August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

David Mrsny can show customers how model trains have changed since his grandfather opened the family’s sales and service shop 81 years ago with a three-part answer pulled from storage: First, there is a clunky metal 1930s-era model train caboose, with rudimentary windows and few other details. Second comes a train car kit from 1940 (in the original box), comprised of wood and metal bits that require complete assembly.

He contrasted these ancient pieces with a modern-day N-scale engine car—a three-inch long piece of mechanical wizardry complete with sounds and tiny details, including impossibly small blades in the roof’s air vents. No assembly required.

Like the trains themselves, the model train business and its technology has changed dramatically throughout the decades at the House of Trains, a Benson neighborhood fixture since Leonard and Verna Mrsny moved their shop from east Omaha to 81st and Maple streets in 1952.

David and his father, Dick Mrsny, bought the shop from grandpa Leonard in 1989. Today, David and his wife, Marci, keep the trains running for hundreds of model train hobbyists. Dick also runs Omaha Stamp Co. next door, another long-running family enterprise.

Operating a hobby store, David says, has been transformed by technology where parts and advice can be sought online, and in a culture where iPads and other electronic toys have replaced traditional hobby pursuits.

“Being able to help people has helped keep it going, especially in the last five years,“ says David, who also repairs unique items such as music boxes and electronic Christmas ornaments to boost his revenue. “I like being able to help people enjoy the hobby. [Because it is] altruistic…you can make a living doing that,“ David explains with a laugh.

The clientele is diverse, but a common thread is older men with extra time and disposable income who remember when model train sets were the hobby of their youth.

House of Trains customer George Sinos remembers those days well.

“I’m in my 60s, and growing up in the ’50 and ’60s, a model train was like the Xbox of today,“ says Sinos, who retired after a long career at OPPD. “Model railroads were something you did as a kid, and then you get away from it. Then with more time and money, you drift back in.“

When Sinos re-caught the model train bug in 2013, he turned to David, who gave him pointers about the hobby and helped him build his setup.

Sinos finds pleasure in newfangled digital control systems and the electronics behind how the trains work. Others, David says, like the pre-made setups that came on the scene more than a decade ago. Some like the assembly, which today is less about constructing trains and more about putting together the parts to create a train environment, including buildings and even whole cities.

Marci sums up the appeal of modern-day model railroading by stating, “We’ve had a lot of people tell us that they can shut themselves off from work and it’s like their own little world. They can do what they want and can make the hobby as hectic or as relaxing as they want it to be.“

Visit houseoftrains.net for more information.

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.

David Mrsny