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The Rail Deal

Greenwood shop keeps filmographer's love of trains on track

"The chugging sound of the electric locomotive filled the small Greenwood storefront, occasionally punctuated by a whistle blast.

Set on an endless loop, the toy train traveled through a miniature landscape of churches, houses and water towers.

Les Jarrett has devoted his life to filming, collecting and honoring the railroad culture that helped build America. He has shot documentaries on topics ranging from old Western steam engines to modern passenger trains in Chicago.

He's collected signs from Rio Grande, Burlington Route and Lionel Electric Trains.

Only recently has he started catering to the model train crowd with miniature replicas of Amtrak passenger cars and Union Pacific haulers. With the help of Whiteland resident Shelbi Alltop and her brother, Mike Alltop, they've created a rail-lovers paradise in A-Trains.

"When somebody says, 'He's a train fan,' it's kind of like saying, 'He's a sports fan.' What does that mean?" Jarrett said. "We try to feature some of everything."

Living blocks from the Santa Fe depot in Independence, Kan., helped Jarrett develop his love of trains. His mother took him down to the station to see who came in and left on cars pulled by the powerful locomotives.

"I remember I was very spooked by the fact that there was nobody in the second engine, but it still ran," he said.

Later, after visiting Colorado and the restored Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, he realized that other people were as fascinated by trains as he was. He started collecting train magazines, went on steam-train excursions and learned all he could about the different kinds of trains.

Trained as a filmographer, Jarrett worked for television news stations shooting nightly broadcasts. He found an old 16-millimeter camera that had been discarded by the station and received permission to use it in his spare time.

That camera led to a side job shooting train documentaries that continues today.

"It was therapy from my news job," Jarrett said.

His experience has led him to some of the most celebrated and loved trains in the world. He has tagged along on Durango and Silverton narrow gauge railroad through the rugged canyons and rock formations of the Animas River Canyon in Colorado.

Riding the famed Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, he captured the cross-country landscape from Chicago to Los Angeles.

One of his favorite trips was riding the White Pass & Yukon Route through the mountains between Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. The tracks passed through narrow gorges, past craggy clifts and over impossibly steep dropoffs.

"It's the one time I've rode in the cab of a locomotive and been blown away. I was looking at the engineer, jealous that he gets paid to do this," Jarrett said.

He sells his videos through his company, Railway Productions, in train magazines and online, as well as in his store.

In order to turn his online business into a physical store, Jarrett needed to take small steps of progress. He started out only carrying his own videos, the only physical inventory he had. For everything else, he acted as a go-between to other dealers, much like Amazon.

Over time, though, he started building up a collection of signage, clothing and collectibles. Getting into the model train aspect was slower to develop, Jarrett said.

"We had our clocks and our shirts and our videos. Then the model guys would come in and say, 'This is a train store with no trains.' So we had to start stocking the models," he said.

Shelbi and Mike Alltop are family friends who have known Jarrett through church. The opportunity to help with the business made sense, as they handle online orders and help stock shelves. Mike Alltop helps graphically design the catalogs and other sales elements.

Shelbi Alltop admits she knew nothing about trains before starting. But having been around such a passionate enthusiast as Jarrett has helped her understand.

"I actually notice now when I'm driving and one passes by. I notice the logos and what company it is," she said.

Getting inside the train culture is compicated, Jarrett said. Subsets of interest include people who collect signs, and people who enjoy the photography. Some collectors are interested in full-scale trains, while others focus solely on miniatures.

The store's model layout was built by the Alltops to add some visibility to the store. Set up in the front window, it's easily seen from the street and is the first thing customers notice when they come in.

They used materials from the store to make the foam landscape of hills, rock formations and plains. Special plastic, designed to harden yet look like running water, creates a river through the model.

"If a customer wants to look at scenery, we can point out what it will look like in their own models, " Mike Alltop said. "We wanted to have something that kids really wanted to come in and look at and give adults an idea how far you can take the models."

-Article was taken from the Daily Journal on April 5, 2013. Written by Ryan Trares.

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