CARY — The trains are leaving Tom Staley’s station.
Staley, who has owned and operated Tom’s Train Station in the South Hills shopping center just outside of Cary for 18 years, is closing the store at the end of June.
The 72-year-old and his wife, Naomi Jean Bernheim, say they want to spend more time with their 10-year-old grandson, Aiden.
“We wanted to wake up and say, ‘What are we doing today?’ Staley said. “Not, ‘Who’s working today?’ ”
The store was a second career for the Cary couple.
For years, Staley worked as an independent contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bernheim worked as a biologist for the National Institute of Health Sciences.
“We always wanted to get into retail,” Bernheim said. “He wanted to do trains, and I wanted to do gifts.”
So they decided to sell both.
“If the husband didn’t buy something, maybe his wife would see something she liked,” Bernheim said of shoppers.
The owners put nearly all of the store’s profits back into the business.
“We’ve never taken a salary,” Bernheim said. “So we were able to expand fairly quickly.”
Tom’s Train Station is one of only a few stores in North Carolina that carries every size of model train and track. So it became a destination for train lovers.
The store also sells how-to books, DVDs and magazines.
“For a walk-in, somebody new to the hobby, this is it,” said Dan Egy, who works at the store and is a member of the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club.
The appeal of model trains for many hobbyists is the nostalgia.
“It reminds you of your childhood,” said Staley, who was working on a model scene of the gold mines from his hometown in Black Hills, S.D.
So it’s good to hook kids while they’re young.
In that vein, Staley and Bernheim welcomed Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise into their store soon after opening.
One year, they said, they sold more Thomas merchandise than any toy store in North Carolina. The company flew the couple to New York City to award them a gold-plated Thomas model, Stanley said.
A few years later, he re-purposed a riding lawnmower to build a drivable Thomas engine. It led the Raleigh Christmas parade last year, he noted.
“We’ve probably raised a whole generation of kids around here,” Bernheim said.
Staley also drew customers by building model scenes – his passion – in malls and museums throughout the state.
There’s a large interactive scene outside his store in the middle of South Hills that’s there to stay, Staley said.
But one of his more iconic tracks is already gone.
The Great Train Store that used to be in Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall had a large train that chugged in and out of the store front. When the store closed, Stanley bought the track and suspended it from the ceiling in his store.
Until recently, it was known for whistling at folks waiting to enter the Division of Motor Vehicles office next door.
Soon, it will live in the office of Tyler Britton, a 24-year-old train lover from Zebulon who is set to graduate from Campbell Law School this month.
Britton, who remembers the train from its Crabtree mall days, bought the set in April.
“I’ve liked trains ever since I was a kid,” he said. “This is my graduation present.”
Talking about the track was easy for Staley. Accepting a check for it and watching Britton carry it to his truck – not so much.
“It’s a weird feeling,” Staley said. “But I’m glad it’s gonna get used.”
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht