Tony's Trains of Rugby owner describes life through the pandemic, from a 'terrifying' start to loyal support

Tony wished to thank his customers for their loyal support through the pandemic

Tony French in his shop.

This week the Advertiser begins a new project where we visit independent businesses across the borough to see how they are doing as the lockdown continues to ease.

Our first visit was to Tony's Trains of Rugby, an award-winning model railway shop sited on the Locks in Hillmorton.

The shop hosts a treasure trove of items, with a variety of rolling stock, buildings and scenery - allowing the hobbyist to replicate anything from the first days of rail travel right up to the current year.

Owner Tony French took over the business, formerly known as Barby Model Rail, in 2015.

Tony had been a keen hobbyist for many years, as well as having sold items from a stall at model rail events across the country.

Business at the shop proved swift and, supported by a steady stream of loyal customers, Tony was able to expand the shop in 2019 - moving next door to a unit twice as big.

"I'd always planned to keep expanding the business, but it was growing at a greater rate than I ever expected," Tony said.

In that same year the shop came fourth in the Model Rail Magazine's Model Shop of the Year 2019 - further cementing its popularity with customers.

But with the onset of the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 and emerging talk of a possible lockdown, things became worrying.

Tony described the lead-up to the first lockdown early last year as 'terrifying' for him and other business owners in the borough.

He said: "I think the uncertainty about what was going to happen made things much worse.

"We didn't know what was coming, at one point I thought we would have to shut down completely.

"I remember thinking that I might have to move into the shop to make sure the stock was safe."

When the lockdown did arrive, the allowance for postal orders and click and collect meant Tony's Trains could, in some way, continue going.

Tony said: "This business was quite lucky, we had set up a website three months prior to the first lockdown and we already had the mail order service in place.

"At first we didn't have click and collect, but we were able to get that sorted.

"We were a lot luckier that many other businesses. Things were mostly ok - lockdown meant there were a lot of people at home looking for things to do.

"There was still trade, both from the regular customers and people either returning to the hobby or getting involved for the first time."

The continued support of Tony's customers was made clear when, as the country continued to endure cycles of lockdown measures in 2020, the shop made the top 10 in the Hornby Magazine Retailer of the Year award.

One big setback for Tony and similar hobby businesses across the country was the shutdown of shows and conventions.

For Tony, not being able to trade at shows in venues like Alexandra Palace and the NEC meant a loss of five-figure takings for each show cancelled.

While visiting the store the Advertiser noticed a stream of regular customers, who were clearly happy to chat with Tony.

Outside, one customer said: "He's got a lot of loyal customers because you know you'll get good service.

"You could order from a website somewhere, but with Tony you know you can come in, have a chat about it, and if there are any problems you know he'll sort it all out."

Back inside Tony said he was glad his customers were now able to come back in to browse and chat.

He said: "It's great to have the shop back open, and I think it's a lot better for the customers.

"It's nice for them to be able to come back, look around and have a bit of social interaction."

Looking forward, Tony is very positive, and he is confident that, with the help of his loyal customers, the business will keep growing.

"I really want to say a huge thanks to all the customers who kept us going through this," he said.

Tony added that the Business Rates Grant was of immense help for him and many other business owners across the country.

Tony's Trains stocks virtually everything someone could need to set up and build their own model railway, with major brands including Hornby, Bachmann, Dapol, Haljan, Pecco, Graham Farish, Oxford Die Cast in stock.

Tony also sells an array of second-hand items.