Service, cosplay and comic-cons: Why this hobby shop has lasted 70 years

It started in downtown Calgary near the Calgary Herald building on Seventh Avenue S.W. in 1949.

Scott Bennie bought Don's Hobby Shop from Don Spicer 16 years ago and hasn't looked back

Scott Bennie bought Don’s Hobby Shop from its original owner Don Spicer in 2003. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

It started in downtown Calgary near the Calgary Herald building on Seventh Avenue S.W. in 1949.

"One of my favourite things is when people who grew up with Don's Hobby Shop," Scott Bennie told CBC News.

"And tell me things like, they had a paper route and the Calgary Herald was right across the street from Don's Hobby Shop downtown. They used to get their cheque, cash it and blow all their money at Don's Hobby Shop. They have very fond memories of going in there, and Don showing them how to do magic tricks or things with the model kits."

Bennie bought the store in 2003 and moved it to its current location a year later after an inability to reach a leasing agreement with the then-owners of the Grand Theatre building.

It started with mostly toys and model trains in 1949. Today it's a lot more. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

But before buying it from Don Spicer, Bennie worked with the master for a year, learning the ins and outs of the hobby hustle.

"There was nothing on a computer, he had everything in his head or in notebooks in pencil. We rode the train after work each day and he had little gems for me, advice, stories," Bennie said of Spicer, who passed away last year.

The store, which started mostly as toys and model trains, has evolved into costumes, theatrical makeup and a lot more.

Customer service and training are a focus at the store. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

It has a bit of a recession-proof feel to it, in part, by swinging with the punches.

"That's something Don taught me, you always have to be able to adapt and pay attention to consumer needs. You got to be quick to keep your head above water," Bennie said.

And the explosion of comic conventions and cosplay has absolutely helped.

"That was a resurgence for adult Halloween parties. We started exhibiting at the Calgary Expo when it first started. It's a huge event for us. The majority of the people going to expo are dressed up. We get a nice little bump in the spring. It feels sort of like Halloween."

Charlie Ross has worked at Don's for 21 years now. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The store also seems to have figured out the algorithm for staff retention.

"The people. This is a family business. People just stay," said Charlie Ross, an employee at the store.

"They love it here. I worked for Don originally, and then when Scott bought the business, he brought it to the next level. We are so lucky. Scott brought us in the internet age and social media. Everything Don had built, Scott took it to the next level. He gave us more tools to work with."

This Halloween will be her 21st working at the store.

"We keep our training up so we can always help people. People like to come into the store and talk to a person. That we've become more interactive as a store, makes it a better experience," Ross said.

Theatrical makeup and costumes are big sellers at the store, which turns 70 this year. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

And service can often lure people over from the stiff competition.

"We have the internet, pop-up stores at Halloween, so we have to be more on our game, and we have to provide better service."

Meanwhile, though Bennie won't commit to another 70 years in the genre, he's well equipped to survive downturns with Don's advice in his back pockets.

"We have a really strong, loyal customer base that have been coming to our store forever," Bennie said.

"Don used to tell me, you are going to have some years better than others. You have to be prepared for it, roll with it, and be able to adapt."

With files from Terri Trembath


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