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Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart has closed

After 31 years in business, Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart has closed its doors.

The store displayed elaborate, working model trainsets and sold slot cars, dollhouses, miniatures, model airplanes and other pastime products.

It was known for its restored 1949 train caboose parked out front. That caboose is now listed for sale on for $85,000.

For more than three decades, the Cheektowaga store had been a destination for model train lovers, dollhouse builders and hobbyists of every stripe. But, like many independent hobby stores, it faced stiff competition from big box stores and internet sellers such as Amazon and eBay. Those pressures, along with children's changing tastes in entertainment, gave the store an uphill battle.

Longtime customers lamented the loss of Niagara Hobby, sharing memories on social media of a place that seemed to transport them back to a simpler time. Cheektowaga Councilmember Alice Magierski said Niagara Hobby would be missed as a place to find unique, traditional gifts.

"This is a great loss to Cheektowaga, not only of a business but as a symbol of history," Magierski said.

A note on the store's website thanked Niagara Hobby's employees, business partners and customers.

"Perhaps, you may see us again," the note reads, without any indication of where or how the company might resurface. Owner John S. Kavulich declined to comment.

It's just the latest in a long line of retailers that have fallen victim to the digital age. The latest example was iconic music store Record Theatre, which had been walloped when music customers turned to digital downloads and internet sales, rather than physical, in-store purchases.

Kavulich inherited the store from his namesake father upon his death in 2003. His father had lived and breathed the hobby business, starting his first hobby shop at age 15 in Binghamton. The younger Kavulich was not a hobbyist himself, and has said that having "no connection with" his father's business made it difficult for him to helm the store the way his father had. Still, he worked to preserve his father's legacy.

The store often held free family activities, such as slot car races and tournaments, and had free tabletop games, demonstrations and play stations throughout the store.

As sales slowed, Kavulich attempted to diversify, opting to sell tattoo supplies to tattoo artists it already counted among its customers.

The diversification wasn't enough, especially when children can paint with their fingers on smartphones instead of using watercolors and brushes, build with Minecraft video games instead of erector sets and even explore outer space with virtual reality planetarium apps instead of telescopes.

In a 2014 Buffalo News interview, the younger Kavulich was asked if hobby stores are going extinct.

"We are a dinosaur, but dinosaurs lived a long time," he said. "We can’t compete on price with the national chains or an internet-only site. But you can’t stand inside the internet and ask to open a package or put a locomotive on a test track and see it run."

Rick Fisher has owned Artcraft Toy Trains in Hamburg for 17 years. To stay relevant, he has diversified his model train inventory, incorporated the newest Bluetooth model train technologies and spends a lot of time teaching his retired, baby boomer customers how to control the next generation models. He has kept a strong focus on in-house train repair and service, which has steadily brought in new customers.

Niagara Hobby closed without notice and did not hold a liquidation sale. A 50-percent-off sale, advertised as a summer clearance, ran through Saturday.

The company will issue refunds for outstanding gift certificates, which expire one year from purchase, according to its Facebook page. Customers are instructed to mail the original certificate (and keep a photocopy) with a name and mailing address to the store, 3366 Union Road, Cheektowaga, 14225. The store will mail a check in the amount of the valid gift certificate.

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