Squadron, R.I.P. and Remembrances

The Squadron online hobby shop, final incarnation of the storied Squadron mail order and brick-and-mortar hobby shops, finally went out of business in the past couple of weeks. The story was reported in real time by actual customers via social media, a lucky few of whom were able to cash in on a last minute clearance sale, and more who were refunded for unfilled backorders.

At least one former employee took to Facebook video to tell his story of Squadron’s decline over the past decade or so. Other social media sources with knowledge of Squadron told similar stories: Squadron had been bought by non-hobby investors who never really adapted Squadron’s decades-old mail order hobby business to the new ways of successful e-commerce.

From the customer’s viewpoint, that failure to adapt looked like high prices and additional shipping costs that were out of sync with both competitors and online retailing at large. It also looked like items often weren’t in stock. I suspect many modelers were like me–driven to other online hobby buying opportunities by a pokey web page, numerous out of stock items, and better prices and shipping terms elsewhere.

A check of my records indicates that I never bought anything from Squadron’s online store. But Squadron had been a big part of my modeling life when its mail-order and brick-and-mortar stores were at the top of the hobby retailing game.

Squadron’s outlet in the west suburbs of Chicagoland was legendary, but out of the way from my northwestern Indiana stomping grounds. Nonetheless, I bought some of my first-ever SF3D (now Maschinenkrieger) kits at the going-out-of-business sale when that shop closed in the mid 80s.

Shortly after, in the mid- and late-80s, I really got to know Squadron Mail Order. Besides having comparatively low prices, Squadron offered generously low shipping and handling rates to US military APO and FPO addresses. As a result, I looked forward to picking up Squadron shipments of kits and supplies at my military post office box while stationed in (then) West Germany. The German towns surrounding my duty station boasted several good hobby shops, but lots of the supplies and kits I preferred—particularly paint and glue, and Japanese-manufactured kits—were hard to find, and when available, significantly more expensive. Squadron’s prices and military-friendly shipping were a welcome alternative.

Squadron’s low prices and extensive catalog actually allowed me to engage in some low-grade black marketeering and horse trading, giving me access to kits otherwise out of reach. Not long after I arrived in Germany, I found the hobby shops and modelers, and was soon meeting monthly with other modelers at a Modellbau Stammtisch (model building discussion table). I learned a lot of German language at the Stammtisch, ate schnitzel, drank many liters of Hefeweizen, and became aware of the then-budding aftermarket manufacturers of Peddinghaus and Verlinden.

The Stammtisch guys passed around the Squadron catalog, in awe of the low US dollar prices and items unobtainable in German hobby shops. I would then place a large Squadron order for the guys, which I then traded with them for exotic European hobby products, of which the most prized were exotic Verlinden kits, conversions, and dry transfer sets. US Army CID had bigger fish to fry than a maladjusted, geeky soldier who was dealing Monogram and Hasegawa kits to Germans, so my scheme never came to light or got me in trouble.

Five or six years after the Army, I found myself living in the Washington DC area. Within days of arrival, I pilgrimaged up the Beltway to the Squadron Shop in Wheaton, Maryland. I was a more or less regular customer of the Wheaton Squadron Shop until it closed. The Wheaton Squadron Shop connected me with both Washington Armor Club, with which I have been associated on and off during my time in Washington DC, and IPMS DC. WAC had a small promotional space in a Wheaton Squadron display case, and I even built a 1/35 Academy Hummer to represent modern subjects for that display. The shop closed unceremoniously in the mid/late 90s, a harbinger of many more local hobby shop closures to come in the decades since.

In a weird postscript, I now own a home a few miles away from the old Wheaton Squadron location, and I lament its absence (and comment aloud, to the eye-rolling bemusement of my wife) whenever we drive by it, which is now a cell phone or vaping store, if memory serves.

Squadron was a pioneer of the scale modeling marketplace, and played an important role in advancing the hobby not only with its shops and mail order business, but also with its inexpensive but densely illustrated and photographed reference books and a modest range of supplies, including the famous Squadron Green Putty. Ironically for Squadron, the sub-industries that it birthed out-competed Squadron in its final decade or so. Squadron’s reference books now seem slim and outdated in comparison to subsequent generations of thicker, better photographed and edited, and above all, even better researched books. Green Putty was never followed up with as successful a line of glues, paints, and other supplies, and indeed, has arguably been surpassed by a variety of superior alternative products. I haven’t owned or used Green Putty in decades.

The Internet, or more accurately, difficulty adapting to the Internet, finished off Squadron. Theoretically, Squadron should have been able to cross-walk its catalog business straight into e-commerce, but in reality, the switch from traditional retail to e-commerce is difficult for nearly any kind of business. Many of Squadron’s competitors started off with a leg up–they have never been anything other e-commerce houses, and did not have parallel brick-and-mortar or wholesale distribution organzations and cultures to re-orient to online business. The consumer public’s expectations from e-commerce, largely set by Amazon’s quick delivery and often absent shipping costs, put additional pressure on not only Squadron, but virtually any e-commerce business not partnered with Amazon. (It’s worth noting that several if Squadron’s remaining online hobby competitors partner with Amazon).

New kinds of online competition have also made Squadron’s path even more difficult–particularly the rise of online forms of informal hobby buying and selling, which in pre-internet days was confined to swap meets and vendor tables at model shows a few times per year. With the arrival of eBay and Facebook-based hobby buying and selling, even international players have the opportunity to sell directly to modelers with little regard for borders or country-specific distribution policies. The value formerly added by Squadron and other distributors, importers, and resellers of model kits has been wiped away by quick, safe online transactions and more-or-less reliable international shipping.

I will miss Squadron, particularly for the formative role it played in my scale modeling and in connecting me, by hook or crook, with other modelers. Sadly, Squadron had not been a regular part of my scale modeling life for decades. Our current golden age of scale modeling will carry on without Squadron, but let us not forget that it helped get us here.

14 comments

  1. The Squadron Shop was actually in Elmhurst in a strip mall near the corner of Route 83 and North Ave (Route 64). One of my favorite places to visit when I lived in Geneva.

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  2. I echo your thoughts on Squadron and its success and eventual demise. I grew up in Alaska where there were two hobby shops, both hours away from my home. Squadron was a lifeline to the outside world back in the ’80s and ’90s. Good sales and selection with cheap shipping (gotta remember, AK and HI always get pooched on shipping costs). It’s sad to see them go but they didn’t change fast enough with the times and the last 10 years or so it was lackluster service (sometimes) and lots of backorders. I only hit them up for deep discount sales on Vallejo paints and a few oddball kits a good prices. I’ll still wear my Squadron cap with pride though as the products they offered made my young adulthood both fun and exciting.

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  3. Great story. I’ve used a lot of Squadron putty over the years but didn’t know anything about its origins.

    Also: This seems like another one of those “hobby industry news” stories that certain magazines should be covering…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Chicago Squadron shop was an amazing thing when it opened. I was in high school and I used to ride my bike there. Great source for miniature figures. In fact I just painted a General Grant, the person not the tank, that I bought there in 1984 before driving to California. It took me 39 years but I finally got around to painting it.

    I also got great wooden bases for my miniature figures there. I just ran out of the ones I bought back then this year.

    I still remember coming back to Chicago one Christmas and going with a friend to make a Squadron run and discovering the store had been closed.

    Very sad day.

    One complaint though they shouldn’t say that the website is down for maintenance since folks will keep checking back assuming that it’s going to reopen.

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  5. Squadron was a great pacesetter in mail order of scale modeling products, but–like Sears in general retailing–it got left behind as technology, ownership, and the marketplace changed. (Full disclosure: I was an editor for Squadron/Signal Publications from early 1999 until early 2005.) I did order from Squadron occasionally in recent years, more out of loyalty to my former employer, and had placed one in December, which was fulfilled to my complete satisfaction. Sad to see it go, but not being able to run a shop by modelers for modelers and not adjusting to the Internet marketplace made its demise inevitable. RIP, Squadron.

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  6. Too bad! I used to go their brick and mortar store outside of Chicago back in 1977 when I was stationed at Great Lakes. I still have their ‘old’ catalogs somewhere…They will be missed!

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  7. Visited the store in Detroit back in 1982, while I was there for a wedding from California, just wished I had more room in my suitcase. I learned about Squadron years earlier at a hobby display at the local mall and had just gotten back into modeling. Was a customer then and now, sorry to see them go. Don C.

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  8. I discovered Squadron Shop back in the 70s & bought some cool stuff from them. Later had the opportunity to shop at their Wheaton store, which was the best in the DC area. Then one day I drove up to get some paint and it was gone. I used the website a few times until it, too, disappeared. As of 5/10/2021, it’s still “down for renovation, new management is in place, we will be relaunching soon.”

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