Remember I was running a hobby store selling mostly model airplanes in those days. Well, the customer came in and said, "Hey! would you like to sell some Lionel trains."

I said, "Well, they're not even making them anymore."

He said, "There's a little chain of department stores called Holland Hughes which existed in Danbury, New Haven, Meriden and other places, I believe. He said, "the store in Meriden has some trains they want to get rid of. They don't have enough parts left to make a department anymore because Lionel is not making them. I know the guy who ruins it and I'll introduce you to him if you pay me fifty dollars if you buy the stuff."

That was a lot of money then, when I was about 16. That had to be in 42'. So I paid them three or four hundred dollars for what they had. Don't know where I got that money to tell the truth. It was odd pieces but I put together about 12 train sets out of them. On Friday night I put a little ad in the newspaper when the stores in Middletown were open that I would have some train sets to sell. People wanted them since they couldn't get them anymore.

One of the things that convinced me that I should be in business was that same year when I graduated from high school in 42' a friend of my father's got me a job at one of the hardware factories in New Britain. I'd go to work about seven in the morning, I rode over with somebody, and come home about five -- five days a week and I got twenty five dollars for that.

And on Saturday because I did have the business at that time I had the ability to buy little airplane motors, gasoline motors which no longer were being made because of the metal shortage. What few were still available I was able to get. And I'd make fifty dollars on a Saturday. So I said, "Gee! This just doesn't compute. Of course I didn't use those words because they weren't used in those days but to work for somebody else and get twenty five dollars or to work for yourself for one day and get fifty dollars. I thought, maybe it doesn't pay to work for someone else.

So, that started me off in trains. There was a fellow who was a city engineer at the same time, Cecil Kieft, his name was. He sort of took me under his wing; he taught me how to fix trains. He was a railroad, model railroad, enthusiast. He still had a couple of trains at home that he built himself and after he taught me how to do repairs I've been a service agency of Lionel since maybe nineteen forty four or so.

My interest in airplanes did not last after World War Two. I don't know why since I'd wanted to be a pilot in the worst way. I dreamt of having a house with a landing strip where I'd have a private airplane and all that. Of course after World War Two airplanes were to be as common as automobiles are now.

Anyway, after riding around on a B-29 it didn't seem so exciting anymore. And I never followed up. I could have taken pilot training under the GI Bill of Rights but at that time I had a business and my "flying" interest sort of fell by the wayside. I built model airplanes until probably 15 or 20 years ago. The trains, well I suppose its the motion, you know I think most people collect and go after the things that they didn't have when they were kids.

I can remember when Sears & Roebuck was where Bob's Surplus is now, the windows used to be full, at Christmas time, of the big sized trains running around, they were very powerful, made of tin. Sometime after World War Two I started taking them in trade. People were building smaller houses after World War Two than before and they didn't have the big attics that they had before.

So, the smaller sized trains became more popular. I kept taking these standard sized things in trade thinking, "You may not want them, but another guy will want them." That didn't work right away because most people were downsizing. So, being a "squirrel" and never throwing anything away, I put everything down in the basement of the store and in the warehouse. When my son was a kid we took the big room over the garage and I built a U-shaped table for him that was 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet and let him play with these trains.

(Laughter) Since then they've become very valuable, and you wonder, by God, I used to let him bang them into one another. When I saw him playing with them I started collecting them in the colorful tin. I liked them enough that I have a couple thousand pieces which is why I've got to do something with them, hopefully a museum someday, if I ever get around to it.

My dream for a museum is to make a place where I suppose people my age could see the things that in their youth have served them well. And also, one of the reasons that the United States was able to build the Air Force it did so quickly was that you had this huge cadre of young people who were avid about aviation.

At one time there were a couple of million kids who were Junior Birdmen who build model airplanes. Those are the guys just like me who were bound and determined to fly a fighter plane. I feel that since I have all this stuff saved and my memory goes back quite a ways about it, I thought that I would do something with them.

Coincidentally, in New Britain, back in 74' I bought the W.T. Grant building which had a large basement as W.T. Grant stores always have. I figured I had the room to do something. For about 8 or 9 years I've been talking about this and we haven't got to it. I hope I will it some day, I don't know when. It seems every year, at this time of the year, I say, "Well, its slowing down. When things really slow down this summer we'll go to work on that basement and make a museum out of it." But I haven't done it.

I'd like the museum to also be a place where younger people could see what motivated us and how come there were such a large number of people who were so mechanically inclined. One of the things that would be in the museum are is a collection of Erector sets that the AC Gilbert Company made.

I remember in high school myself I was bored as hell with physics because I had been doing this kind of stuff since I was young. My father must have encouraged me to build crystal radios; we used oat meal boxes wrapped with wire, and a long aerial in the backyard going from the clothespole, using batteries and little motors . . .  So, when I got in CV Johnson's physics class and he started teaching us how to connect two batteries to a light to make the light go on, for me that wasn't too exciting.

However I got the Bausch and Lomb Science Award from Middletown High School when I was a junior. I feel that era was a great expansion of learning in mechanics at that time, and now its computers. High tech in those days was a model airplane motor when you got it going at 30,000 rpms. People now think that computers are high tech, and everything else is low tech. Well the steam engine was high tech when it came out too, and that changed the world fantastically.

So the museum that I'd like to build would be a reminder of what the 30s and 40s were like, including toys. I have, as you see upstairs, a collection of trucks which would be in there. And who knows what else? Connecticut was actually a great toy making place actually when World War One came.

Most toys were coming from Germany in those days. The war stopped that which gave local companies a big impetus to expand. Even the Stanley Works made a toy building-set where you made things out of square pieces of metal hinged together. They called it a "Stanlo." It would probably be competitive with Gilbert's Erector Set. I bought a set for around ten dollars. The auctioneer said, "Vinnie Amato ought to get this," probably because I was running a toy store in New Britain.

As a kid I had a chemistry set, a microscope set, an erector set. My father wasn't rich, he didn't even have a car until 1940 as he was a plumber. So when my three sisters and I and my mother and father went to get pizzas in New Haven at Pepi's, my sisters and I would sit in the back of the pickup truck. My father wanted to encourage me to be interested in science and stuff.

In 1950 I decided that I liked being in the hobby business and that I was going to have 10 stores and if each one did 50,000 dollars a year I could live like a millionaire. At that point I had been in business almost 10 years. There was a store in New Haven on Crown Street. The men who had it had owned it for 30 years and they were old men, not as old as I am now, but to me they were old men. I went down and talked to them. They had been doing a little bit of wholesaling so they knew me and they showed me the store. Unfortunately, for me, it was right at the time when Mayor Lee was cutting New Haven up to remodel it. He drove out of there all of the big office buildings full of people.

My store there was mostly a model railroad store which catered to men who worked in C.S. Mersick and other companies around that area. We ran it for five years. I had a neighbor who was about 3 or 4 years younger than me who worked for me. He was like a brother. I made him a partner in the business which gradually went downhill because there wasn't the traffic anymore. It was a hobby store, "Hobby Center" by Parmalee and Sturgess about half a block up from State Street on Crown Street with a firehouse next door.

The next year I was going to buy a store in Waterbury that was for sale, but they decided, at the last minute, to move it toWest Hartford instead. So I opened the store in Waterbury from scratch. So then I started looking in Meriden and New Britain. I chose New Britain. A jeweler had a small hobby studio on the first floor and a jewelry store on the second floor. I bought that from him and at that point found out that I didn't have the know how to run multiple stores.

I had some embezzlement problems too to deal with. I found out after that about "honesty insurance."  But then I found out that all my employees had to take lie detector tests, to qualify for the insurance, which they refused. That took the heart right out of me. I felt that if I didn't have the "know-how" to choose people who I could trust then I had a problem.

The store in New Haven was still slightly profitable even with the embezzlement problem. It wasn't the problem with the fellow who was like my brother. I moved him out of there as sales slowed down. I had bought this bigger store in New Britain and he went there to run the bigger store.

I offered that store to my brother in law who had worked for me in Middletown and my sister was my bookkeeper. I said to Bob, my brother in law, who had worked for Raymond Engineering and knew how to fix trains and all that kind of stuff. "You can have the business. Take an inventory and if you ever make enough money pay me."

It was family, so what difference did it make? But he didn't want the responsibility so I closed that store down. The one in Waterbury had an honest manager, Luke, who had worked for me here, so I sold it to him. He was a real popular guy. Two doctors, who were hobbyists, helped him buy it.

I told him, "Whatever you don't want I'll take back with me." "I'll let you buy anything I have in the warehouse. All you have to do is stop in the Middletown store on Mondays and get what your customer wants on account. So long as you pay me every Friday we'll do this."

He was a real nice guy, as I said, everybody loved him, but he was lazy. People would come from Waterbury and buy a
locomotive. I'd say why don't you buy it from Luke? The customer replied, "He told me you didn't have it and was waiting to get it." The real story was that Luke would get up too late each morning and rush back there. He lasted five or six years until fire destroyed the building.

  (photo by Rick Mazzotta -- 1990)
Then I ran the store in New Britain which at that time was the biggest store and my mother who was my father's bookkeeper in his business ran the hobby department in Middletown until my son took over. At that point I decided I could continue to try and solve this problem of being a capitalist by owning a lot of stores. But I'd already been involved in quite a lot of community things and I figured that I can make my standard of living with these two stores. I didn't want a yacht or any of that kind of stuff. So I gave up the idea of expanding. Now, I probably would have ended up bankrupt since I didn't know how to do it.

A while ago I took a guided tour of China with some other business men, sponsored by the college to get Chinese students over here. It was bringing over a bunch of business men to China to convince the department of commerce in China that this group of businessmen might invest in that country. There were some really top notch names including the guy who was president of the Stanley Works, another guy who was treasurer of Fafnir bearing and some others . . . There were about four of them with big names like that.

When we were over there, in China and got friendly with each other, one of them said to me, "Vinnie, you know, you're the only one still in business, the rest of us are all retired." We had escorts from the department of China that took us around on buses everywhere. We were there at Xian where the Chinese soldier statues were.

There are supposed to be a million of these lifesize figures of Chinese soldiers. In digging them out they have not found any two faces alike, so they didn't use a mold to make all faces. It's just amazing, you go down a slope, down a long stairway, which got buried after the king and his wife were buried there. There's a long hallway with the soldiers standing as if they were marching with rooms off the sides where sargeants offices were. There were all kinds of things. The roofs collapsed because they were made of wood and all the soldiers were buried. It was an impressive thing to see.

There's an exhibition area about the size of an aircraft hangar where they've got gradually, half-dug, almost buried or completely out . . .  It was quite a trip.

I mentioned that I made a partner in the New Haven store who was probably three years younger than me. Here's a kit of one of the first automobile kits after World War Two. I have a collection of these also. They're all wood and paper, the fenders were paper, balsa wood and stuff. Before the days of plastic. And so he made a bet. He said, "I'll bet I can build a better one than you. He was a good model builder.

Okay, so we made the bet. This model is a Maxwell, its a nineteen ten Maxwell. Naturally I wanted to win the bet which was for a dinner. So I got some shim stock out of brass and made the fenders out of brass instead of paper. And I build the radiator out of brass. I wouldn't have the patience to do that today.

I hollowed out the headlights and put little grain of wheat bulbs in there, and the sidelights, the same thing, that was a solid piece of lead. Then I drilled it and filed it until I had an opening and I stuffed a light bulb in there. The real lights were gas lights. That, then was a generator for gas. You put carbide powder in the bottom and water in the top of it, and  that little knob on the top, you adjust it so that drops of water would fall on the powder to make carbide gas.

You can see the rubber tube going to the light here. I had to make it "go" so you can see the train-gear arrangement on the bottom.  There's a little small battery motor underneath here. The battery is two AA batteries . The top was made of cloth. Gear shift lever could move and go back and forth. Needless to say I won the bet but it was the most costly thing I ever did. It got me interested in antique automobiles. I have two of the actual cars, a nineteen nine and nineteen ten. And I have 20 tons of model-T parts and a model-T that's registered and insured. This is a small part of my collection, most of the stuff is in boxes.

My favorite "thing" if you will is a train engine called "The Blue Comet" which was a model made in 1937 which I acquired in a nutty way too. I wasn't into buying trains at the time, because I had so many I had taken in trade and couldn't sell at this point. One of our customers came in the store and said, "How about buying my old train?" He had a bushel basket of the stuff. It was this "Blue Comet" a  blue locomotive and three blue cars, passenger cars, when you took the roof off, the toilet had a toilet seat on it, all the seats were inside. And I said, "I got so many of these trains and I can't sell them."

I wasn't collecting at the time. I said, "I really don't need it." "He said, Listen here, I bought my washing machine and refrigerator from you guys, my kid's going to college and we're moving, and I don't want to haul these things. I just figured if I could get thirty-five dollars for my kid and give it to him when he goes up there . . ." So I said, "Well, this guy's been a really good customer." And so I bought it. I felt my arm was being twisted off. The thing's worth probably six thousand dollars today. But its my favorite. It's a beautiful looking thing. They made them very colorful in those days.

This is what saved the Lionel Company from going bankrupt. They didn't make anything you had to have, and some of their engines cost as much as a hundred and fifty dollars. Well, you could buy a brand new car for four hundred dollars. That would be like buying a toy for a kid today that cost ten thousand dollars. So, anyway they came up with the idea, Disney was new at the time, making Mickey Mouse handcars that would run on the track. They sold for a buck. Then they went on to make Donald Duck and other stuff.

One day in nineteen sixty seven a man pulls up in front of the store, comes in and says, "You're Mister Amato," he says, "Well you don't know me but I remember your name from a chamber of commerce meeting you were doing a presentation. I need some help." I said, "Well, what's the matter?" He answered, "I parked my state car out front and stopped in to get a coffee next door and I locked the keys inside. Have you got a coat hanger I can use?" I asked, "What kind of car is it?" He said, "It's a Ford." I said, "Let me call my friend down at LCI. He'll come up and open it for you."

So, we're talking while we're waiting and he said, "Hey! You ought to come with me." I said, "Where you going?" He said, "I'm going down to the AC Gilbert Company where there's going to be a big auction there. The liquidator wants to get rid of the factory." So I said, "What would I want to go to an auction where they sell all these big machines for." "Well," he said, "You can buy the train parts there. You fix trains." He'd seen the trains in the store, you know. And I said, "Well, I use a hundred dollars worth of parts a year. No thanks. I don't need them at the time."

At three oclock in the afternoon he called me back and said, "I made an appointment for you with the Walter Heller Company on the site." I figured the guy thinks he's doing me a favor and it was only twenty minutes away so I'll go down there and talk to them. Well, when I went down there the guy from Walter Heller figured I was a pal of this guy from the highway department and he gave me the royal treatment. He took me through the plant showed me all the stuff. He said, "I understand you may be interested in the parts. We're not going to auction them off at the auction because the people are here to buy machinery. We're gonna take sealed bids from anybody interested. I'll give you an inventory of what's in the repair shop." So he did.

Well, I figured that's the end of that. It was supposed to be a couple of weeks later when we were supposed to send in the bid. I got this bunch of papers with a list of parts. The list, when you added it up, had a million dollars worth of parts. I wondered what I'd do with a million dollars worth of parts. What would you pay for them? I mean, what's the value of them? So I was going on vacation with my kids and my wife on the day of the deadline. So at the last minute I said, "Well, I'll just put in a bid for five thousand dollars."

When I got back from vacation there was a letter from the acting president of the company Mister Goldsten saying, "We've accepted your offer and we're going to throw in the parts for the race car." They felt sorry for me since I paid twice as much as anybody else. Some of my friends from New York had bid on the lot, like the Polk family, from Polk Models, and Mister Polk said to me, "Well, we would have had to hire a bonded truck company to come up and load the stuff on trucks to carry down. Since you live right near there . . . "

So now I had to take this room full of stuff, where seventeen men did repair work on trains that came back to the factory. And they had bins, full-sized. So, because the factory was shut down, there was nobody there, just some men helping to clean it up while the liquidation was going on. They told me, you don't have to take it out until we sell the plant, meaning take your time and do it.

We'd run down, the plumbers who worked for my father, who weren't like the union workers who worked forty hours, and if they finished a job they'd go home, that was the end of it. But our guys they'd go down to the warehouse or come into the store and clean up or paint or something. So, everytime they cleaned up at two or three oclock with an hour and a half to go they'd run down with the flatbed truck, load it up with stuff and bring it back to Middletown. That took about six months.

But, going in and out of there I ended up buying all of the plastic in the factory. Some of it was in bags that had not been molded into anything. Most of it was as shells for model railroad cars. It was molded into shapes but production had been stopped. It was as if someone had come along and said, "Okay, we're closing up." They threw a switch and everything stopped where it was. So, I had, when we started, forty thousand of these unfinished model railroad cars.

In no way could I handle all this plastic. I said to the guy, "What do you want for this stuff?" He said, "Well, look we're gonna sell it for the scrap plastic, you pick out what you want, put it in a box and we'll weigh it and sell it to you that way." So I wandered around the plant one afternoon wondering, how would I decide just what I want, since there were miles and miles of stuff in the five hundred foot plant. Some of the cars had printing on them, most of them were unprinted. Finally I went to the scrapyard in town and talked to a fella named Rosenthal who ran it who was a friend of mine in the JC's at the time. I said, "Hey Dave! What would scrap plastic be worth?" He answered, "I don't know but I'll find out for you from a friend of mine."

He called me back and said, "It's worth a penny and a half a pound." So I went back to the plant and asked, "How much have you got here?" He said, "We've got about two hundred and sixty five thousand pounds." That's a lot of plastic, especially when its molded in these shapes. I said, "I'll give you two and a half cents a pound for it." He accepted my offer as he knew what the scrap price was. I said, "I don't know what I'm gonna keep and what is scrap." He said, "Well, until we sell the building it doesn't make any difference how long its here. That probably won't be for a year until its all emptied out for somebody to buy, if we find a buyer. So that's when we started hauling the stuff out. I had two million toy Christmas trees in wooden crates.

Somehow the factory guy thought those crates could be sold to factories for four dollars apiece so he said, "If you want to keep the boxes you're gonna have to pay four dollars each for them." Well, I didn't want all those crates. So we went down with our truck, loaded the truck with six thousand pounds worth and drove back to Middletown, emptied the stuff into boxes and took the crates back the next time to get another load.

So I thought, what do I do with these trees now. I think there were two million trees. My grandfather had a wine cellar. He was dead at that point but my father was still living in the house. There was a cellar room about ten feet square with a little window at the driveway. I got a little kid's sliding board, put it through the window and dumped the trees just on the floor. We filled it up this high. (holds hand up to bridge of nose) We hauled all this stuff, we had the building across the street, all the floors upstairs.

I discovered that I had sixteen thousand toy plastic houses which made me the biggest home owner in the state of Connecticut, with no roofs. These were for train layouts, you know. So I said to the factory guy, "Can I borrow the mold to make the roofs." Since I owned all that plastic. He said, "Yeah! We're trying to sell the molds. You can borrow them, since we don't have anyone who is interested at the moment, as long as you bring them back."

Well, I went down there to the factory with a flatbed truck and I find out that a "mold" is a cube of metal with a little hole in the middle where the "stuff" is put into it. It was so heavy that you had to have a fork lift to lift it up. Fortunately they still had one there. I took it to Middlefield, Roger's Manufacturing out there and made a deal with him. He made the roofs for me and I also had five thousand Shell Oil tank cars. They had completed making the tank cars, painted it, put the little "Shell" insignia on it but didn't make the chasis yet. So I got the chasis mold and made the chasis. Then I sold two thirds of the plastic to Roger's Manufacturing.

We assembled the cars afterwards and then we ran out of the wheels on the bottom of the cars. I had enough originals thirty years ago to do it all. But we've been selling them and two years ago my son said, "you know, we don't have any more Pipemaster wheels." So we found a guy over in New Britain who we had make a mold for us and mold them.

Near the end we were almost out of wheels, nobody in the whole world had any as people were buying them a hundred at a time at other stores. We sold repair parts to other stores then. But, suddenly we didn't have anymore. So this guy made a mold and it cost four thousand dollars to make the mold. That's a simple mold. Just to make the frame, not the wheels. We figured that if we wanted to make a million of them it would cost two cents each, once the mold was made. But if you wanted a hundred of them it would cost you about fifty dollars each.

I said, "While the mold is being made, let's test it." So we wrote to people, maybe fifty or so, and offered them the part in lots of a hundred, five hundred, at a real good price. We figured that if we got enough orders to make ten thousand of them we'd do okay. But nobody wanted to buy quantities. They wanted us to make them and then they'd buy three or four of them when they needed them. So we ended up making two thousand which cost us, altogether, six thousand dollars to make, but we had the mold, if we needed more and we knew we would.

We wanted to make a mold of a boxcar so I went to see a fella, Murray Gerber, who makes prototypes.  I said, "Murray, what would it cost to make a mold like this?" He was in the business of making short run molds. That's why they called it "Prototype Plastics." If you belong to General Motors, for example, and you want to make something out of plastic, he'll make a hundred of them for you. "Anyway," Murray said, "Vinny! You're talking fifteen or twenty thousand dollars for a mold like that."

So then there was another friend of mine -- you get to know a lot of people after a while -- who was having trains made in China. Not the size I was looking for, but other sizes, so we asked him, "What would it cost to have this made in China?" He said it would cost five thousand to twelve thousand depending on how complicated it was.

But even at that if you have to pay five thousand or six thousand or ten thousand for a mold you've got to sell a lot of the (the product) before it's worth it. This is for S-gauge train, which nobody makes anymore. When I first bought the stuff my idea was that there were a whole bunch of people out there playing with these trains -- a lot of kids and adults. When I sat down with my accountant I had spent almost twenty thousand dollars. My father was outraged; he thought I was nuts.

At the time nobody was collecting the stuff, but all that changed when people began collecting. Otherwise I would have had to scrap all this stuff. It's been a lot of fun. Like with those toy Christmas trees. What were we going to do with two million trees? Well, we had a greeting card business so we tried drilling a little hole at the top and tying a bow string through it so you could tie it on a gift. Well, we sold a few hundred that way. It didn't amount to much. What it was is that we didn't have a way of marketing them. At our own greeting card store we sold some.

We're on the Internet now, with five pages of catalog with www.amatos.com. Right now we just have a picture of the Middletown store with a little blurb with how its a family business and that we've been in business for sixty years and that kind of stuff. Same thing for the New Britain store.  But mainly for the mail order business we have now our catalog of parts listed on the Internet. Obviously there's not a big market for it, its not Amazon.com. Here in the catalog is a picture. If you had this scene and you were missing a part, say the man who sits up here, you could order the part through our catalog for two dollars and fifty cents, and so forth.

In our catalog is a listing of all the parts so that a person who does repairs will find it useful. But, you need a good reference book like one I have here, that somebody puts out. So if you were a repair station you'd have a collection of Lionel books such that if you had to fix a cattle card you could look up, in the exploded view, say part number: 3356-63. So the listing is good for that purpose. It's not good for the average model railroader who likes to fix his own stuff and isn't likely to have all these manufacturer's books.

A lot of hobbyists do buy "this" book because a guy took all these manufacturer's books and photographed the pages and made a reference book out of it. Namely we're going to present "close outs" we buy. My feeling about the Internet is that nobody is going to make any money selling common things. Because the price will be driven down because its so easy to get on the internet.

For instance say you're interested in a radio, call it a model 320 Sanyo that cost two hundred dollars. If you wanted to buy that Model 320 Sanyo you go on the Internet and ask for the lowest price and if there's ten thousand guys selling it you'll find the two lowest prices and buy it from them. So how's anybody going to make any money that way. If its consumer related the price soon gets down to cost.

Sometimes people even sell stuff for below cost, like this grocery thing which they're trying to get started. Well, I'm sure the big suppliers aren't going to sell their product below cost so what's happening is the guy who is starting it has this Venture Capital money and he's subsidizing the low prices to try to get the customers used to doing this and then hopeing that he'll be able to retain the customers when he starts pushing the prices up where he can make money. But that's a big "IFF." You know -- "hope springs eternal" -- in the business and there's always somebody who thinks, well, if you can do it for ten dollars, I can do it for nine.

I figure that the most likely way that the Internet will be profitable will be through "close outs." Let's say a distributor is "caught" with a lot of electric trains in January he's gonna have to hold on to them until next November and in the meantime he's going to have to have stuff to sell for let's say beachware, floats and that kind of thing. So he needs the money.

We've built up a good reputation since we've been in business long enough to pay for the stuff, we'd get a call and they'd say, "Hey! We've got 24 sets of Lionel XYZ that you've been paying a hundred and twenty dollars for. I'll sell it to you for seventy five dollars each if you'll take them all and pay cash." Well, then we can sell that thing for what we used to pay for it. That is something that you can't afford to duplicate over and over again.

The way the Internet is, when we put out a catalog, it takes 3 months from the time you decide to do a catalog until it gets printed. Here's a newsprint catalog which is about as inexpensive as you can put together. When you sell to hobbyists you're not selling fashion. The Internet makes it faster and easier to update.

Being a squirrel I used to have thirty thousand Lionel catalogs. Every year we'd get two boxes of catalogs, depending on how many trains you bought. We'd give away a hundred and twenty of them, then we had eighty left. So I put them away figuring maybe somebody would want this years catalog later so I put them downstairs in the warehouse.

One day I was up in Hartford at a distributors, I had driven up the flat-bed truck to pickup some refrigerators and I saw this pile of 1957 Lionel catalog boxes. There must have been twenty boxes of one hundred, more than that because I ended up with three thousand of them. I said, "What are you doing with these?" He answered, "They're getting read for the dump because its all last year's stuff."  I said, "Do you mind if I take them?" He said, "No, in fact then we won't have to take them to the dump."

So I took the catalogs and from then on starting asking folks, if they had leftover catalogs not to throw them away. Well, after a while Gilberts went out of business and Lionel did too, but collectors hadn't. Over the years I've sold thousands of the catalogs. I still have about twenty thousand but they won't last forever. The paper deteorates so its tough to keep them, even though I have a dehumidifier.

A guy was visiting me from New Jersey and he said, "I'll show you. Open that box." This was a sealed box. I opened it up and took out a catalog. There was a slight tinge of rust on the staple and he said, "See, that's not really mint anymore." But there are people out there who collect them still. We sell the catalogs for about four or five dollars.

People ask me if I'm ever going to retire and I say to them that as long as I've got my health I'll stick with it. What would I do if I retired as the things I love are here. . .

(Interview of Vincent Amato at his Middletown store on March, 13, 2000 by Rob White of Wesleyan University)

Go to next: Footprints of the Exiled


Return to: A Shop For Dreamers


Published by The Gronicus Press
Copyright March 10, 2000 All Rights Reserved by Robert J. White and Vincent Amato:  March 10, 2000
This page can be found at: <http://www.wesleyan.edu/av/gronican.htm>