E.R. Johnston, the train dealer, the myth, the legend

Something today made me think of Johnston Electric, a legendary, long-gone train store in St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood that sold Lionel, American Flyer, and HO scale trains.

I was in the old Marty’s Model Railroads store in Affton one afternoon several years ago while Marty was going through a box of trains he had bought earlier in the day. He found some manuals, catalogs, and other paperwork, which he set aside. Then he pulled out an old newspaper page. “I wonder why he saved that?” he asked. He set the paper down, then something caught his eye. “Oh, that’s why,” he said, and pointed at an ad on the page.

An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948
An ad for E. R. Johnston from 1948

“Johnston’s,” it read at the bottom. “3118 Chippewa Street.”

“I spent many, many hours at that place when I was younger,” Marty said.
Every once in a while I hear a whisper or two about that store. After the store closed, some area collectors acquired and preserved the store’s signage. One supposedly even acquired the front door, and put it in the entrance to his own train room . Obviously the place had a following. Founded in 1928 by Eugene and Violet Johnston, most agree it was the closest thing St. Louis ever had to New York’s fabled Madison Hardware. Supposedly there were untold treasures in the basement, and the owner encouraged the rumors, but some express doubt that there was anything to the rumors. True or not, that sounds like good business to me. Give the place some mystique, and get people to come back to see if by chance any of those mysterious treasures ever made their way upstairs.

The former Johnston Electric storefront in 2014.
The former Johnston Electric storefront in 2014.

Eugene Johnston died in 1966. His son, Gilbert, took over the business.

I once worked just 8 blocks east of the store. I saw a reference to it in Louis H. Hertz’s 1954 book Making Your Model Railroad and realized that had to be really close to where I worked, so I sought it out. I failed. Looking at Google Street View (things are so much easier today!), there’s no indication left of the building’s long-ago occupants. It just looks like any other old, somewhat recently occupied storefront in a faded mixed-use inner city neighborhood. The City of St. Louis has a less-flattering photo in its public records that shows it boarded up and run down. It was probably in that state when I went looking for it, and with no visible street number and nothing else to go on, it’s easy to see why I didn’t find it then.

According to public records, the building was built in 1911, and changed hands twice in the previous decade, in 2002 and 2005. The records suggest it may have been used as a two-family dwelling, but they also suggest it may have sat vacant for significant periods of time also. In 2005 it was renovated, and a recording studio/music store opened in the storefront area. In 2009 the same owner registered a computer and electronics retail business at the address. By September 2014 is appeared that business had failed, and the building was partially boarded back up again.

Aside from the Post-Dispatch, Johnston’s also advertised in Railroad Model Craftsman at least until 1967. As far as I can tell, the store closed sometime in the late 1970s. The last ad I can find for it was in January 1977 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, promoting an after-Christmas sale.

If you have memories of this store, I’d love to hear them and preserve them here.

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