I still remember the time spent with my dad at the dining room table — hours on the weekend dutifully toiling away at a 3D puzzle.
We built a Big Ben that nearly touched the chandelier, we constructed Notre Dame, too, and I am sure if I thought harder, I could name a few more international landmarks that we brought to miniature life on that table. What we did with them, I have no idea, but what’s important in my memory is that dedicated time with dad creating something together.
In recent years, moments like that have been more rare. Families often don’t have time or the will to choose doing puzzles together over screen time in their respective rooms. Many kids play video games instead of building things.
They can look up answers on Google, rather than tinker and problem-solve for themselves. What they don’t know is how much fun they’re missing doing it the old-fashioned way, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic (bet you never thought you’d see those words), they’re discovering it now.
They’re discovering it much in part to the relocation of Atlanta Hobby just before the pandemic set in. It’s been about three years since the hobby shop moved into its storefront location on Ronald Reagan Boulevard, but you’d assume they’d been here forever.
They still serve their original customer base, but have an entirely new set of customers, now, who see their wild, graphic-coated doors and get curious enough to pop in (or spend their Saturday here), not to mention the 30,000-something cars that drive by every day.
“Well, we’re the neighborhood drug dealer, and you can publish that,” joked Cliff Whitney, owner of Atlanta Hobby. “Wives say they hate me, but then they admit that what we do here does keep the family busy.”
And it’s the good kind of busy. People are amazed at what they see, from the moment they walk through the doors, the simple magnitude of inventory. They’ve most likely never seen anything like it. And that’s how Whitney likes it.
“We’re not your average section of a department store,” he said. “We’ve got toys everywhere, something for everyone from babies to old guys, and we have it out, ready to get your hands on, play with, even break it. My favorite thing is watching a kid’s eyes light up at the chance to race a car, and you wouldn’t get that if everything was still in the box.”
Among the race cars, the plethora includes airplanes of all shapes and sizes covering the ceiling, remote-controlled cars and boats lining the walls, shelves of puzzles (from flat to 3D, mind twisters, and anything in between), science experiments, model trains, and interactive toys pack the room. An entire floor section shows off giant telescopes and intricate binoculars, drones and robots. And that’s just what I could see from a 360 view at the desk.
“Moving over here has allowed us get more involved with the kids these days,” he said. “The stuff we’ve got now, they’re not just models that you build and put on a shelf. You can play with them. They actually work, they run. A model car actually has pistons that move up and down. The train can run along the track.”
Also outside the toy-store norm, they stock DIY planetariums, kits to set up your own weather station, toys that study astronomy, even a mineral science kit.
“Most kids today don’t even know anything about this stuff,” said Whitney. “And it’s about getting them to learn stuff, even when it seems like it’s just fun. RC cars are fantastic, for example, because they break. If you bought it somewhere else, you’d probably just trash it, but with these, they learn to solder, learn to change a tire, real things. Of course, they can also bring it here, and we can fix it with them. We’ve got a whole department back here to help with that.”
That’s another reason you can’t quite find a place like Atlanta Hobby anywhere else — everyone that works here is an expert in everything they do. And it shows. That passion is contagious — especially if you’re here on a Saturday, or if you’re a student.
They partner with Alliance Academy here in Forsyth County to sponsor many parts of their aviation program, Whitney a licensed pilot and Atlanta Hobby being one of the biggest drone-pilot training programs in the country. They also train pilots for recreational flying, too, host camps in the summer, and invite students to come try out some of the equipment in real-time.
“One of my favorite stories is when we’ve taken out a group of kids at night to get the chance to look through some of these big telescopes,” Whitney said.
“This one group we took, it was a church group. There was a huge line of kids waiting their turn, but this one guy just stood off to the side, totally uninterested. His parents said he really isn’t into this kind of stuff. It showed. But when it was his turn, he took one look and yelled, out, ‘holy s%^&!’ We laughed, and his parents were impressed. You just don’t know what kids are going to be into if they aren’t exposed to it.
“I love that,” Whitney continued. “That look in their eyes when the light bulb goes off, when they figure out how something works. You don’t find that on a screen.”
His hope is that those light bulbs don’t die out when the generation of hobby-loving adults disappears (the average age for hobbyists is late 60s). Simply the number of hobby shops, now, versus 20 years ago is drastically diminished. Perhaps the answer lies beyond simply resurrecting the interest in cool ways to play, but rather showcasing how this type of fun can blend with modern-day stimulators for something better than both.
“You can come in here and buy a telescope that you can mount your iPhone to, and know exactly what you’re looking at via an App,” Whitney said.
The same goes for binoculars, drones, you name it.
“This kind of play is interactive, and different than just looking at a screen,” said Whitney. “It’s something you can touch. It’s reason to cause and effect. It makes you ask why does the vehicle go when you pull the trigger. You can look inside something and see those parts working. You just can’t get that hand-eye stimulation from a screen.”
Whitney also believes it sets kids up for something greater in life when they can discover things like that from an early age. His own son grew up hanging out in and working behind the scenes at his store. He loved helping Whitney and his staff run a podcast, playing with the audio mixing boards when they weren’t on air. That stuck with him, and after high school he pursued a degree in musical theater. He wasn’t going to act or sing, but he wanted to run the soundboard. Now, he travels all over the world running audio for Disney on Ice.
It also sets kids up for the drone industry — one that’s booming. Atlanta Hobby trains those pilots and sets them up for a long career, from real estate, to journalism, to filmmaking. That’s modern stuff, and that stuff is from right here in Cumming.
“You know, we have simple things, and we have really, really complex things,” said Whitney. “Tyler Perry is one of our best customers, but so are the families that come in here for hours on the weekend to play in the simulator or race cars. We serve bird watchers and astronomers alike. We’re a different kind of store, and you don’t really understand what we mean until you get in here and see it —touch it — for yourself.”
Of course, the biggest takeaway from that is that a few hours spent here mean even more quality time as a family. The things Atlanta Hobby offers are things you can do together, no age or height requirements. You get the chance to learn together, explore together, and that creates a bond unlike anything else.
“Families today are more separated than they’ve ever been before. Covid kind of forced us back together, and we want to be there to help with that. We can provide ways to have fun together, again,” Whitney said.
Of course, it also makes shopping for dad a little more fun. And since Atlanta Hobby runs a strict “no ties allowed” policy, you can bet it’ll be something that’s a little more fun for him to open, too.
On your mark…
See this month's 400 Life Magazine here.
- Sponsored content