One Last Mall Show

When I joined the club in 2003, we had space in one of the local malls, which we filled with an Ntrak modular layout, and opened up for public display at least once a week. The space had started out as a bookstore when the mall first opened, later was used by an athletic-shoe retailer, and was given to us when the mall found itself with an excess of unrented space. This particular mall had always had trouble attracting business, and it just got worse over time. For a while, there were more community groups than retailers. This was obviously unsustainable, so in 2009, mall management evicted what few tenants remained, and locked the place up. We haven’t been in a mall since, until last month.

Back when I was active in the local chapter of a tinplate-train society in the late ’80s, we did about three mall shows a year. Our display layout stayed up in the concourse for several days, sometimes as long as two weeks. Mall management would publicize our presence, and give the group a couple hundred bucks for our trouble.

But that was then. It’s different now.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that the retailing scene has changed considerably in the last couple of decades. Malls have been progressively squeezed by the likes of Amazon and Wal-Mart. A number of malls have radically reconfigured themselves, or closed up entirely. The remaining ones have filled that once-open concourse space with little kiosks selling t-shirts and iPhone cases. Promotion budgets have been slashed.

Once, model-train clubs were an attraction. Now, we’re a minor nuisance.

Some of the club’s old-timers remember the glory days of mall exhibits with great fondness, and really wanted to get back. One of them had a contact in management at one of the region’s more successful malls, and this manager had worked with the club in the past. Through patience and persistence, we wrangled some concourse space, tables and chairs, and a few stanchions for a weekend. No money was offered, but the group, recognizing the changed exhibition landscape, agreed to go ahead.

Our group started out 30 years ago as an Ntrak club, and Ntrak still has its advocates, but T-Trak has been making inroads. We still exhibit Ntrak about three times a year, generally at larger shows. T-Trak goes everywhere else. (Before T-Trak, we had a 2-by-8-foot portable layout for smaller venues. We haven’t taken it anywhere in three years.) For larger events, we’ve taken to exhibiting both T-Trak and Ntrak as back-to-back L-shaped layouts, with a common operating pit. That’s what we did here.

The mall unlocks its doors at 6:30 am for mall walkers, so that’s when we started arrived for setup. By the time the retailers raised their gates at 10:00, we had the layout assembled, powered up, and running. The entire weekend was hot and sunny, so the skylit concourse wasn’t terribly comfortable during the afternoon. It was a much brighter exhibition space than I’m accustomed to, as well. After sunset, though, it was a different story. The concourse’s soft lighting gave the layout a twilight atmosphere, and the interior lighting in my Broadway Limited stood out beautifully.

Perhaps we’d forgotten that mall audiences are different from train-show audiences. Young children at shows have mostly been trained to keep hands off. The mall-going population hasn’t emphasized that so much. I noticed a lot more interference from little (and not-so-little) fingers than I see at shows. One overly-enthusiastic two-year-old sent a freight car to the floor, with devastating results. I generally don’t like erecting barriers between trains and viewers. At shows, we generally don’t need to. This experience reminded me that it’s sometimes necessary.

Freight-car casualty notwithstanding, we got through the weekend. The layout ran fine, and club members contributed the time necessary to keep it adequately staffed. When the stores closed at 6 pm Sunday, we broke everything down, packed it up, and loaded it into cars in less than an hour.

Feedback from mall management was reported to be positive, and most members expressed a willingness to do it again in the future. Maybe this won’t be our last mall show after all.