All About: I Love Toy Trains

I Love Toy Trains

Tom McComas became involved with toy trains by accident and with reluctance. It was 1970. McComas ran his own film production company in Chicago. He produced documentaries and commercials. He also produced a promotional film for a friend who had invented a new toy. The toy failed.

“He wanted to leave town,” recalls McComas, “but he felt bad about the money he owed me so he offered me three boxes of old trains.”

McComas was single, living on the Northside of Chicago, and had no use for the trains.

“The last thing I needed was three boxes of old trains,” he explained. But the friend insisted, so McComas took the old trains. A year later, McComas had some guests over for dinner. One guest was a train collector. McComas told him about the trains. After dinner, McComas spread the trains out on the floor. The guest offered $5000. McComas immediately became interested in toy trains.

The collection included some of Lionel’s finest trains, including the streamlined Hiawatha from the 30s, a scale Hudson, a scale switcher, and classics from the Lionel Postwar era like the Santa Fe F3 and GG-1.

Turns out there were about 10,000 collectors in the country, but very little had been written about toy trains. Information was passed primarily by word-of-mouth. After meeting a number of new collectors who, like himself, were having a hard time finding out about Lionel trains, decided there was a market for a book.

“I would have bought the book if it were available,” McComas said. Tom contacted Jim Tuohy, a good friend and one of the best writers in the city. “What do you know about toy trains?” He asked.

“Nothing,” replied Jim.

“Neither do I,” McComas replied. “Let’s write a book.”

Incredibly, they convinced a bank to loan them $20,000. It was the summer of 1974. McComas made a mailing announcing the book. He also took it to a national train show in Seattle.

“I stacked the books on a table, and it was like selling cold beer in Brooklyn on a hot summer night. Guys were grabbing the books and throwing money at me. I think I sold 300 books in less than two hours. It was amazing,” he said. At the same time, the first returns from the direct-mail campaign were due. McComas called his father who was to check the post office box.

“My dad said the box was empty. My heart sank. I thought there would be at least ten orders,” he recalled. “Then dad said there was a note in the box saying to go to the front window because there was too much mail for the box. There were two bags of mail -- over 1,200 orders.”

All 10,000 books sold in less than six months. McComas paid the bank back and found himself in the publishing business. Over the next five years, McComas and Tuohy wrote six hardcover books covering the history of Lionel. The books included color photographs and information for collectors. Since the McComas-Tuohy books, many more have been written on collecting trains, but those first TM books are still considered the definitive work on Lionel.

McComas and Tuohy next collaborated on Great Toy Train Layouts of America. Published in 1987, the hardcover book featured color pictures and stories about elaborate layouts around the country, including Frank Sinatra’s. Sinatra was a toy train enthusiast and had been a TM customer for years. One morning the phone rang in TM’s office. McComas answered.

“The voice said he was calling for Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was in town for a concert and wanted some information about a Lionel train. The caller said Sinatra would get on the line. Tuohy is a great Sinatra fan so I put the guy on hold and told Jim the phone was for him. Now, Tuohy is a very charming guy, but not early in the morning. “Who is it?” grunted Tuohy. “‘Frank Sinatra,’ I said, and handed him the phone. Tuohy grabbed the phone. He heard Sinatra’s voice and nearly fell on the floor.”

The emergence of videotape prompted McComas to return to his filmmaking roots. “The Great Layout” book eventually became a six-part video series, the second of which was chosen by People Magazine as one of the ten best videos of 1989. This was the first of many awards TM would win.

In the late 1980s, Baby Boomers who played with Lionel trains as kids were reaching their peak earning years, and could now afford to buy all those trains they had once only dreamed of owning. And they did. The hobby of train collecting enjoyed dramatic growth. The Train Collectors Association, the largest toy train collecting club, approached 40,000 members. A number of new books and magazines devoted to train collecting were launched. TM rode the hobby wave with books, price guides, and videos.

In 1993, TM produced its first children’s video. The idea came from McComas’ son Jeffrey. “Jeffrey would get up at seven in the morning and go non-stop until ten at night,” he recalled. “The only time he’d sit still was when he watched me edit train videos.”

McComas put together a show featuring the things Jeff liked: trains, animals, jokes, and snappy music. The show was a big hit with Jeffrey. McComas’ wife Charyl thought other kids might like it too. They designed a cover, entitled the video “I Love Toy Trains” and took it to a video trade show in Las Vegas.

“It was the hit of the show,” Charyl said. “We received orders from Blockbuster, Readers Digest, the Wireless catalog. It was amazing.”

“I Love Toy Trains” quickly became TM’s best-selling title and one of the best-selling children’s videos in the country. More videos were produced and the series began to win awards and gain national exposure in magazines and on TV.

Each new “I Love Toy Trains” video received rave reviews in People, USA Today, and in hobby and library journals. They were picked up by catalogs, toy stores, video stores, and libraries all over the country. Sales were also been fueled by enthusiastic word-of-mouth and the one-million mark was passed in late 2001.

“We work hard to produce quality shows that both entertain and inform, “Joe Stachler said, “We also never miss an opportunity to add humor and good music. People recognize this and respond.”

TM celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2004. Looking back, Tom McComas smiles. “It’s been great fun. We travel, meet people, laugh. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The future includes a new children’s series, “All About Trains,” a video on the Caterpillar NASCAR racing team, a video on HO model train layouts, and a video for the toddler set called “Baby Loves Trains.”