WILKES-BARRE ‚?? Walter Letanski says he‚??s still just a big kid.
Letanski is the second-generation owner of Walter‚??s Hardware who hosts a holiday train display annually.
Model railroading at one time was as much a part of the Christmas season as reindeer and pine trees. Many homes had a big decorated fir tree standing on a platform with a locomotive on it that ran through a plastic village representing small-town America.
All of that can be seen at Walter‚??s and the head engineer ‚?? Letanski is a Penn State graduate with an engineering degree ‚?? at the controls.
‚??They say the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys,‚?Ě he said.
As customers walk in and out of Walter‚??s, the 60-year-old can often be seen flying a model airplane through the aisles, avoiding merchandise and customers with the skills of a World War II flying ace.
‚??In a world of commercial retailing and big-box stores, this is something different ‚?? not the norm,‚?Ě said Walter‚??s son, Walter III. ‚??It seems everybody today puts profits ahead of customers. We see every day that our customers leave here with what they want.‚?Ě
When you walk into Walter‚??s you are greeted with a smile and a hello and the person behind the counter probably knows your name. They walk with you and help you find what you need to do the job.
Bright lights make it easy to make your way through the aisles and orange and white signs clearly mark the departments.
The store opened in 1948 at River and Market streets and has been at its current location since 1975. Letanski added the train display in 1994 and has been adding to it ever since.
Chris Ritchie, a Penn State University professor and friend of Letanski‚??s, was the first train customer at Walter‚??s. Ritchie, after displaying abundant knowledge of trains, was hired to work part time for Letanski in 2005.
‚??I was here all the time anyway,‚?Ě Ritchie said. ‚??Whether people come here for hardware or trains, the advice they get is so valuable. They don‚??t push you to buy stuff you don‚??t need.‚?Ě
Letanski‚??s first train was an American Flyer that he now keeps in a box. Newer model trains run year round in the store. Letanski said they are the perfect complement to his hardware business.
‚??Things slow down in the winter,‚?Ě he said of hardware sales. ‚??But everybody likes to see trains around the holidays.‚?Ě
Letanski has added remote-controlled airplanes and cars to his hobby business. You can find him flying a small aircraft around the store ‚?? he calls it demonstrating.
But in reality it is that little kid in him that keeps surfacing every time a customer appears interested in purchasing a remote-controlled toy.
‚??Trains are such a Christmas tradition,‚?Ě he said. ‚??People are still buying them.‚?Ě
People like Micoline Lyons of Drums who stopped by Walter‚??s with her son, Sheldon Slusser.
‚??I‚??m trying to re-create my childhood, I guess,‚?Ě she said. ‚??I have a train and I‚??m looking to buy accessories.‚?Ě
Letanski said he enjoys helping his customers make those decisions. He said that as an engineer he always has liked problem-solving.
‚??People come here because they have problems, like leaking, something‚??s broke, something needs fixing, or they need a part,‚?Ě he said. ‚??I enjoy helping them resolve those problems. But I have to say, the hobby side is much more fun.‚?Ě
Letanski was 5 when his dad died and his mom, Helen, took over at the store. She ran the operation with her brother, Joe Zykowski.
‚??He was the last person in the phone book for years,‚?Ě Letanski said.
Letanski and his wife, Karen, and son, Walter III, run things now. He has a daughter, Lauren, who works as an engineer in Virginia.
When Wilkes-Barre widened Coal Street, the entrance from Wilkes-Barre Boulevard was relocated.
The city then renamed the old part of Coal Street ‚??Walter‚??s Way.‚?Ě Letanski liked that, but he said the project did hurt his business for a while.
‚??When you remodel your house, you put up with dirt and inconveniences,‚?Ě he said. ‚??But the street is nice now. How it will work out, we really won‚??t know for at least a year. But it seems easier for our customers to get in and out.‚?Ě
Walter III said he has learned how to interact with customers and how to make sure they are satisfied.
‚??This can be a fun job,‚?Ě he said. ‚??Heck, my father still plays with toys.‚?Ě
57 N. Welles St. - the store actually faces Walter‚??s Way, the old Coal Street.
Holiday store hours:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Thursday & Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
More information, call: 823-1406