Owning a hobby centre leaves Bill Chappell in an awkward situation.
What does he do on his time off?
Hobbies, of course.
Chappell owns The Hobby Centre. Located across the road from Costco on Roydon Place, the warehouse is stacked floor to ceiling with plastic model kits, train sets, radio-controlled vehicles, just about anything a boy, or girl would want to build.
The business hasn't changed much since the 1960s when I was a kid, building plastic model Dodge Chargers, Spitfire air fighters and battleships, but Chappell also carries the next gen models, Japanese anime figures, and model trains.
It's the love of building that drew Chappell into the business in the first place.
A hobbyist from an early age, the gregarious Chappell knew he wanted a career in retail early in life, on one condition; as long as he owned the shop. A native of London, he moved to Ottawa when the owner of Hobbyland indicated he was about to retire and pass the business on.
“I told him I didn't move from London to be a clerk in your hobby store but if you need a manager or want to expand operations, I'm interested,” he explains. “That's the only way you can succeed in retail. I was okay putting in lots of hours, as long as I was doing it for myself.”
At 25-years-old, Chappell opened his first store at Bank and Heron in 1986. Business was good initially.
However, success in retail is a long game. Success depends on having the right product, being in the right location at the right time. He found that out the hard way, moving from bad locations and enduring changing public taste.
He moved his store three times before finding his current location on Roydon Place in 2008.
“It all boils down to what you can control,” he says. “You can control expenses, but you can't control inflation, a recession. These come at you sideways. When you own a store, I'm always thinking about what I could be doing better.”
The biggest threat to Chappell's business came in the early 1990s when video games and personal computer systems like Atari completely changed the way people play. It hit the hobby industry hard. Many shops went out of business. Chappell bunkered it, and waited it out.
“Video games stole the hearts and minds of the youth,” he says. “The only thing that kept us going was the radio controlled revolution.”
Interest in hobbies returned big time during COVID, when baby boomers and retirees started building again, and passing on the pleasure to teens looking for a new pastime. Indeed, the isolation combined with the tension around the pandemic, made the last two years an ideal time for traditional hobbies, including knitting, puzzling, building models and gardening.
“COVID made people revisit a lot of solo indoor activities,” Chappell explains. “Now the Boomers, the post-war generation that made model building popular in the 1960s, are retiring and have the time to build models and do things they used to enjoy doing.”
“It also happens to be a wonderful activity for anyone with anxiety issues like PTSD,” he adds.
Chappell gets a kick of experiencing the solidarity of people who are passionate about the same thing. That, he says, is what makes the 24/7 responsibility of owning a store all worthwhile.
“I like hobbyists,” Chappell says. “They're enthusiastic. The people who shop here are passionate about their hobby. We get groups and build clubs coming here every week. It's the social element. A lot of customers say the store feels like a club house.”
“You'll never get rich doing this,” he says, bemused. “You'll make a comfortable living if you do it right, but you'll never get rich. It's not about getting rich, it's about living passionately, enjoying your life and not worry about the stuff you don't really care about anyway.”