CHRISTMAS - and toy trains - are in the air at the Charles Ro Supply Company here in this north-of-Boston community. Lionel's largest dealer has just opened a new store and the featured attraction is the overhead train layout, cleverly suspended from the ceiling on a Plexiglas roadbed. Lovable-looking locomotives, equipped with lifelike sound, pull cars 'round and 'round as customers explore the merchandise on shelves and in display cases below.
A weekday lunch hour brings in businessmen, who can't hide the gleam in their eyes, as they ogle all the stuff that Christmas morning dreams are made of for little boys, and big ones, too.
Scale-model boxcars, engines, trestles, automated crossing gates, building kits, and packages of miniature people, billboards, and other accessories fill the room. It is a commercial dreamland that calls up all sorts of warm, nostalgic images of a wondrous fantasy experience.
Many people are renewing their romance with the toy rails, either by giving their children train sets as gifts or building their own adult sets.
Steve Shoe, executive director of the 149-member Model Railroad Industry Association Inc. in Denver, says this should be the best year for model railroading since the end of World War II.
``We once thought the future of the hobby was tied to railroading,'' says Model Railroader editor Russ Larson, ``but that's not the case.''
The hobby's latest resurgence may prove that there's a sense of ingrained railroad heritage that Americans can't and don't want to ignore. ``Railroads are a part of our culture; they strike a [responsive] chord,'' says researcher Bruce Metcalf, director of the National Model Railroad Association's research library in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Toys with staying power are being valued more highly by parents, who want to get back to basics with their children. For many baby boomers who grew up in the '50s, when Lionel was the largest toy company in the world, this has meant a return to the model railroads they remember from their childhood. Fathers often view model trains as vehicles of shared experience, encouraging adults and children to play together.
Lionel Trains Inc. will not discuss sales figures, but marketing manager Mike Braga says the company has experienced three consecutive banner years, while annually producing nearly a million engines and cars at its factory in Mt. Clemens, Mich. The company probably does more than any manufacturer to perpetuate visions of toy trains circling Christmas trees, and this season introduced a North Pole Railroad, with Santa himself at the controls.
Lionel, however, has plenty of company these days, and actually may benefit from the expanded competition, since the proliferation of manufacturers has greatly expanded the available merchandise and made for a stronger, more-visible industry.
The once-seasonal business ``hasn't let up since last January,'' Mr. Shoe observes. ``Almost every manufacturer is behind in production.''
Demand has grown partly because scale-model railroading has matured as an adult hobby. A survey conducted by Model Railroader magazine shows aficionados at an all-time high, with 247,000 serious participants, an increase of 21,000 over the last five years. The average age of the hobbyists is 44, the average number of hours spent in 1988 on the pastime: 261.
Several years ago Lionel ran a successful ad campaign with the headline: ``For under $200 you can own your own railroad.'' That's still true, but people find they want more than a starter set. The average annual expenditure is $744 per person, according to Model Railroader's survey.
Nearly 70 percent of the hobby community works in ``HO'' scale trains, one of six standardized sizes that range from tiny Z scale, with suitcase-size layouts, to G, which is about 10 times as large and can be used outdoors.
HO is a medium size, 1/87th as big as full-size trains and about half that of the traditional O-scale Lionel sets. The HO model is large enough to be reasonably detailed and easy to handle, but small enough to permit construction of decent-size layouts in basements and spare rooms.
The true modeler is interested in creating an authentic look, with close attention to proper proportion and simulating real trains, called prototypes, in lifelike settings.
For most serious modelers, the toy train, the kind bought in boxed sets at Christmas, is viewed as a different breed. These trains ``take liberties,'' with oversize couplings, stamped-on detailing, and three-rail tracks that simplify electrical wiring. The distinctions between toy trains and model railroads are often blurred, however.
``To a large degree, it's a state of mind,'' says Mr. Metcalf. ``You can take a toy train and run it so fast that it comes off the track, or you can choose to operate it very realistically.''
Realism is the most common objective of hobbyists of every scale. Detail-hounds keep researcher Metcalf busy answering requests for information used in building layouts and assembling the trains. He relies on a collection of 30,000 periodicals and 20,000 photographs to provide most of the answers.
Using data sheets published over the years, he can provide everything from the distance between rungs on box-car ladders to the kinds of trees found at various altitudes.
There is an element of escapism in constructing these scenes, which Shoe believes is especially compelling during challenging economic times. ``Model railroading is historically up in recession and depression,'' he says, pointing out that hobbyists can control the world they've built, if not the one they live in. ``You act as the city council, the zoning commission, and the railroad president. You can even put a mountain wherever you want it.''
Empire building is an open-ended proposition. Model railroaders seldom finish a layout. ``It's like a city; it's never completely built,'' says Phil Walthers, president of Wm. K. Walthers Inc., a major model railroad manufacturing and mail-order business in Milwaukee. ``There's always something being torn down and rebuilt. It's a real dynamic hobby.''
It's also multifaceted. Model railroaders are fond of saying that their hobby has something fun for everyone - whether wiring and woodworking or kit-building and landscape design. With so many skills to tackle, many individuals have long tenures in the hobby - 20 years, according to the latest statistics.
Electronic advances have led to greater operational realism, allowing trains to accelerate slowly and run evenly at low speeds. Computers permit programmed activity of trains, switches, and accessories; sophisticated sound systems make convincing steam-engine noises; and a miniaturized video camera planted in specially designed locomotives gives modelers a track-side view of their layouts.
A development that has captivated novices as well as long-time enthusiasts is the use of modular layouts. These have paved the way for individual hobbyists to build small sections of track, then join them together into layouts as large as 50 by 100 feet at model railroad shows.
The sight of little trains chugging through the hills, dales, and miniature villages of these scale-model scenes is irresistible and is helping model railroading roll toward even greater popularity in the '90s.