Roundhouse Electric Trains
From the 1926 Buster Keaton film The General to the 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, trains have long captured our collective imagination. Trains revolutionized our country, played a role in the development of cities, and influenced the progress and outcome of wars. Whether you’re a long-time train enthusiast, a parent of children who love trains or simply curious about unique local shops, you’ll find something to pique your interest at Roundhouse Electric Trains on Brownsboro Road.
Since 2011, Kevin Cook has been the proprietor of Roundhouse, having bought it from former owner, Tom Budniak. Cook was a regular visitor to the shop, and Budniak recognized both a devout train lover and businessman in him. Casual conversations eventually led to more serious conversations, a bank loan, and a transfer of ownership. Although no longer the owner, Budniak remains a regular presence at Roundhouse.
Cook has loved trains his entire life. In addition to having family on both sides who worked for the Pennsylvania railroads, his dad had a model train layout in the family’s basement. Cook’s two older brothers were none too gentle with it, leading his father to give it to cousins.
“I watched that train layout go out the door, and I was totally crushed,” he says.
When he was four years old, his dad purchased him an HO set, and Cook broke the engine. His father couldn’t fix it, but this dilemma led Cook into tinkering which evolved into a lifetime fascination with and respect for all things train-related.
He learned to build and rebuild trains and painted and decaled over 2,000 train cars, which helped him pay for expenses during college. He had hoped to work on the railroad himself after graduating from college with a degree in transportation, but his eyesight kept him from a job (he is legally blind in one eye). Despite having to forego a career in the railroads, Cook’s love for trains never abated.
Although he worked in manufacturing in Ohio for most of his career, the movement of manufacturing jobs overseas eventually led him to a position as a risk manager at Atria in Louisville. When his position was eliminated, he purchased Roundhouse thinking it would tide him over until he found his next white-collar position. He hasn’t looked back and says, “The biggest benefit of owning a train store is my wife has stopped asking me what I want to be when I grow up.”
There are a number of facets of train enthusiasm: history, playing, and operating. Playing with trains is what a person might do with a train under a Christmas tree, while operating is, according to Cook, “a representation of how the railroads functioned,” which involves multiple switches, picking up, and dropping off.
“I like understanding what the railroad has meant and being able to enjoy it in a pure form,” he says.
Roundhouse is open six days a week, and Cook is at the shop nearly every day. In addition to carrying a wide selection of trains and train components, the shop is also an authorized Lionel repair center. Even if you know nothing about trains, an hour or so with Cook or one of his employees can provide you some basic knowledge of the different types of gauges, including N, HO, G, and O.
“I’m an HO guy,” Cook says. “I always lusted over Lionel, but it was beyond my budget.”
Being a collector himself, Cook tries to carry a wide variety of trains, both new and used, so that regardless of how much a customer has to spend, he or she can find something that fits the budget. While $500 for a Lionel 1225 Christmas engine painted by Angela Trotta Thomas might seem steep, when you witness it simulate exhaust smoke in time to the exhaust sound, you realize just how intricately designed and realistic these little collectibles are.
If Cook purchases a used collection, he and his staff put the items through an inspection process to ensure they are in good working order for future owners. In addition to its cavernous store, Roundhouse also has a garage which stores some of the less expensive used trains, cars and sets. While Cook tries to warranty everything he sells, some of the used items he purchases for resale don’t have available replacement parts anymore, so he has to sell them “as is.”
The shop also includes an upstairs area with one complete O gauge train layout and a HO gauge train layout in development. A member of K&I Railroad Club has been helping ballast the HO track and Cook says, “We have met with the K&I representatives and the superintendent of the Division 8 National Model Railroad Association (NMRA) to solicit their assistance in completing the HO layout. We hope to have completion by May/June.”
Communicating with other model train enthusiasts is part of the business model for Roundhouse. Through its Facebook page, the store serves as a communicator and connector. It announces local and regional train sales and shows and invites the public as well as members of the K&I Railroad Club and the Southern Indiana Railroad Club to share in the excitement when it is operating trains on its O layout.
Another service Roundhouse offers is train layout design. One such design was done for Louisville Slugger in 4×4 sections. Cook envisions helping assisted living facilities plan and install train layouts as a way to interest and involve residents. He built a train layout for his own father when he was a resident of a local retirement community and says, “He never wanted for company, and I got to thinking, ‘Why not have these down in activity rooms or in a front foyer and have that be a focal point for people to meet, greet, and just have a good time?’”
Cook recognizes that the hobby will not survive without kids and the interest they take in it.
“I think it’s the finest hobby out there,” he says. “You’re building your own little world, and I think it’s almost therapeutic. You’re building a world that you control.”
From his own experience, though, he knows that trains are more than just play. He would be the first one to tell you that playing with trains as a boy taught him elements of both mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as a certain amount of grit and determination.