BUCKLAND, Mass. (AP) — You could say the biggest "toy store" in Franklin County is tucked away in an office building, with most of its stock in boxes neatly stacked on metal filing shelves. But these toys are (mostly) not for children. And owner Steve Howland of Buckland hardly ever sees a customer.
However, the lifelike die-cast replicas of military and commercial aircraft go flying off the shelves daily, to customers in 40 to 50 countries, thanks to the Internet.
Pilotwear & Diecast Airplane fills between 30 to 40 orders a day for accurate models of the latest aircraft to vintage models going back to the days of the Wright Brothers, in 1903. Over the years, Howland has also seen "celebrity models" — replicas of presidential airplanes, and even a replica of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's Airbus 302-214, which the pilot safely landed on the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 aboard.
"'The Hudson River Special' sold out very quickly," said Howland. "Everything we sell is in limited editions, in which between 300 to 1,500 (copies) are made."
"In a way, it's sort of a niche market," he said. "There aren't that many people interested in aviation; when people think of die-cast metal stuff, they usually think of miniature cars. But those who collect die-cast metal planes are very serious about it."
Howland is a third-generation aviation enthusiast; his grandfather was an airplane mechanic during World War I, his father is a pilot and Howland himself has a pilot's license.
"I can't afford to fly," he said. "Instead of flying real planes, I get to play with the toys. And I like to talk to the collectors."
Howland doesn't make the detailed die-cast planes, but markets and distributes new airplane models made by companies from all over the world. Because buying them online is easier than traveling to the relatively few shops that carry them, Howland fills orders from Australian customers wanting certain Quantus Airline model planes, which might have even been made overseas.
"Most international customers want models of their own airlines," he explained.
Before Pilotwear & Diecast, Howland was a self-employed website designer and computer repair person.
In 1998, he began selling aviation-related gift items on a small scale on the Internet — T-shirts, mugs, greeting cards "and only a few die-casts," he said. "But I was getting die-cast requests, and it wasn't very long before die-cast models became the major part of the business."
Howland says he has about 10,000 models in stock.
"I like doing the business on the Internet because it allows me to run a business in a rural area — but services customers around the world."
"I would say this business could not exist without the Internet," he added. "I couldn't have started this business without my prior experience as a web designer.
He noted that, for the first five years, Howland couldn't pay himself a salary, but had to supplement his income with part-time jobs. Now he works full-time and employs five part-time workers.
"I watched it grow in the first few years, and I could see the potential existed. For me, that hard work has paid off, but it could have easily gone the other way."
Howland says his customers include pilots and mechanics who worked for the airlines.
"A model came in with a pilot's name on it, and I actually got a call from the pilot who flew it in World War II," Howland said. "He wanted to buy it, and I said: you don't have to buy it, I'll just send it to you. We had a nice talk."
"World War II models and military models have been the most popular, but there is a growing market for Korean and Vietnam War-era aircraft," says Howland.
Although few customers actually come to his office, Howland gets to see some of them at collectors' conventions in New Jersey and in Chicago. Howland also has a personal presence on his website with a blog and through videos he makes about die-cast topics and posts on YouTube. One year, Howland and his son traveled to aviation museums all over the country and blogged about their experiences on Howland's website.
Beyond commercial and military planes, the company carries die-cast spacecraft models, a few models of experimental cars, and models of commemorative decorated planes.
"Because they're limited editions, I often get calls for models that I had five years ago — a lot of the models won't ever be made again," he said. "This is what collectors want, because they want their models to go up in value. I certainly have collectors who buy two of everything they want — one to own and one to sell."
Howland also carries miniature terminal buildings and miniature runways, for those who like to create a setting for the models.
With all the Internet marketing, blogging and video-making, Howland says the old-fashioned telephone is the least-efficient use of his time. "But it's also my most important time with some of my customers," he said. "There are aviation lovers who don't have anybody to talk to around them — and they just want to talk airplanes. They become regular customers."