The small, unassuming storefront of Frank 'The Trainman' is deceiving. Inside, a vast space stretches back almost a quarter length of a football field. The space is split in half by a small wooden gate--one side is a museum featuring historical relics, the other side stacked to the ceiling with bright orange cardboard boxes containing brand new model trains.
Old but perfectly polished automobiles, phonographs and clocks fill up the museum. The cars and phonographs sit in stoic silence near the front entrance, their stories waiting to be told by the only two people who know them--longtime store owners James and Carmen Cooley, who've been collecting vintage odds and ends for the museum for the last 60 years.
A huge, white band organ is one of the couple's prized finds. They scored the circus-like music contraption at a neighbor's garage sale a few decades ago, and every time James walks past it, he gets a noticeable glimmer in his eyes.
'I could play that for you if you'd like,' James will say if he catches you glancing in the organ's general direction.
He'll switch on the power button and smile as its red light bulbs come to life and the snare drum on the left and the cymbal on the right combine with the organ to make a loud and lovely carousel-esque melody. If the ditty really catches James' fancy, he'll do a little dance, clapping along and slapping his knee while shooting playful glances at his wife.
'You'll never hear the same tune twice,' he says.
When the organ shuts off, the silence returns until you reach the midpoint of the museum, where old clocks tick incessantly. Rocky, the Cooleys' parrot that lives in a vintage birdcage in the middle of the store, chimes in every so often, overpowering the ticking with an earsplitting squawk.
James, too, often talks over the ticking, energetically telling the history of each and every car--like the Cadillac from 1905 that was owned by Ira Copley, the father of onetime Union-Tribune publisher James Copley.
It would be easy to assume that James Cooley is Frank 'The Trainman,' the namesake of the museum and train store. But while James has been the man behind the counter for a good deal of the store's 64 years and even sports the nifty conductor-style cap, he doesn't claim 'The Trainman' nickname as his own.
The Trainman, he explains, is Frank Cox, a close friend of James who died in 1988. James bought the store from Cox and left it and its name relatively unchanged as a tribute to his friend.
The store and museum (4233 Park Blvd. in University Heights) have been around for what, in today's fickle business world, seems like forever, but James' family has been in San Diego for even longer--since 1873.
James grew up in Kensington and attended Hoover High School. His parents owned a hardware store--much of his youth was spent working in wholesale hardware. James moved from hardware to the landscaping business for awhile, and he met a beautiful Mexican immigrant, Carmen Lopez, now his wife of 37 years. Carmen and James worked side-by-side doing landscaping, so when James purchased the museum and train store, it was a given that Carmen would work alongside him.
The couple doesn't have any employees. It's just the two of them, seven days a week, eight hours a day--and it's been that way for the past 19 years. When customers come in, James often takes them on a tour of the museum or helps them pick out a train set while Carmen sits back and watches over things, shooing small children off antique chairs and making sure they don't do too much damage to the store's relics. When the place is empty, the couple sits in two chairs pulled up right next to one another near the front window on the museum side, enjoying the cool San Diego breeze and observing street life.
The store doesn't have much in the way of a website (www.frank thetrainman.com), so most of the train sales are done face-to-face with people who live in or are visiting San Diego. Carmen says that's the secret to their longtime success.
'Being kind with people is what counts,' she says.