This is first in a series of stories about older businesses in San Carlos that have experienced changes in the community and society….and how they’ve evolved.
Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the week, J&M Hobby House at the south end of Laurel Street is bustling with customers. Catch the time of day? It’s a good half hour before kids get out of school.
The hobby half of the shop – the part that carries model kits of cars, boats, military soldiers both domestic and foreign, current and past – is filled with grown men, more commonly referred to as the ‘big kids” by J&M owner Cliff White.
“In the early days of our shop, our bike rack in front at 3 o’clock was full,” said White, who took over the shop in 1982. “Some days, you had to step over the bikes to get inside.”
Fast forward almost thirty years. “Today, parents drive their kids everywhere,” 56-year old White observed, adding that when he was a kid, he and his friends had a lot more freedom.
“We never see kids come in by themselves. Mom or Dad bring them in after school or on Saturday,” White said.
Many of the children that do come in are different from those dating back to pre-ubiquitous computer days. “Kids are not exposed to this stuff the way we were. When we grew up, everybody built plastic models,” White said.
Today, adult customers come from a 100 mile radius – including a fellow who flew in from Florida – looking for model planes, cars, boats, trains, slot cars, tools and building supplies.
“We carry unusual, esoteric items nobody else wants to carry. We have about 3,000 model ship fittings. Nobody else stocks that,” White said.
J&M’s change in customer base has also driven changes in its merchandise. It now carries higher tech “more sophisticated stuff” like radio controlled transmitters and receivers, engines, motors and lithium powered batteries.
Of course, not everybody knows how to use it all. “We do a lot of over-the-counter one-on-one help all day,” White said, calculating he and his staff of six part-time employees have 400 years of modeling experience between them.
Cliff and his wife Pam took over the shop from his parents, Joe and Marcelle, the J&M in the iconic sign at 1660 Laurel. Cliff has worked at the store since 1970. He says his parents bought the hobby shop as an existing business in 1969.
The Whites recently finished restoring the building which is not art deco like everybody thinks. “It’s actually Streamline Moderne. We were corrected by a professor of architecture,” White said.
Other examples of modern, post-depression Streamline Moderne – with its signature rounded windows and metal railings – include the Maritime Museum in San Francisco.
White says their business has done very well over the last several years. “Our strength is the variety on both the craft and hobby side,” White said.
The items they carry have changed, too. In the early days of the hobby shop, it mostly carried building supplies that people would use to build something over the course of weeks or months. “Today, most things are ready to run. They’re easy assembly and then you’re ready to play,” White explained.
“For a lot of stuff, you’ve got to come in and see us if you want it,” White said.
J&M Hobby House (does not have a website; link to Yelp)
1660 Laurel Street
San Carlos, CA 94070
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