Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart in Cheektowaga, NY: Remembering a Western New York Cultural Icon

Remember the giant red caboose?

If you’re not a Western New Yorker, you’re probably wondering what we’re talking about…

But if you lived in or around the Buffalo, NY area (or even came for a visit!) in the last several decades, you likely remember an area icon: Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart.

A favorite destination for many WNY area residents, the beloved hobby shop shuttered its doors back in 2017 after an impressive run spanning decades. 32 years alone were spent at what was perhaps their most well-known location on Union Road in Cheektowaga.

Here’s a brief history & some fun memories in honor of the local legend that was Niagara Hobby and Craft Mart…

From Model Trains to Craft Goods, This Hobby Shop Had it All…

Many may recall founder John Kavulich Sr., who passed away in 2003 at the age of 73. Born back in 1929 to parents who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia, his unique story is an inspiration to all.

Mr. Kavulich expressed an interest when he was quite young in scale model wooden airplanes.  When he was just 15 – and still in high school – he founded a retail hobby store in 1944, the Binghamton Model Airplane Co. In 1946, he set a world record when his model plane stayed airborne for 2 mins, 11 seconds following takeoff on water. By 1948, the enterprising Mr. Kavulich was the youngest person to ever join the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce.

Eventually expanding into wholesale distribution operations, Mr. Kavulich located to Buffalo in 1954, where he founded Niagara Hobby Distributors. Once more, he found success, selling to some of the biggest retail chain stores.

Fast forward to 1986, and Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart opened its doors in the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga, NY. The massive store would later become known around the country as the “Biggest in the USA!”

Children and their families could browse the endless selection of hobby and craft items for hours on end. From doll houses and craft supplies to slot cars and model trains, anyone could become a kid again wandering through the establishment.

Even if you weren’t into hobby shops, you might remember what became synonymous with Niagara Hobby – a restored 1949 vibrant red Erie Railroad caboose that sat proudly out front.

Fond Memories of Niagara Hobby in WNY (& Beyond)

A quick peek through Reddit and Facebook gives a glimpse of just how much this place meant to area residents:

“Goodbye to the store that brought such joy to my childhood,” said one Reddit user.

On Facebook, someone wrote: “Niagara Hobby was our weekend destination! … Such wonderful memories…and we were heartbroken when Niagara Hobby announced that they were closing in 2017.”

Even folks who got away from their hobby still expressed a fondness, which this Reddit poster reminds us:

“While I don’t build models or layouts anymore, I would still have loved to stop by when visiting Buffalo.”

In a Buffalo News: My View column from 2017 when the beloved hobby store closed, author Carol Ann Gleason shared a common sentiment among many area folks: spending time at Niagara Hobby was a family affair.

In closing, she commented, “Hobbies seem to cross generational lines and create memories of fun and companionship. As John S. Kavulich leaves the business, he can be very proud that his dad’s hobbies provided so much fun for so many…”

All Good Things Must Come to an End (Even Hobby Shops)

Despite its longevity, perhaps changing times took their toll. For all the praises given in posts and reviews for what seems to be everyone’s favorite local hobby shop, winds of change were stirring…

Many began to notice dwindling inventory and well, something just didn’t seem the same. It was different. “The writing was on the wall,” wrote one patron, perhaps signaling the signs of what was to come.

With even flagship stores in much bigger cities than Buffalo shuttering their doors in favor of a digital format where they could reach customers around the globe (with far less overhead), it’s no surprise that Niagara Hobby ultimately became yet another hobby shop to close down for good.

For this WNY legend, September 16, 2017 marked the end of an era. Customers flocked to the store and waited in checkout lines that wound right out the door to enjoy one last experience in what has rapidly become a thing of the past: the local hobby shop.

While it’s true that many hobby shops still exist, almost no one can deny one thing: It’s just not what it used to be. In a digital era now filled with iPhones and chatbots and AI that promise to make life somehow easier, the fabric of society in general is undergoing a profound change.

Today’s world looks nothing like it did even 10 or 20 years ago, and hobby shops are far from the only realm of society affected. Western New York has seen its share of changes. WNY’ers may recall that the Buffalo area lost another iconic hobby shop when K-Val Hobbies closed down a few years before Niagara Hobby (read more about that here). The “good old days” – they’re long gone.

Maybe that’s why we humans love to turn back the hands of time – as a way to anchor us in these ever-changing times. Ahhh, nostalgia. As Doug Larson once quipped, “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”

Love WNY history? Check out these additional links to stir up the memories:

The Am-Pol Eagle: Enjoy reading “Ziggy & Zon’s as well as Niagara Hobby sold merchandise and memories” – and find out the interesting link between the two. Hint: Remember those shopping baskets at Niagara Hobby with the name, “Ziggy and Zon’s”?

Forgotten Buffalo: An Urban Explorer’s Guide to the Buffalo-Niagara Region: Unique Landmarks, Historic Gin Mills, Old World Neighborhoods, History and More!

Buffalo Cattaraugus and Jamestown Scenic Railway (BC&J): A not for profit organization focused on developing and operating excursion steam and diesel-electric passenger train excursions in the Western New York area.

Nightwatch Trains is part of the “new era” of online model train shops, connecting customers from around the world with quality brass model trains that have become so challenging to find nowadays.

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