Gerry Fingler walked around his hobby shop Friday morning, its shelves looking emptier than ever before, wondering as he had for the last several months where all the time had gone.
For nearly 50 years, 49 to be exact, Cellar Dweller was the place people went to find what they were looking for: every shade of model paint, all shapes of balsa wood, missing pieces for tiny cars and planes built in basements, garages and workshops.
Most of all, they came to the Main Street shop for the knowledge: that of Fingler, of 35-year employee Jim Holland, who started as a regular before becoming a fixture, and of Fingler’s son, Kerry.
"It’s a little hard to believe," said Fingler, 82, the day before the shop flipped its open sign for the last time.
The first time happened in 1972, at 1472 Main St. Naturally, the business started as a hobby: Fingler was working in the computer systems field when he noticed a growing interest in an area that had fascinated him for much of his life among the general public. The shop was open two nights per week, plus Saturdays.
He fell in love with flight and engineering when he was 10, watching airplanes loop in the air over the Stevenson Field, coming home and building stick-and-tissue models of the machines he saw dancing in the sky. Girls came along, and he put his supplies to the side as a teenager. But when he and his wife Anita got married, settled down and had kids of their own, Gerry Fingler hauled out his old tools and started building again during his free time.
The shop was a risk, with Anita’s job keeping it going at first, but Fingler was right: model building and radio control boomed, and by 1974, the hobby became a career, with hundreds of children, teenagers, adults and elderly folks ambling through the door to find their missing pieces.
One of those people was a 10-year-old boy from St. James named Brian. In 1976, Brian crashed his line-control aircraft; he needed a new landing gear and engine firewall. He reached for his phone book, flipping through its yellow pages, searching for answers. He dialed seven digits, and the quiet voice of Gerry Fingler picked up. "Yes, we have that."
Brian gathered his change and asked his parents for a ride. They told him to take the bus. Determined, he took three buses from one end of the city to another, arriving at the Cellar Dweller more than two hours later.
The fact that this 10-year-old boy rode the bus to get to his shop, Gerry Fingler could not believe; Brian couldn’t believe he made it the whole way either.
"He lets me in, sells me the part, makes sure I’m all right and tells me to stick around until my bus arrives," says Brian Sinkarsin, 45 years and a hundred purchases from the Cellar Dweller later. "He treated me with the same respect he would an adult. I never forgot that."
Even though the business has been around for so long, the last flip of the open sign wasn’t meant to happen this early.
Several years ago, Fingler stepped aside from the business, coming in a few times a week to do the books and check in, while Holland meted out advice and Kerry took over the store his dad opened the year he turned 10.
Kerry took to the hobby business naturally: he was a dedicated craftsman in his own right, and after graduating from Red River College with an education in business administration, he combined both realms of his knowledge and took on a bigger role at the shop. He embodied the shop’s principle that if you don’t treat customers with respect, you can’t expect them to come back.
He kept the business up with the times, which were no longer booming, finding new customers while reaching out to ones who’d been away too long.
"Kerry messaged me on social media and said, ‘Are you the Bayne Robertson who used to come in all the time?’" says Bayne Robertson, who used to come in all the time in the 1980s.
Even throughout the coronavirus pandemic, as business shifted and pressure mounted, Kerry continued, with Holland, to keep the Cellar Dweller afloat. Customers retreated to their worktables, but even if they couldn’t come into the shop, they still had questions. The younger Fingler, who was by then a doting father and grandfather, made sure they still got answered with respect.
Kerry started complaining of not feeling well in November; by early December he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. "He went into the hospital December 10, and he died four weeks later to the day," Gerry says.
After such a monumental loss, Gerry knew he had to close. "I hate to see it closing, because I know Kerry would have carried it on until he was ready to retire," Gerry says. "But it wasn’t to be so."
After the decision was made, word spread through the tight-knit hobby community, which was shaken by the untimely loss of one institution, Kerry Fingler, followed by the loss of another in the store itself.
"It’s a great loss for not only our flying club, but to everybody else," says Brian Hoel, a longtime customer and a member of the Saints RC Flying Club. "They became more like friends than business acquaintances. We called each other by our first names."
Signs went up in the windows at 1819 Main St., the third and final location of Cellar Dweller, advertising the shop’s biggest sale ever, which would end on the last Saturday in May.
There wasn’t much left Friday. A few racks of Tamiya paints, some odds and ends. The majority of the airplanes that hung from the ceiling and inspired customers big and small had been sold. A young woman walked in, asking about a slot-car piece. Jim Holland told her, sorry, we’ve sold out, peering over his mask to meet her eye to eye.
In recent weeks, customers flocked to the store for a final pilgrimage, not necessarily looking to buy but looking instead to offer their thanks. Brian Sinkarsin did that. Many visitors told Gerry Fingler how much they’ll miss the place, how much they’ve missed his son, and how hard it is to believe.
Fingler will also miss the place and the camaraderie. He’s taken home mementoes — some planes, some photographs — to keep it near.
All these years later, asked what kept him engaged in his hobby, Fingler says, "For me, it’s always the challenge of building. There’s always something to learn.
"And when you get kids, whether a girl or a boy, or anyone, fascinated by what they see, whether a plastic model of a car, an aircraft or a boat, their eyes are wide open. They say, ‘Wow. Look at that.’"
Another thing he’s loved? "The satisfaction of completing a project and admiring what you accomplished in building it, and then going on to the next one."
"I still have airplanes I would like to build," he says, the day before the shop’s door closes for good.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.