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Hobby store owner reinvents the business to preserve his father’s legacy

John S. Kavulich II had little interest in the hobby and craft world that fueled his father’s business. So when Kavulich, 53, assumed stewardship of Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart after the death of his father in 2003, he relied on his employees to guide its daily operations. Kavulich’s role – as he defined it – was to preserve his father’s legacy.

You could say he’s done a good job keeping a traditional hobby shop relevant during a technological revolution. Diversification is key. The store recently introduced tattoo art supplies to its lineup, a change that Kavulich recalled rejecting at first.

This season, like in years past, Santa, an elf and a supporting cast of reindeer will take over the store’s 1949 restored caboose, which has become a landmark in the area. Visit the crew from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Christmas.

People Talk: Are you like your father?

John S. Kavulich: No. My father grew up doing what he was selling. At 10 he was building model aircraft. He was 15 when he had his own hobby shop in Binghamton. That’s what has made my tenure shepherding his legacy such a challenge, because I had no connection with the business nor with his customers.

PT: Didn’t you grow up knowing that one day the hobby shop would be yours?

JK: Everyone in this building thought my father would die at his desk, that he would work until he couldn’t do it anymore. He loved being here. He loved greeting people. This place will always be about him until the doors close.

PT: Are hobby shops marked for extinction?

JK: We are a dinosaur, but dinosaurs lived a long time. 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.

PT: How do you stay relevant?

JK: We keep reinventing what a hobby craft store is. For the past year and a half, we’ve carried tattoo supplies for the professional artist. We’re all convinced my father would be spinning around like a dervish. We had been getting a lot of tattoo artists buying sketchbooks and pens, so why not start stocking supplies? My initial response was absolutely not, but we ended up storing all the products behind glass under lock and key. To purchase anything, the artist must bring in their tattoo license, which we photocopy and keep on file. It’s been very successful.

PT: How else do you increase your customer base?

JK: We go out of our way to reach out to demographics that other stores do not. We were the first retail store to be on Our marketing also reaches out to the LGBT community.

PT: What hobby is trending?

JK: We’re seeing a resurgence in plastic model kits, which is probably one of the oldest activities a hobby store is known for. On a more conceptual basis, we’ve seen a questioning by parents and grandparents as to what they can do to get children away from the computer. So we’ve seen kites, rockets – products that create movement. It’s activity and it’s outdoors.

PT: Is there a new-age Erector Set?

JK: No. It’s the same but in different packaging. Lego is still around. We carry Cobi building blocks made in Poland – unique products with a higher price point. We still have the metal hockey games, tin wind-up toys, dollhouses. We sell more puzzles than anyone in Western New York. We have a 32,000-piece puzzle that comes with its own two-wheel carrier.

PT: What’s your hobby?

JK: Travel. I’ve been to 114 countries. My first trip was to Puerto Rico when I was 3 months old. When I was 8, my father started taking me on trips. One of the first trips we took was to Czechoslovakia with his father, my grandfather. We went to the village where he was born.

PT: Where did you go to school?

JK: I went to Park School and was thrown out in the fifth grade, so I went to boarding school in Massachusetts and George Washington University in Washington, majoring in international business.