Since September 1995, Dry Bridge Station has been a popular stop for railroading enthusiasts in Surry County and other parts of North Carolina and Virginia.
Those venturing into the business on North Main Street have encountered a miniature world of locomotives, freight and passenger cars, tracks, buildings and scenery — helping them pursue a widespread interest dating to the mid-1850s when trains first steamed into American culture.
However, shelves at Dry Bridge Station have become a little emptier in recent days due to King reducing his inventory in anticipation of the store’s closing, the date of which had not been set as of Tuesday.
Although he has a lifelong interest in trains, King said he decided to retire from the store that he has operated with the help of Beulah Whitaker, its only full-time employee.
Running one’s own business is something a person must be “married to” in order to be successful, King explained. And at this point in his life, he is ready to slow down and do some other things, including spending more time at a home he has at the coast.
King recently worked with some property brokers in an attempt to sell the business located in a 100-year-old building he owns at 236 N. Main St. But no prospective buyers came forward, which led to the decision to close.
Both King and Whitaker have been planning their respective exit strategies for a couple of years in anticipation of that event. In Whitaker’s case, this has involved taking courses to become a medical transcriptionist.
Meanwhile, letters were sent to persons on Dry Bridge Station’s mailing list around the first of the year notifying all customers about the store’s closing. And in the days afterward, people flocked to the business to take advantage of what King calls “deeply discounted” prices for the variety of railroading merchandise found there.
Dry Bridge Station resembled Grand Central Station this past weekend when King and Whitaker said the store was swamped.
Ray Housden and his wife Sheila were among customers at the business Tuesday seeking to take advantage of bargain prices. The grandfather of six said that over the years, he and his family have enjoyed coming to Dry Bridge Station, although it requires a 125-mile drive from his home in Albemarle.
“We have been buying things for our grandchildren since this place opened up,” said Housden, who maintains an outside train at his home in addition to nine trains on the inside. Now 67, Housden said he received a Lionel engine when he was a small child — which is still running.
The Albemarle resident estimates he’s spent “probably tens of thousands of dollars” at the Mount Airy store over the years, including $5,000 just for tracks.
“We’re going to miss this place,” Housden said of Dry Bridge Station and his association with King. “Him and Beulah have been like family to us.”
King’s interest in trains began at age 3 when he lived in Greensboro. His father had left home when the boy was 6 months old for a Navy deployment during World War II and didn’t return until July 1945.
One of the ways the youngster got reacquainted with his dad involved riding out to a railroad switching station on Sunday afternoons, where they would spend time together — albeit pursuing different interests.
“He’d listen to baseball, and I’d watch the trains,” King recalled. One day, they sat there so long that the car’s radio ran down the battery. “The next Sunday, he parked on a hill where we could jump it,” the store owner said with a chuckle.
“I think my mom was the real railroad fan,” King said, which led to his older brother once receiving a train set for Christmas. “And that just set me on fire.”
King later moved to Mount Airy, where he became a longtime employee of F. Rees Company downtown, a men’s clothing store which he referred to Tuesday as “F. Rees University” because of the valuable retail experience he gained there.
The venerable clothing business has thrived on a philosophy involving offering a wide variety of quality merchandise along with world-class customer service.
“That’s what we’ve tried to replicate here,” King said of Dry Bridge Station. Another thing he learned at F. Rees was the value of gaining customers while they are young and maintaining them for years afterward.
That is evident at King’s train store, which along with “adult” railroading items includes a large stock of toy Thomas the Train Engine products that are popular with kids.
And unlike some businesses that specialize in certain sizes of model trains, King learned from Rees the value of catering to a wide clientele with a variety of merchandise. Dry Bridge Station’s customer lists includes hobbyists in Southwest Virginia and North Carolina cities including Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Burlington, Salisbury and others.
“They’re from all over,” said King, who served on the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners for a total of 13 year before stepping down in 2007. “I’ve had wonderful local support, of course.”
Model railroading appeals to a broad range of people representing all ages and vocations, from doctors to ditch diggers, according to King. “There’s a common ground,” the store owner said. “They all speak the same language.”
The reasons why people enjoy trains are “multi-faceted,” in King’s view. “Some people enjoy the electrical end of it,” he said, while others simply like the idea of escaping behind closed doors into their own little world of tracks winding through mountains and small villages they’ve assembled.
Someone with a model train arranged in their basement or rec room can add a little here and a little there as time goes on, and see their hobby evolve over the years. “I’ve had one customer tell me it wasn’t a hobby, it was a disease — and he’s a doctor,” King said.
People can spend small sums on the hobby as well as thousands of dollars as customer Ray Housden does. “You can get a starter set for under $100,” King said.
The store owner personally appreciates the engineering aspects of real trains, including understanding the forces necessary to move as well as stop them. He said he loves to hear engineers talk about the skills involved in their work.
King believes passenger trains eventually will play a larger role in American life as the country struggles with ways to improve its mass-transit capabilities in the future in the face of energy issues. Trains remain an economical way to move goods across the country, he added.
While some consider railroads an archaic mode of transportation, King says that trains have incorporated new technology over the years just as other industries have.
This has included the model locomotives as well. “These things are little computers on wheels now,” said the Dry Bridge Station owner.
King credits much of his store’s success to Whitaker, who joined the business knowing nothing about model railroading. Yet, due to specialized training, nimble fingers, keen eyesight and all-around skills, Whitaker has become an expert in the field, he said. Often, she repairs locomotives and other equipment for customers.
“She’s the girl in the boy’s treehouse,” King said of Whitaker’s infiltration of an industry usually dominated by men. “I can’t give her enough accolades.”
The store operator explained that while he still loves trains, he is ready to step aside from the retail field that can be demanding at times, including having to keep the store open six days each week.
“I’ll be 67 in February,” King said in listing his reasons for closing.
“I’m a government-certified geezer.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.