HobbyTown Fresno employee Chris Thompson talks about an RC car with a customer. HobbyTown Fresno has been in business since 1992. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
For salesperson and scale model builder Ernie Gee, Hobbytown USA Fresno has been a part of his life since 1992, when owners John and Kayanne Yung offered him a spot on their staff.
At 16, the new store was his first job and he still has the stub from his first paycheck. Nearly 29 years later, Gee is their longest-serving employee. And while his passion for building models has taken him around the world, Hobbytown has always been there as his second home, and fellow staff and even customers as his extended family. Now, as the store prepares to close its doors for the last time on Jan. 23, he’s been reflecting on the professional and personal impact it’s had.
“Honestly, I have no idea what I’d be doing today if this wasn’t here and I definitely wouldn’t change it one bit,” Gee said. “This place has definitely shaped not only my life, but a lot of other peoples’ lives as well.”
Hobbytown Fresno was born from a twist of fate when life dealt an unexpected blow to the Yungs. Originally an airline ticket agent and later a supervisor, John and Kayanne first got the idea to be franchisees when they saw an ad in an RC car magazine. They flew out to the headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska for an interview. Between John’s work in customer service and the clerical work that accompanied Kayanne’s occupation as a phlebotomist, they were found to be a good fit, but put the project away for a time.
Then, John came down with a viral infection that would eventually result in him becoming permanently paralyzed from the chest down. Unable to travel to San Francisco for work and needing a way to put their three children through school, the Yungs reached out to Hobbytown once more, having already qualified for an Small Business Administration loan to open an ice cream/frozen yogurt and sandwich shop.
In 1992, they opened the Fresno franchise at Bullard and Marks avenues, before later moving to a bigger location at Blackstone and Barstow in 2011. According to Kayanne, it wasn’t just a way for them to keep making a living, but it was a happy change of pace from the often “grouchy” customers they dealt with at the airport and the hospital.
“It was a totally different type of atmosphere — it was fun to talk to people about their hobby and to see there’s involvement between generations,” she said. “It’s a family-oriented thing and it’s fun.”
“We had a lot of customers in the span of 28 years,” John said. “I look at them and say, ‘oh my god, they’ve got kids.’”
Meanwhile, Hobbytown built a reputation as a store like none other in the Valley as a jack-of-all-trades hobby store, where there was something for everyone from beginners to longtime enthusiasts alike.
“Granted, there are other hobby shops in town, but they’re all focused on radio control and things like that,” Gee said. “We were different because of all the diversity of gaming, radio control stuff, models, stuff for kids — educational things.”
It also gained a reputation as a launching pad for collaborations and relationships, where hobbyists could meet and learn. Longtime patron Dennis Ugulano experienced this firsthand. Ugulano, who specializes in kits of World War I aircraft, has a collection of planes currently numbering 226 — all of which were on display at the store.
From the backroom of Hobbytown, Ugulano teaches a model-building class on Fridays. What started with him being a mentor eventually turned into him learning from the young builders he once instructed.
“I deal with modelers all over the country — actually all over the world — no one has what we have here,” Ugulano said. “A room, all day long, no charge, and absolutely fantastic backup by the owners.”
However, as the Yungs get older, both have said they’re now ready to step down. And with their five-year lease ending this month, John and Kayanne said that now was the right time to retire. The gradual shift to online retail also didn’t help.
For his part, Ugulano, Gee and others intend to keep their hobby going for the next generation, but have admitted that it will be a challenge.
“It’ll leave a void,” Ugulano said. “The camaraderie, the teaching, the banter back-and-forth, that’s all gone now. If we meet again, it’ll be in little informal groups here and there. It won’t be anything organized.”
But while they’re sad to close up, Kayanne and John say there are no regrets. What started as a way to support their family after tragedy has turned into a legacy of nearly three decades of passions found — and friendships made.
“We’ve got some grey hairs,” Kayanne said. “But all-in-all, we’ve met some fascinating people.”