As a boy, Tom Lowe frequently ordered slot cars and model kits from the Auto World catalog that arrived in his family’s mailbox. And like many other youngsters who built and collected model cars, Lowe says he dreamed of visiting the company’s one and only retail store in Scranton, Pa.
“But I never got to go,” he says with sadness in his voice.
If you have ever talked with Lowe about slot cars and die-cast vehicles, you might feel for him never having had the chance as a youngster to visit the mecca of hobby stores that ended up closing in the mid-1980s.
At the same time, you can’t help but feel his excitement about opening a new model car supercenter in Mishawaka, after purchasing the rights and branding to Auto World, one of the most famous names in this particular hobby sector.
The new Auto World store, which debuted last week, comprises 5,000 square feet filled with model kits, slot cars, slot car sets, die-cast cars and collectibles. And Lowe understands that as much as a successful retail business requires merchandise, customers like to be entertained.
So there is a giant wooden slot car track on which patrons can play with the cars they purchase, and two more tracks on the way, as well as a booth for spray painting, classic model kit box artwork all around and retro apparel for sale.
Lowe cannot hide his passion for collectible cars as an industry, his enthusiasm for the way the cars are crafted and designed, and his pride in the various lines that he had a direct hand in developing, manufacturing and putting on retail shelves.
You see, when Lowe took over the Auto World brand from founder Oscar Koveleski in 2005, he already had years of experience behind him.
Lowe, son of the late Cassopolis entrepreneur Edward Lowe who developed Kitty Litter, spent much of the 1990s building a Mishawaka-based company called Playing Mantis, after he acquired the rights to the Johnny Lightning name. Playing Mantis, which employed about 50 people, manufactured die-cast collectible cars in China while its staff created, designed and marketed model kits and collectible figures in Michiana.
In 2004, Lowe agreed to sell his privately held company to suburban Chicago toymaker RC2 Corp.
“Not only did I sell the brands and the tools and everything, but you sell part of your life with it,” Lowe says. “It’s kind of a common thing for large public companies to buy smaller companies and think they can do it better. They try to weld smaller passionate companies into their culture and in many instances that can’t work.”
Lowe worked at RC2 for more than a year, before it began moving in a different direction, as he puts it, and away from the die-cast car brands. This allowed Lowe to buy back the Johnny Lightning slot car line and tools he had sold them, along with a few other brands he had sold them, and he also purchased a few other model kit lines.
He began making new slot cars in China and selling them to hobby shops under the Auto World trademark.
Revenues at his new company, Round 2, LLC, located on Meghan Beehler Court in South Bend, have increased by nearly 150 percent during the past three years. Lowe now employs 17 people, including some former Playing Mantis employees.
Round 2 sells products under these brands: AMT, MPC, Polar Lights, Ertl, Auto World, American Muscle, Forever Fun and Vintage Fuel. The company has product licenses with Batman/Warner Brothers, Star Trek, Scooby-Doo, NASCAR, NHRA, KISS, Marvel, Three Stooges, Beatles-Yellow Submarine, Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet, and dozens of others.
Nearly all of Round 2’s product line will be sold at the retail store, which is a brand-new endeavor for Lowe. Playing Mantis didn’t have a website or Internet sales like Auto World, and it had no retail storefront, he says.
“Your retail partners didn’t want you to sell direct to consumers back then,” he says, adding how his store also contains some of his personal Johnny Lightning collection.
He chose a storefront near Best Buy at University Center shopping center on Grape Road in Mishawaka because Best Buy, Wings, Etc., and Famous Dave’s draw many of the same hobbyist types that are his target demographic and customers. Lowe doesn’t like to get ahead of himself, but he thinks his retail concept has franchise potential.
“But first I need to get this one successful, then open a second, and then, maybe,” he says. The future depends on how stable the hobby market remains, naturally, but Lowe is optimistic about what lies ahead because of the Auto World name.
“I would say that with the hard economic times, you have to do something to make you smile,” he says. “The products I manufacture and sell, they’re not what you have to have, but they make you smile for a relatively small amount of money. And I’m not just selling the product, I’m selling the experience of coming to a unique environment.”
Hours of the Auto World store are currently noon to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hours will likely be expanded in the future. Grand opening is set for Oct. 27 through 30.
Two locally owned restaurants, including one independent and one franchise, are completing their relocations and expect to reopen this week.
Roc’s Restaurant is scheduled to reopen Monday at its new location at 102 Lincoln Way E., Mishawaka. The restaurant closed earlier this summer on Edison Road and encountered construction delays, says owner Rocco Zappia.
Buffalo Wild Wings is scheduled to reopen Thursday at 326 W. Ireland Road, South Bend. The restaurant recently shuttered its West Washington Street location in downtown South Bend for this free-standing new building at Erskine Commons, near Walmart and Lowe’s.
Have you heard?
Eddy Street Food Mart recently opened its doors at the corner of Madison and Eddy streets, not far from South Bend Clinic east of downtown South Bend. ... Sky Michiana, a new nightclub, recently opened its doors at 100 N. Center St., at the 100 Center in Mishawaka. The club is located in the Boilerhouse building that once housed the Funny Bone Comedy Club. Hours are 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday, and 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Heidi Prescott’s column runs in the South Bend Tribune on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. When she’s not shopping, contact her at email@example.com or 574-235-6070. You can also talk retail at Facebook.com/thebasket and at Twitter.com/marketbasket.