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Hurricane Sandy hits hobby stores

By Nick Bullock
Published: December 12, 2012
On Oct. 30, the day after Hurricane Sandy battered and flooded New York Harbor, Steve Ford awoke to a knock on his door at 5:30 a.m.

It was the police, there to inform him that his hobby shop, Willis Hobbies, without power and an alarm system, had been broken into and robbed.

For the next five nights, until power was restored, Ford and his brother slept at the hobby shop, located in Mineola, N.Y., in the center of Long Island. “Just trying to protect the place,” he said.

The burglars smashed a plate-glass window and made off with about a dozen high-end radio-controlled cars. Fortunately, he said, nothing else was missing and the store didn’t take any further damage, aside from a sign the storm blew away.

A number of other hobby shops in the northeast reported similarly destructive stories.

Lou Ballini, owner of Zeppelin Hobbies & Raceway in Wayne, N.J., said his store didn’t take much physical damage, but it was left without Internet for about a week, making it impossible to scan credit cards for purchases. That left a residual effect, he said, because even once the Internet was back up, customers still assumed he was without service.

“Sales were probably down about 85 percent from what they normally were,” Ballini said. “Sometimes I wondered if it was worth turning the lights on.”

Zeppelin only lost power for a few hours, but the nearby highways were dark for much longer, he said. The store’s alarms were also not working, making Ballini feel uneasy about leaving the shop.

Tom Cosgrove, a manager at Hobbymasters in Red Bank, N.J., said his store was fortunate in that it stayed “high and dry” and was only without power for three days. “At home we didn’t get power for 13 days,” he said, “and I still didn’t have phone for seven more after that.”

The store didn’t take much physical damage, Cosgrove said, only a little bit of lost stucco.

However, he knows many of Hobbymasters’ customers did not fare as well.

“A lot of our locals aren’t going to have a Christmas,” he said.

The rising water reached within a quarter of a mile of Nassau Hobby Center in Freeport, N.Y., also on Long Island, owner Charile Hirschberg said. The store didn’t take any damage, he said, but he has lots of friends and colleagues that lost their homes and businesses.

Nassau didn’t lose much business, Hirschberg said, because it was able to reopen relatively quickly and because its online sales continued unaffected.

Hirschberg took some precautions before the storm hit, including raising everything up off the ground floor. 

Others, however, did not.

“We never got flooded before,” said Ken Bianco, owner of the hobby stores Trainland in Lynbrook, N.Y., and Trainworld in Brooklyn. “It was always the newscast saying this big thing is coming, and then it never shows. And so people took it very lightly.”

Bianco said he should have researched the position of his Long Island home relative to sea level before the storm hit, because the projected levels of flooding were spot on. His house sits 9 feet above sea level (he now knows). Experts predicted a 10½-foot rise in sea level, he said. His house took on about 1½ feet of water. 

Although Bianco is back in his house now and his stores are back up and running, he knows there are plenty of people out there who are still struggling to regain normalcy. “It’ll take a year to put it all back together again,” he said. “It’s not an overnight thing.”

Some relief and governmental agencies, such as his sanitation department, have provided phenomenal assistance, Bianco said, but there are simply so many people that still need help.

“It’s going to get uglier,” he said, “before it gets better.”