Tucked between a residential neighborhood and a school athletic field in Malden is a large, red brick building that looks a little like an old train depot.
Four words in large lettering are splashed across the facade: “AMERICA’S LARGEST TRAIN STORE.” This is headquarters for the Charles Ro Supply Company, the largest toy train store in America, and the largest dealer of Lionel model trains in the world. For model trains hobbyists and enthusiasts, this is a destination.
“Everybody likes a steam engine, I think. Because of the action," said Charles "Charlie" Ro, Jr., the son of the company’s founder who runs the place today.
Ro's father started in 1972, a former beautician and beauty shop owner who had Lionel trains as a hobby.
"So of course, in the front of his store that he used to work out of, he was like 'I’m gonna put a few showcases of trains and see if I can sell ‘em,'" Ro said.
It started as a side hustle, he said, but soon, Ro's father ditched the beauty shops and went all in on trains.
The Charles Ro Supply Company is a one-stop shop, providing all the tools, art supplies and miniature models a person might need to design and build a layout.
"You gotta put grass on it. You gotta put the track on it. You gotta put the ballast around the track. You gotta put the trees, maybe build a mountain — we sell all the stuff to do that," Ro said. "We sell the trains, we sell the power supplies and we sell service. That’s what we do as Charles Ro."
For the uninitiated, the world of model trains might seem like a strictly seasonal practice, but for the true hobbyist, the appeal is evergreen.
"It’s almost like we sell drugs,” Ro said "They can’t get enough. Sometimes you wonder where they put the stuff, I mean they’ve done it for years, multiple train sets for years.”
The hobby is an intense and exacting one. Hobbyists differ in their specific interests: some design elaborate layouts or large structures in which to place their perfectly scaled locomotives, others reconstruct historic stations or vistas. Still, others prefer collecting limited-edition replicas of antique rolling stock.
“They’re really passionate customers, they have a real passion for the hobby, and they’re passionate about what they get. It has to be perfect, or just right. That’s why we’re number one, because we tend to deliver a good product,” Ro said.
While each hobbyist has their own unique approach, there’s one commonality amongst the model train faithful — interest almost always begins with family.
“It just goes from generation to generation, so when you start with your son or daughter with the trains, then the grandfather comes back too, in the scene. 'Oh, I can help you out.' So it’s a great family thing,” Ro said.
Case in point — Antonio and Vince Lagrassa, a grandfather-grandson duo who schlepped down from New Hampshire for the day to pick up a Dreyfuss Hudson steam engine they preordered a year ago.
"This is the only place you can really buy trains,” claims Vince, who drove his grandson down from Dover for the occasion. “I been in trains ever since I was a kid and stuff, but he just got me back into them. You know, it’s an exciting thing to do, just to build it and do layouts and stuff and figure it out and have it work right. It’s relaxing, it’s fun.”
Keeping an operation this big and this beloved running smoothly takes a lot of work, and a lot of hands.
"I have a group of employees that have been here, most of them have been here 20 to 30 years, some since high school, through all the journeys with us," Ro said. "And they’re like family to me, actually."
One such employee is Arthur Sanders. The son of a Pullman porter, Sanders' love for trains began with the real thing. But over the course of a lifetime, that love evolved.
"A very close and dear friend of mine, we have an operating layout that we’ve been working on for about 30 years," Sanders said, and they're not done. "That’s the wonderful thing about the hobby. It’s changed over the years, over the decades, and it’s only gotten better."
The impressive ground floor of this sprawling facility includes a shipping department, a repair workshop and enough trains, tracks and accoutrement to keep you busy for a lifetime. But the real crown jewel of “America’s Largest Train Store” is one flight up.
"The layout that we built is not a replication of anything other than our imagination. We wanted so many trains running, we wanted them at different levels, we wanted tunnels, we wanted mountains. On the other side we have a ravine with a waterfall," Ro said.
The word “layout” is a bit of an understatement. The massive display is almost as large as a pickleball court and taller than your average person. There are rocky mountains carved from Styrofoam, handmade bridges spanning deep gorges and six trains circling the scene through tunnels, along a river and past a station dotted with people and classic cars. It took a team of three people nearly a year to complete it.
“Actually, Neil Young came, and he loved the layout," Ro said.
Yes, he means THAT Neil Young — not just a legendary singer-songwriter, but also a lifelong model train devotee.
"He was looking at the depth of vision of the mountains and everything ... it was pretty interesting the way he explained it to me,” Ro said.
And while the perennial enthusiast keeps this operation humming steadily down the tracks throughout the year, there’s no denying that come the holidays, things shift into a whole new gear.
“The people take more time this time of year because they’re not knowledgeable, and it’s always a challenge to have enough people on staff to help out. We do the best we can," Ro said. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.