MARC CHASE: Mom-and-pop hobby business a beacon of economic survival

2013-12-25T22:35:00Z 2013-12-26T14:31:07Z MARC CHASE: Mom-and-pop hobby business a beacon of economic survivalMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
December 25, 2013 10:35 pm  • 

Anyone who's ever undertaken the operations of a small business knows the figurative land mines scattering the path to success.

Taxes, competition from big-box superstores and the colossus of Internet sales warehouses make small storefront businesses fortunate to survive their first six months, let alone half a century.

But that's nearly what Valparaiso Hobby — a downtown staple of model trains, remote control vehicles and the like — has done.

Under the business leadership of Joe and Sharon Henley, the store has been a Washington Street staple since 1968. Now in their 70s, the couple expect to retire from the business in the next few months. But their example of resilience and survival is something all aspiring business owners — and the public at large — should note.

I visited with Joe and Sharon at their 6,000-square-foot downtown story on Christmas Eve, amid the bustle of loyal customers grabbing last-minute train cars, model paints and other hobbyist goodies for themselves and others. The stories of what they've weathered are pure inspiration.

In 1986, in their 18th year, a fire in a temple next door to their store wiped out most of their inventory to smoke and water damage. At the time, the hobby shop also sold pets, and most of the furry critters died in the smoke.

But their loyal customers arrived to help with the same urgency as emergency responders. In droves, customers took water-filled bags of the shop's tropical fish to their own tanks at home.

Those customers held on to those fish as the Henleys rebuilt. They returned the fish nine months later in a show of customer loyalty that went far above and beyond.

It was a testament to the kind of loyalty good, honest, customer-driven businesses foster in our communities.

Valparaiso Hobby also weathered economic fires as well, including the recent economic downturns and layoffs of many customers when the steel mills went south decades ago.

Through tough times, the business stayed afloat because of the diversion it provides its customers — the fun its hobbyists glean from the products and the personal touch they get from Joe and Sharon when they shop there.

The business owners know how to retain loyal employees as well, including store manager Phil Borth, who has worked there for 30 of the shop's nearly 46 years. Or Andrea Bambrick, a 36-year-old register clerk from Wanatah whose mother also worked for the business for 28 years.

Though it's taken a toll, the shop also appears to have held its own against the emergence of big-box hobby stores and overhead-free Internet stores, which Joe notes can undercut his business on big-ticket items.

But Joe and Sharon are ready for other opportunities in life, and after decades of 60 to 80 hours per week at the store, they've earned it. If you're a hobbyist, get there while you can. They plan to either close or sell within the next few months.

And if you're a small business owner — or aspire to be one — introduce yourself and glean all you can from this solid model of mom-and-pop success.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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