For Ted Klein, the model railroad industry was a lifelong passion. From his modest beginnings overseeing a small section in a local hardware store, to his transformation of that same business into one of the largest and most well-known model railroad retailers in the world. In this article, we’re looking at the story of the man who made Modeltrainstuff.com possible.
Ted was born to Sarah Miller Klein and Morris Benjamin Klein in 1936. His father was a business owner, having opened Klein’s Hardware at 206 N Gay Street in downtown Baltimore in 1913. At the young age of 17, Ted made the decision to drop out of high school to work alongside his father, assisting in the daily operations of the business. At this time the small store strictly catered to commercial and residential hardware needs, however the industry was beginning to shift with the advent of a growing number of larger chain stores.
Morris B. Klein wasn’t a total stranger to model trains. Since the dawn of the commercial model railroad industry some two decades earlier, Klein’s, like many hardware stores, would add a selection of the most popular models from Ives, Lionel, and American Flyer to their inventory for the Christmas season. It wasn’t until Ted’s arrival however, that this small aspect of the business would begin to develop far beyond the holiday season.
By happenstance, Klein’s Hardware was located nearby to wholesaler Kramer Brothers. With origins in the model airplane industry, Kramer Brothers was the largest hobby distributor on the East Coast, and at the time of Ted’s official hire at Klein’s Hardware, Kramer Brothers was in fact a silent partner of the Revell Plastic Model company. With Ted’s familiarity in model train sales during the holidays, he saw the proximity of Kramer’s wholesale warehouse as an opportunity.
M.B. Klein Inc as it appeared in the late 40s/early 50s.
The Beginning of a Legacy
With his father’s permission, Ted began buying model trains in bulk at Kramer Brothers, making the short walk back to Klein’s after each purchase, where he would sell them at retail, making a tidy profit. For Klein’s Hardware, this couldn’t have come at a better time. While the hardware business was shifting away from mom and pop stores, the model train business was fast developing. And as the variety of model railroading lines at Kramer Brothers grew, aided by their acquisition of Varney and eventual launch of Life Like Trains, so did the line of model railroading products at Klein’s. It would seem that Ted had struck gold.
By the end of the 60s, Klein’s Hardware featured an established model railroad section, which was making good business for the store. With this in mind, Ted convinced his father to go all-in, and by the mid-1970s the store was officially converted to M.B. Klein Inc: Model Train Headquarters.
Early on it was decided that to better serve their customers, Klein’s would remain primarily focused on trains, with no forays into the model airplane or RC car market. While other hobby stores saw diversification as the key to success, Ted’s approach was considered somewhat unorthodox, especially considering the fact that neither Ted nor his father were model railroaders themselves. In the end, this proved to be a savvy decision, as it allowed Klein’s to fill a gap in the market as one of only a handful of stores to truly carry everything a model railroader could need.
In the 1960s, Klein’s was faced with relocation when the I-83 interstate was constructed through the neighborhood. They moved into a similar structure about a block away.
Becoming an Industry Leader
Over the years, many customers were surprised to learn that Ted in fact had very little personal interest in trains. While he didn’t keep this a secret, his encyclopedic knowledge of the industry could have fooled even a veteran railfan. This was, as it turns out, an attribute which aided in the growth of the business. Without having any personal bias on scales, road names, or manufacturers, Ted was able to keep an objective tab on the market, ordering what was in high demand, rather than what he personally liked. His hobby was business, and trains were simply the outlet.
This is not to say that he didn’t value model railroaders or railfans. Ted could talk shop with the best of them, and thoroughly enjoyed the interactions. He also recognized that a railfan’s perspective was valuable to the business, and as the company grew, he hired many members of the hobby, to which he would listen and gladly take advice from.
By the close of the 1980s, Klein’s had become the place for model railroaders in the Mid-Atlantic region. Customers would frequently travel from 6 states just to visit the store, which was a veritable haven for modelers – with trains, scenery items, track, and electronics lining the narrow aisles from floor to ceiling.
While the sheer concentration of merchandize was part of the experience, so was a conversation with Ted. Always eager to help customers with any questions they had, Ted was known throughout the hobby as not only knowledgeable, but kind, patient and always focused on the customer’s needs. He made a point to treat all store patrons with the same level of enthusiasm and respect, no matter the size or value of their purchase.
Despite not having a personal interest in trains, Ted was well liked by visitors to the store, and his competitive pricing helped make lifelong customers.
Embracing a New Era
With his focus on customer service, Ted was able to see the benefits of new technology, even as a veteran of the business world. At the turn of the 21st Century, he gave the company the green light to develop a simple website to expand on mail-order sales. It was at this point that Modeltrainstuff.com was born – one of the first mail order model railroading websites in the world.
The online business was an unprecedented success, and by 2007, demand was higher than the grungy (but well loved) brick storefront could handle. Not wanting to be held back by the limitations of the location, Ted again oversaw a landmark change for the company, when M.B. Klein Inc. moved out of the city of Baltimore, it’s home for over 90 years, to a larger location with an on-site warehouse in suburban Cockeysville.
While Ted by now had delegated daily operations to a strong team of business professionals and knowledgeable rail buffs, he maintained an integral role in the company as the transition from local business to online megastore continued. Retirement was never on the table for Ted, and he continued to oversee all logistical aspects of the business, from product procurement, to sales and finances.
An HO Scale representation of M.B. Klein’s final downtown store before relocating to the suburbs, along with ModelTrainStuff’s first ordering page. The signature “Royal Blue” steam locomotive seen on the model is still displayed at the current location.
Leaving a Lasting Legacy
Thanks to Ted Klein’s perseverance, entrepreneurial disposition, and passion for serving those who loved his chosen field of business, M.B. Klein Inc’s future is brighter than ever. Now serving thousands of customers across the globe, Modeltrainstuff.com remains at the forefront of the model railroading industry, and continues to expand as an online community and leading source for all things model trains.