Toy Story

Carl Hilpert. Since 1872.

In these dark and unsettling times, a return of the far-right Freedom Party to government, my status as a pointy-headed Europhile in the EU unclear, and rumours of another invite to my neighbour’s homemade Punsch stand, I like nothing better than going down into my cellar to fiddle with a model. On second thoughts, this is Austria, I should re-phrase that. I like nothing more than going down into my cellar to fiddle with a “scale” model.

For the uninitiated a scale model is an “injection moulded” plastic kit which has to be assembled with glue and then painted. Building such kits (only ever aircraft) was a significant part of my childhood from primary through to the first years of secondary school. It was a boyhood passion which only began to wane as I discovered more earthly pursuits in my teens. The ones usually indentified by the priests at my local Catholic church as sinful, likely to cause blindness and a one-way ticket to hell.

The only brand for the discerning modeller in the UK at this time (and perhaps even to this day) was the eponymous Airfix, a name tattooed on to the imagination of many generations of children from the 1950s until the assembling of plastic kits fell out of fashion in the 1980s as Margaret Thatcher decided to ban play (it might also have had something to do with the emergent popularity of computer games).

Fortunately, in the town where I grew up, there was a fantastic toyshop (probably now a smoothie bar or craft-ale micro pub) which stocked every toy any child could ever wish for. At the back were shelves of Airfix products, stacked as high as my little arms could stretch, ready for my expert examination and, when the shopkeeper wasn’t looking, some deft swapping of the price stickers to stretch my pocket money to get a bigger and better model.

And that’s how it was for several years, birthdays and Christmases. I bought, I glued, I assembled, I painted, I applied decals and then I hung my creations from my bedroom ceiling. And then, just like that, it stopped. And in the intervening thirty years, I finished school, went to university, studied a little bit, studied a bit harder, graduated, started working, moved back to London, moved to Vienna, became a teacher (of sorts), got married, finally bought a flat and then right on schedule, became a Papa.

One thing about having children is that long-lost or forgotten activities from your own childhood are slowly resurrected. Games, puzzles, card and board games, slot-car racing, Lego, toys of old, decades old television shows that you are convinced your children will value as much as you did, available on DVD or, more recently, YouTube. As a parent you have to make the choice about how much you get involved in this stuff. To be honest, when my kids were really small, I found much of the “play” soul-sapping and monotonous. But as they got older and developed the ability to sit still, concentrate and think for themselves, I found myself more and more immersed (it simply became more interesting again) and thus childhood fun was reignited.

In my case, as we moved house some five years or so ago gaining a cellar in the process, we suddenly had a lot more space and crucially a dedicated corner I envisioned could be requisitioned as the “modelling table”. More importantly, it would be the perfect opportunity to introduce modelling to my kids because, as I have now realised, it is the ideal pastime when the sun ain’t shining. Especially in a world obsessed by the pursuit of dopamine induced jolts (I do not include manually defying the Catholic brotherhood in this)  from the electronic dervish in your pocket, urging you to waste your life on Instagram or the asinine omnipresence of Facebook. The reasons are manifold:

  1. Anyone can do modelling and the buy in is relatively cheap.
  2. It requires strategy (guided by the detailed instructions, you have to plan how, when and the best order to build and paint).
  3. It teaches patience and tenacity (waiting for paint to dry and pieces to adhere together firmly).
  4. It requires hand-eye coordination (although don’t try it after a bender otherwise you hands will shake).
  5. It teaches failure, adaptability and acceptance of imperfection. Even now I make mistakes requiring an inventive solution or a work around that might not fit with the original plan or colour scheme.
  6. It teaches the simple notion that the creation of something, anything, by your own hand, is deeply rewarding. Having a plastic model kit may be inherently useless, yet so is stamp collecting or colouring books. But the process towards the creation of something is the benefit.
  7. And it requires focus and concentration. It is a form of the meditation. You are in the moment. You are in the “flow”. You are sitting on your arse in a dimly lit cellar.

So three decades after last setting down my scalpel, it was time to reinvestigate the world of enamel paints and highly flammable brush cleaner. But first I had to explain to zee Kinder of its merits. This was made possible by some clever psychology and a few nudges inspired by behavioural economics (i.e. I would have to pay for everything). Secondly, we needed a kit. But not just any old kit. If we were going to whack out the white spirit, it could only be Airfix.

One option was to go straight to the source and the Airfix website. It’s all there, although the range seems less comprehensive than I remember. However, they charge a hefty delivery fee for the pleasure which reeks of Deppensteuer (our friend “idiot tax”). Alternatively, you could buy from the retail behemoth, Amazon. But you don’t because you believe in proper wages and conditions for employees above your own solipsistic personal convenience. And if anyone mentions Toys ’R’ Us, I can only assume you have been on the Punsch with a schnapps chaser. In any case, if I want something the same day, I only have to hop on the bus and underground and head in to the city and have a rummage. Yes, that’s right, go shopping.

Before I get letters, let me just say that I am no advocate of shopping for shopping sake and if I find myself in a retail park or shopping centre, then I believe I am failing in life. But if you have to shop or feed your hobby or interest, then descending into the world of specialist retail is deeply satisfying (although I exercise caution anywhere near over-priced craft beer shops or “gourmet” burgers). Fortunately, there is one such place in the number one city I know about which still sells a limited range of Airfix aircraft kits. All the others, the toy chain Heinz, the multi-purpose retail chain Müller, electronic and hobby outlet Conrad or even the excellent toyshop of Bannert (also in the first district) stock almost exclusively the rival Revell or Italieri brands (whisper it, but I quite like these guys).

There used to be Kober, of course, one of the elder statesman of toy emporiums in Vienna (founded in 1886) with its famous bear and iconic shop of inter-connecting rooms, narrow passages and tiny lift. But it was booted out from its spiritual home on the Graben in 2013, probably to make way for some Airbnb dipshit (I hope their boiler breaks down on the 24th December). And although it reopened with a flourish on the Wollzeile shortly afterwards, it sadly closed in the summer of 2016 due to lack of footfall and an unconscionable rent (reportedly 17 thousand Euro per month).

The backdoor to the now closed toyshop legend Kober.

Which brings us to a modest sized shop on the Schulerstraße tucked away behind Stephansdom. Carl Hilpert is an institution (you’d have to be crazy not to visit). Founded in 1872 and still going strong, it is a reminder that the Internet is not the answer. Everything it represents is the antithesis to the miserable and soulless march of online shopping and the domination of a few players and their billionaire owners.

The ground floor is dedicated to the more traditional. But upstairs is where the wonder begins for the modeller or collector. Here you will find several rooms dedicated to trains, die-cast metal cars, slot-racing sets (the main brand here is Carrera), remote controlled vehicles and of course scale model building and all its trimmings. If you have ever seen the film Ratatouille, there is a moment when the notorious food critic Anton Ego takes his first bite of – yes – ratatouille cooked, by Remy, the rat chef. The composition of exquisite ingredients and execution of taste instantaneously transports Ego back to his childhood, stunned momentarily as he is but the joy of what he is eating.

Stepping upstairs at Hilpert as I explore its many treasures is an sensorial flashback to those many times I would spend in the toyshop back home immersed in a world of kits and checking if the shop assistant could see me in the mirror committing fraud. I can browse, pick up and carefully examine their range of goodies, taking my time as I move amongst the many shelves on the creaking floorboards knowing that in contrast to my diminutive self, I can buy anything I want (for the kids, of course). It is a deeply profound sensation and I doubt I know a happier place in the whole of Vienna (there is a barstool which might come close).

Writing this in the last week before the end-of-year gift fest, might be a bit late for reconnecting with a golden age and finding a present that didn’t come with a man who rings your doorbell at six o’clock in the morning as your face has all the vigour and vibrancy of the Green Party’s post election bash in October of this year. But this could be our oppurtunity to pause and reflect. Because toyshops do a substantial part of their trade in the last few months of the year and rely on it for survival.

After Christmas they will struggle, so before you reach for the tablet or smartphone to buy something in the New Year, just stop and ask yourself: will it make you happier? Instead, get down to your local shop. Yes the prices are always competitive and yes you have time (I am with the TED lady on this in that “busy” is a choice) and reconnect with people, products and some deep seated passion. Not the passion that  is tossed about everywhere these days as in: “I am a passionate language trainer” (no, I am not) or “I am a passionate web developer” (no, you are not) or “I am a passionate human resources professional” (fake news). No, I am talking about a kind of passion that is ignited by sensations: smell, sight, taste or touch. Sensations that might remind you of a more innocent time but, most importantly, allow you to reconnect with the now.

Which is where we are. Vienna. December. 2017. And with that, a Merry Christmas to you all. I shall return with the 2017 Vienna Barratt Awards … if I am feeling festive.

© 2017 RJ Barratt

Postscript: After trading for 147 years, Carl Hilpert will close in June 2019 citing high costs and competition (by competition I can only infer the nefarious behemoth that is Amazon). I am very saddened by this. Hilpert was special and a piece of social history. Of course things change otherwise there would still be some bloke outside Stephansdom selling dung or lucky charms to fend off the devil (now they flog crap Mozart concerts). However, it is still a great shame and a great loss to the number one city.

RJ Barratt April, 2019.