Buffalo, New York
20 September 2013
"Taking over dad's legacy and 'trying to not screw it up"
John Kavulich Jr. credits his father with having the passion for hobbies and the drive to grow the Cheektowaga store.
John Kavulich Jr. said he never would have shopped in his dad’s store, which he has run since his father’s passing in 2003.
“I’m not his customer, but it definitely was in his DNA,” Kavulich said, referring to his father’s passion for model airplanes, hobbies and crafts.
That passion turned into the opening of a small hobby store, then a distribution company and eventually one of the country’s largest independent hobby stores.
In 1944, at age 15, John Kavulich Sr. started Binghamton Model Airplane Co. Among the dozens of photos, mementos and newspaper clippings that his son displays in his Cheektowaga office is a 1948 article that showcases his father becoming the youngest member of the Binghamton Chamber of Commerce.
The store was at 70 Wall St. in Binghamton, and in the newspaper photo caption, Carleton Cleveland – then-president of the Binghamton chamber – was quoted as saying, “We hope that your Wall Street address is the omen of financial success.”
As John Kavulich Sr.’s retail hobby store became more successful, he expanded into wholesale distribution of models, trains, and crafts. In 1954 he moved to Buffalo and established Niagara Hobby Distributors, a wholesale company that eventually would sell products to most of the largest retail chains throughout the United States. It also would become the parent company of his retail store, Niagara Hobby & Craft Mart, which he opened in 1986.
Today, the store houses everything needed for school science projects, to build model railroads, wind turbines and dollhouses. Its aisles are packed with paints, supplies, tools, arts and crafts. John Kavulich Jr. said the distribution company – also run from his Union Road store – represents about 10 percent of his total business, with retail comprising the other 90 percent.
He did not disclose revenues.
A photo in his office shows an airplane with the store’s name on it and positioned in the parking lot at the corner of Union and Duke roads.
As he tells the story, he laughs and said, “Dad never got a permit for it, and there were quite a few complaints.”
As he tells it, motorists approaching the intersection nearly crashed, thinking that a plane had crashed or was taxiing toward them. Eventually, it was moved. Today, the company’s parking lot has a 30-ton caboose from 1949.
From 1998 to 2001, John, 52, had coordinated corporate communications and government relations for Beverly Hills-based John Paul Mitchell Systems. He considers himself a veteran world traveler, having been to more than 100 countries.
When asked about what it was like to work with his father, he said: “I never did. He became ill when we were traveling in Nepal and India. I had nothing to do with this business.”
His photo collection includes the last picture taken of his father, who always wanted to ride the famous Darjeeling Toy Train, a 48-mile rail line on a 2-foot narrow gauge track that creeps up a mountain in India.
“It’s faster to actually walk up the mountain than go by train,” said Kavulich. “But it’s on a model-train lover’s bucket list.”
That last photo of his father shows him holding a support rail on the caboose as the train rides off. Posted to the company’s website, it’s a poignant moment, not lost on Kavulich, considering his father got sick soon after and died about a month later, on Aug. 1, 2003. He was 73.
“I don’t refer to myself as the owner of Niagara Hobby,” said Kavulich, who still refers to one of the rooms as “Dad’s office.” “I like to say I’m working at his store, managing his legacy. I’m trying to not screw it up.”