The neighborhood has changed around him and the kids that come into his shop have changed, too, at least the kids who bother stopping by. More than anything, the times have changed, and Bob Simpson has made it a point to not change with them.
Simpson is the owner and operator of Simpson’s Hobbies Shop, located at the corners of Foulk and Murphy roads in Brandywine Hundred.
Simpson’s Hobbies Shop has been there, with a few alterations and additions, since 1966. When Simpson opened the store, there was a Texaco gas station across the street (now it’s a Wawa) and right behind that was a farm, complete with cows and chickens and horses (now it’s a development, Brookside).
“If you live long enough and stay in the same place long enough, you’re bound to see a lot of changes,” Simpson said. “But we’ve managed to stay the same.”
And that’s been by design. For one thing, Simpson said he’s too old to change – he’s 92 – and he’s also too stubborn to change. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t keep up with the marketplace.
The biggest change since he opened in 1966, of course, has been in technology. Simpson still sells model kits of trains, planes and automobiles, as well as radio-controlled cars and planes. But he doesn’t sell comic books or hobby magazines anymore and there are just a few board games for sale, including Chinese checkers.
And Simpson makes no bones about it – his store is mostly focused on what boys want because he readily admits that “I have no idea what girls want.”
Those boys, however, don’t have the same love for Simpson’s wares that previous generations did.
“They’ll come in with their father and their father will be telling them about this model or that electric train, and the kids are sitting back doing this,” said Simpson, mimicking somebody tweeting or texting on their I-phone. “Their father is all excited, but they just look bored.”
Simpson’s used to occupy a house on Foulk Road, and the biggest attraction back in the 1960s and early 1970s was the slot car race track he kept in the basement of that house.
Kids used to bring their slot cars and run them all day, and other kids would hang about and just watch them race, which was more interesting than going home and watching The Merv Griffin Show on one of the three channels they had on their television sets. Low tech, indeed.
Many years ago, Simpson refashioned and added to a garage that was in the back of the house and moved his goods there, without the slot car track. There are various rooms where he displays, among other things, his models and radio-controlled vehicles, which remain his best sellers.
Ironically, in this age where kids scoff at the old stuff, the biggest sellers among the models are old stuff, classic cars like a ’65 Shelby Mustang, a ’70 Chevy Corvette and a ’59 Chevy El Camino. As for the model planes, the biggest sellers are still World War II fighters and bombers.
Simpson said the reason for that is simple.
“All the cars today look the same and there’s nothing distinctive about them,” he said. “Back in the day, cars had a unique look, but now you can’t tell the difference between a Chevy and a Ford. And nobody comes in here looking for a model of a Honda Civic.”
Something else has changed in the model-building world – no more glue. Today’s models have snap-on parts, which make them more durable and, of course, easier to build, which Simpson said is good, since today’s kids don’t have the patience or the attention span to spend hours putting together a model.
Simpson’s Hobbies Shop sold radio-controlled vehicles decades ago, but, naturally, the technology in them has improved dramatically, and the price tag has gone up with it. Simpson said he makes it a point to keep lower-priced models available, but the real fan can spend $1,000 on a radio-powered car or plane.
Simpson admits he gets discouraged at times because kids don’t flock to his store like they used to. But when asked if he’s considered retiring and/or selling his store, Simpson shrugged.
“And do what?” he asked. “Sit at home scratching my ass? I still enjoy coming to the store and being active and working on things. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. There aren’t a lot of people out there looking to buy a hobby store. If anything, they’re closing them, not opening them.”
Simpson is still spry at 92, but he knows he won’t be able to make his daily trek to his shop forever. He expects that his nephew, Michael Gibbons, will take over someday. Gibbons works at the store now and is familiar with the way it operates. He also knows that business will never be as good as it was 50 years ago, but he plans to keep alive the traditions of Simpson’s Hobbies Shop.
“Times have changed, but we haven’t,” Gibbons said. “And we never will.”