Iconic H&R Trains is up for sale

PINELLAS PARK — Alice and Don Morris are known across the globe for their extensive expertise on trains.

So it might be a bit surprising that their retirement plans don't include riding trains to explore North America. Instead, they plan to fly and sail.

They're not leaving anytime soon. They have to wait until they sell their iconic business, H&R Trains, and the real estate it sits on.

"We've had a lot of fun," Don Morris said. "We'll miss it, but it's time."

It's an unexpected development for a 38-year-old business whose innovations and creativity have brought it an international reputation as the go-to place for model train collectors who shop on the company website, hrtrains.com, and visit in person.

"If it weren't for Alice, this industry would have gone away a long time ago," Morris said of his wife.

H&R was the first U.S. retailer, for example, to carry "garden trains," larger models (about the size of a loaf of bread) that collectors set up and run in their yards, Morris said. Also known as large-scale trains, many have the smoke, sounds and appearance of real trains.

"A lot of things Alice has done here were firsts," he said. "She continues to find new ideas."

Mrs. Morris isn't the only one to contribute to the industry. Don Morris also creates products for people who want them but can't find them elsewhere. One such product was a simulated brick or stone culvert used as scenery in train setups. A customer described what he wanted, Morris said, "and by morning, he had it."

Retirement isn't likely to happen quickly. H&R has been "quietly" for sale for the past five years but the Morrises decided about a month ago to make the news more public.

The goal, Mrs. Morris said, is to find someone who has the funds and fortitude to keep the business going and who has "a passion for the trains and a passion for the customer."

"Yes, it's for sale," she said. "We're not going to go away. It's an opportunity for the right person. I'm not going to close my door. If it doesn't sell, I'm still going to be here because I have to eat."

They're willing to help by providing advice and expertise. They're also willing to sell the business separately from the real estate. They fear that having a buyer bear the burden of paying for both the business and the property at one time would make it too hard to survive. H&R itself brings in about $1 million a year, the Morrises said. The 0.85-acre property at 6901 U.S. 19 N has an assessed value of about $313,000, according to Pinellas County Property Appraiser records.

Mrs. Morris, who became interested in trains as a child, founded H&R about 38 years ago in a corner of a McCrory's five-and-dime store in what was then the Gateway Mall. She sold out so quickly, the store manager loaned her $1,000 to replenish her stock and open a train department in the store. A year or so later, she opened her own store elsewhere in the mall.

She and her husband met because of the store. He was a train enthusiast.

"We struck up a friendship and that led to other things," he said.

They bought the Pinellas Park location in 1984 for $214,000.

The store is now the largest model train store in Florida and the second largest in the United States, they said. They ship worldwide and have well-known customers who include Burt Reynolds, former Buccaneer Warren Sapp, members of Mannheim Steamroller and Sally Jesse Raphael. The late Gary Coleman was also a client. It's not unusual to see a cab or limousine waiting outside while a collector from elsewhere shops.

The business is not simply a store.

It's also a model train complex with an outdoor garden railroad, a research library and learning center with DVDs and video tapes on both prototype and model railroad subjects as well as books and magazines dating from 1939. The library has a computer design station so customers can design their own models.

Not only do the Morrises create parts and scenery, they also install and service the installations. And they've been e-tailing for many years. They have activities for children and two train shows a year that draw collectors from around the globe.

But, with both in their 70s, they say it's time to retire and spend time together. It's an idea they began to take seriously about five years ago.

"I had a bad day," Mrs. Morris said.

Don Morris said his wife told him, "I want to go fishing. (I said) 'Alice, you don't fish, what's wrong?' "

Mrs. Morris laid out her idea: Get in Putsy, their single-engine Mooney plane, fly east, turn left at the Atlantic and go north. Land whenever something looks interesting. When they reach Newfoundland, turn left again and do the same thing. Then, turn left at Alaska and fly down the West Coast. Then left again and come back.

After that, Mrs. Morris said, she wants to go sailing.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Iconic H&R Trains is up for sale 12/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 15, 2012 3:31am]

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