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A Manchester store, celebrating 50 years, thrives during the pandemic as people discover new hobbies

Time Machine Hobby’s 5,000- square-foot model train layout
Austin Mirmina
Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.
General Manager Siobhan Covill stands next to Time Machine Hobby’s 5,000- square-foot model train layout, the largest of its kind in New England. The Manchester store is marking its 50th anniversary this year.

MANCHESTER — Karen Hodina stood in a small room near the entrance of Time Machine Hobby and watched with amusement as her 7-year-old granddaughter bounced around, investigating the toys on jam-packed shelves.

“We haven’t made it out of this room,” Hodina said. “We’re going to be here a while.”

Hodina, 54, said she took the day off from work to spend time with her granddaughter, who had suggested that the pair go toy shopping at Walmart. Instead, Hodina took her to Time Machine Hobby, a toy and hobby store at 71 Hilliard St.

“My husband and I just came back recently (to the store) to see the trains, because now we’re playing with trains as adults,” Hodina said. “But I said I have to bring my granddaughter here and just see it through a child’s eye.”

Time Machine Hobby has morphed into a shopping destination where people of every age can find something to play with. Its two floors are filled with toys and hobby supplies, drawing visitors with its nostalgic charm and imaginative quality. And while many stores have struggled to stay open, Time Machine Hobby has thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic, buoyed by its product diversity and loyal customer base.

Housed in the old Bon Ami soap factory, Time Machine Hobby doesn’t look like a typical toy store. If not for the signage out front, one could easily dismiss Time Machine Hobby’s brick façade and gable-roofed structure as an industrial relic. But, inside is an incredible selection of toys and hobby supplies.

The first floor holds every toy imaginable, from classics like Etch A Sketch and yo-yos to newer fads like Pop Its and fidget spinners. Upstairs, visitors can view Time Machine Hobby’s signature 5,000-square-foot model train layout that covers nearly the entire second floor and features a miniature model of the store’s building.

A wide range of products and services has made Time Machine Hobby a premiere destination for people looking for a specific hobby item or just wanting to browse. The company started as New England Hobby Supply in 1971; eventually it merged with a toy store called Time Machine after owner Steve Maynard purchased it in 2003.

Now, Steve’s son, Alex Maynard, 32, who co-owns Time Machine Hobby with his two brothers, said the store’s uniqueness has allowed it to become one of the last remaining hobby stores in Connecticut.

Time Machine Hobby benefited from the droves of people who discovered new hobbies while quarantining at home last year. Maynard said that despite being closed for two months, his store saw a 30% sales increase in 2020, with puzzles one of the hottest sellers.

“COVID was terrible in a lot of ways, but the one silver lining was that it reconnected families together in a way where, you were at home and you needed stuff to do,” Maynard said.

The main focus behind Time Machine Hobby, Maynard said, is to spark children’s imaginations by encouraging them to interact with physical objects instead of playing with electronic devices. Maynard said he believes creativity gets lost when children are constantly looking at their screens.

“With a basic toy, you have to give it a personality, or create an environment for it to play in, and that all comes from your brain,” Maynard said. “It’s really pushing that envelope for all kids and (people) of all ages.”

Siobhan Covill has worked at Time Machine Hobby for 12 years, starting as a clerk and eventually advancing to her current role as general manager. Covill called Time Machine Hobby an inclusive place that generations of families can enjoy.

“If a family comes in, there will be grandparents, parents, and kids. So you have three generations of people, and there’s something that all of them are interested in,” Covill said.

One unique aspect about Time Machine Hobby is its willingness to cater to the needs of its customers. Covill said she will keep some copies of UNO Braille for blind customers, and recently she ordered alphabet blocks that can help teach deaf children how to speak American Sign Language.

Covill, who is a lifelong Manchester resident, said she remembered shopping for Barbie dolls as a child and noticing that most of them had white skin and blonde hair. That experience led her to offer a more diverse Barbie selection to customers at Time Machine Hobby, even though the store doesn’t make much money on them.

“We’re trying to aim toward having dolls and figures that reflect our customer base,” Covill said. “It’s nice to have toys that reflect the person.”

Coventry resident Stan Mittica, 62, said he used to shop at New England Hobby Supply before it merged with Time Machine in 2003. Mittica, who collects model trains, said he appreciated the high quality of service and honesty of Covill and her staff. They won’t “string you along” if they can’t find something a customer is looking for, he said.

Mittica said he once called the store from his hospital bed after having surgery and asked the staff to put some items aside for his wife to pick up. It was a kind gesture that showed Mittica how much Time Machine Hobby cared about its customers.

“It’s a family store, and I consider them part of my family,” Mittica said.

As part of its 50th anniversary, Time Machine Hobby is doing an end-of-the-month raffle and giving prizes to any customer who makes a purchase. It is also collecting donations for MACC Charities, specifically asking for food items and hygiene and cleaning products.