Saturday, March 5, 2011

Keeping History Alive

One of San Diego's hidden treasures.

For anyone who is interested in model trains and the historic progression of technologies such as cars and phonographs, James Cooley is the man to see. The Frank the Trainman model train shop and the JA Cooley museum at 4233 Park Blvd. in University Heights is certainly one of San Diego's hidden treasures.

Cooley, a San Diego native, has always been fascinated by model trains. When looking around his shop and museum, it's evident that the fascination has turned into his passion. "I got my first electric train around 1936," says Cooley. "It was an American Flyer."

The shop is divided into two sections: the museum and the model train shop.

Cooley sits in a comfortable chair near the front window of the shop and museum, a favorite spot of his to  relax with his wife and co-worker, Carmen. He's dressed neatly, wearing a khaki flat cap, and there's a twinkle in his eyes when he gets to talking about something that he likes. The chair faces the mass of treasures that he has accumulated over the years. Next to the big window is Cooley's collection of phonographs, and giant organ that looks as if it came straight from a circus.

"As far as the museum goes, this is my idea," says Cooley. "I had this large collection that I thought I should be sharing with people." A five-dollar admission fee gets you into the museum, which is a space large enough to fit several cars. It seems that every nook and cranny is filled with some marvelous antique. "I have 25 to 30 categories of stuff that's on display," he says. There are antique cars, typewriters, adding machines, phonographs, and yes, model trains. Cooley's collection of antique model trains fills several glass display cases along the wall. The rear of the museum is full of old clocks, all of which tick away harmoniously. Cooley is most interested in the way that technology has progressed over the years, and most of his collections reflect that interest.

"I never buy anything unless I like it," he says. "To give you some idea, if you brought in a real rare phonograph and if it's something that I wasn't really interested in, the rarity of the piece wouldn't really enter into it, or the price. I'd probably pass on it because I didn't like it."

When looking around the museum, it's easy to assume that Cooley acquired most of the pieces at auctions. But that's not how everything came to be here. He explains that he spent a lot of time searching second-hand stores for pieces that needed a little work. Many years ago, San Diego was home to many of these stores, and they were often full of wonderful antiques. Cooley would frequently purchase several items for parts, and then ultimately piece one together over a period of time. Many of Cooley's phonographs were put together this way, and by the time they were completed, he didn't have a great deal of money invested.

The museum sees its fair share of visitors, sometimes including school children and tour buses. Cooley credits the vast array of items that are on display for keeping his guests interested. "I have yet to see a tour bus of forty or fifty people who will get off and a half a dozen will be back on the bus in five minutes," he says. "Usually every one of them is still in here an hour later when the bus driver says, 'We gotta be moving on!' "

When it comes to the history of the model train shop, there's quite a story. Cooley worked in the landscaping and maintenance business for many years and had developed a friendship with a man named Frank Cox, who came to be known as 'Frank the Trainman'. Cox opened his model train shop in 1943.

"I'd been involved with the train business since it's been here, and nearly thirty years ago, I took the business over for Frank Cox," says Cooley.

The two men would meet for lunch several times a week and would often buy and sell things from one another. One day in 1980, after their usual lunch, Cox suggested to Cooley that they visit the escrow office where they often conducted their business. Cooley had no idea that what Cox had in mind was to sell him the model train shop; his health was deteriorating, and he wanted to hand the store over to his good friend. When the escrow officer asked Cox and Cooley what they happened to be selling one another that day, Cox told him that Cooley was buying the store. Cooley was shocked, but agreed. Cox lived for several more years, finally passing away in 1989. But the name of the the train shop is still called 'Frank the Trainman.'

"It's been a continuous operation for 67 years," says Cooley.

Cooley and his wife Carmen are the shop's only two employees, and it's obvious to anyone who comes in that they enjoy working together.

"We've been married for 41 years," says Carmen from behind the counter of the train shop, which is jam-packed with boxes of model trains and tracks of all shapes and sizes. "We always worked together since we were first married and you get used to it. We try and work together like a team."

The shop has been at its current location for several years after moving from across the street. The original building had its share of structural problems, and would have had to been framed with steel, proving to cost more than Cooley wanted to spend. In the end he sold it to Mission Federal Credit Union.

Cooley wishes that more kids would get involved with model trains. He attributes the loss of interest in them to the availability of television and electronics.

"I think it's a lot healthier for a child to be interested in and obsessed with trains than electronics because he's not just sitting there in front of a machine hour after hour," says Cooley.

Another thing that Cooley has taken notice of are the high prices of the model trains.

"It's just not affordable for a lot of people," he says. "But I'm always looking for the best products that I can get at a real sensible price."

When asked his age, Cooley declined. "I told Carmen how old I was years ago, and I decided that I'd never do that again," he laughs.