The JA Cooley Museum & The Frank The Trainman Train Shop
By Christopher Earley
January 2, 2011
Filed under Area
For anyone who is interested in model trains, and in seeing the historic progression of technologies such as cars and phonographs, James Cooley is the man to see.
The Frank the Trainman model train shop and JA Cooley museum at 4233 Park Boulevard in University Heights is certainly one of San Diego’s hidden treasures.
Cooley, a San Diego native, has always been fascinated by model trains. When looking around the shop and museum, it is evident that his fascination turned into his passion. “I got my first electric train around 1936,” says Cooley. “It was an American Flyer.”
The shop is divided into two sections: the museum and the model train shop.
Cooley sits in a comfortable chair near the front window of the shop and museum, a favorite spot of his to relax with his wife and co-worker, Carmen. He’s dressed neatly with a khaki flat cap, and there’s a twinkle in his eyes when he gets to talking about something he likes. The chair faces the mass of treasures that he has accumulated over the years. Next to the big window is Cooley’s collection of phonographs, and a giant organ that looks as if it came straight from a circus.
“As far as the museum here, this is my idea,” says Cooley. “I had this large collection I thought that I should be sharing with people.”
A five-dollar admission fee gets you into the museum, which is a space large enough to fit several cars. It seems that every nook and cranny is filled with some marvelous antique. “I have 25 to 30 categories of stuff that’s on display,” says Cooley. There are antique cars, typewriters, adding machines, phonographs, and yes, model trains. Cooley’s collection of antique model trains fills several glass display cases along the wall. The rear of the shop is full of antique clocks, which tick away harmoniously. Cooley is most interested in the way that technology has progressed over the years, and most of his collections reflect that interest.
“I never buy anything unless I like it,” he says. “To give you some idea, if you brought in a real rare phonograph, and if it’s something that I wasn’t particularly interested in, the rarity wouldn’t really enter into it, or the price. I’d probably pass on it because I didn’t like it.”
When looking around the museum, it’s easy to assume that Cooley acquired most of the pieces at auctions. But that’s not how everything came to be here. He explains that he spent a lot of time searching second-hand stores for pieces that needed a little work. Many years ago, one could find many wonderful antiques in those stores.
He would often purchase several items for parts, and then ultimately piece one together over a period of time. Many of Cooley’s phonographs were put together this way, and by the time he was finished, he didn’t have a great deal of money invested.
The museum sees its fair share of visitors, sometimes including school children and tour buses. Cooley credits the vast array of items that are on display for keeping his guests interested.
“I have yet to see a tour bus full of forty of fifty people who will get off and half a dozen will be back on the bus in five minutes,” says Cooley. “Usually every one of them is still in here an hour later when the bus driver says, We gotta be moving on!”
When it comes to the history of the model train shop, there’s quite a story.
Cooley worked in the landscaping and maintenance business for many years, and developed a friendship with a man named Frank Cox, who came to be known as “Frank the Trainman”. Frank opened his model train shop in 1943.
“I’d been involved with the train business since it’s been here, and nearly 30 years ago, I took the business over for Frank Cox,” says Cooley.
The two men would meet for lunch several times a week, and would often buy and sell things from one another. One day in 1980, after their usual lunch, Cox suggested to Cooley that they visit the escrow office where they often conducted their business. Cooley had no idea that what Cox had in mind was to sell him the model train shop; his health was deteriorating, and he wanted to hand the store over to his good friend.
When the escrow officer asked Cox and Cooley what they happened to be selling that day, Cox told him that Cooley was buying the store. Cooley was shocked, but agreed.
Cox lived for several more years, and passed away in 1989, but the name of the train shop is still called “Frank the Trainman”.
“It’s been a continuous operation for 67 years,” says Cooley.
Cooley and his wife Carmen are the shop’s only two employees, and it is obvious to anyone who comes in that they enjoy working together.
“We’ve been married for 41 years,” says Carmen from behind the counter of the train shop, which is jam-packed with boxes of model trains and toy tracks of all shapes and sizes. “We always worked together since we were first married, and you get used to it. We try and work together, like a team.”
The shop has been at its current location for several years after moving from across the street. The original building had its share of structural problems, and would have had to been framed with steel, proving to cost more than Cooley wanted spend. He ended up selling it to Mission Federal Credit Union.
Cooley wishes that more kids would get involved with trains. He attributes the loss of interest in them to the availability of television and electronics.
“I think it’s a lot healthier for a child to be interested in and obsessed with trains than electronics because he’s not just sitting there in front of a machine hour after hour,” says Cooley.
Cooley has also taken notice of the high prices of the model trains. “It’s just not affordable for a lot of people,” he says. “But I’m always looking for the best products that I can get at a real sensible price.”
When asked his age, Cooley declined. “I told Carmen how old I was years ago, and decided I’d never do that I again,” he laughs.