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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Model Business Plan

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The sign in front of Chuck Kimmeth's Corvette toy business in Erie, Pa. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

ERIE, Pa.--The hand-painted sign outside Chuck Kimmeth’s store said it all: "Dream of owning a corvette? Everyone can afford one here!!"

Without saying it, the sign acknowledged that there are those who are not going to get their dream car this year, who will have to push aside that fantasy, along with other goals and hopes at a time when necessities alone have strained budgets.

But the sign also offered a solution: Model-sized Corvettes. Small ones. Large ones. Corvettes made of plastic and Corvettes made of metal. Corvettes honoring Hollywood icons and Corvettes decorated with Disney characters.

Inside Cj’s Corvettes, tens of thousands of models hang from racks, line the shelves and fill the basement. They are the culmination of a collection that began as Chuck Kimmeth's personal hobby -- he’d buy one or two, here and there -- and eventually grew into what he describes as “the only Corvette toy store in the world.”

“If you’re going to find it, I got it,” Kimmeth told Michael and me when we walked in.

He showed us an Elvis-themed Corvette and a Donald Duck one. There were Corvettes emblazoned with the names of wrestling, baseball and football stars. (I zeroed in on a Dallas Cowboys one for my dad; Michael eyed a Kodak-themed car). There was an Animal House Corvette driven by a miniature John Belushi and a "Welcome Back, Kotter" Corvette with a tiny John Travolta.

Drive into most towns and it’s easy to see the toll the recession has taken on businesses -- shuttered windows and “For Sale” signs were visible all around Erie -- but Kimmeth’s shop has not suffered. It has thrived at a time when little else has, revealing in its success a recession-proof truth: Men will always love their toys, life-sized or not.

Besides walk-ins, Kimmeth estimates he gets between 200 and 300 emails a day from interested buyers. Even at the height of the uncertainty created by the recession, about six months ago, the number of emails drooped to maybe 50 a day but quickly rebounded. In fact, business is so good, that Kimmeth plans to open two more stores -- one in Orlando and one in Des Moines -- before the holidays.

“I’ve sold to countries I’ve never even heard of before,” Kimmeth said.

The orders keep coming as well for the custom-themed Corvettes Kimmeth makes. For a 16-year-old who just shot his first buck, he created a Corvette with a deer strapped to the hood. And for a couple who were getting married, he attached a string of tiny cans to the bumper of a Corvette.

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Chuck Kimmeth customizes Corvettes for customers; in this case, he detailed a car for a man to give to his girlfriend. She runs a pet grooming business. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Kimmeth, a full-time nurse who works for a Baltimore-based company, said he opened the store four years ago, naming it after the son who encouraged him to turn his collection into profits. He said he didn’t know the market value of many of the items and initially priced them based on what they were worth to him.

Even now, he adjusts prices on the spot, seeming genuinely interested in making certain that everyone who walks into the store leaves with a car.

On the day we were there, Dominic Stumpo, who is 4, dragged his grandfather and 12-year-old aunt into the store. Dominic had come the day before with his grandmother, and because she didn’t have any money on her, Kimmeth let the boy pick a car from a box he keeps under the counter. It’s labeled: Collector cars…Free.

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For those children whose parents can't afford to buy them a Corvette toy, Chuck Kimmeth keeps a box of free cars. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Dominic was hooked.

“Let’s go, let’s go. We go down and get cars,” he had told his grandfather, Tom Yeaman, all morning.

Yeaman, who works for a company that makes high pressure valves, said he has seen employment drop in the area. At his company, 25 people have been laid off, about half of the workforce. He also used to work at GE, where, he said, there were 15,000 employees 25 years ago and now only about 4,000.

“I think a lot of people think it’s going to come back,” Kimmeth said of the economy.

“But it’s not going to come back the way it used to be,” Yeaman replied. “I know I cut back on things I used to buy.”

He doesn’t play fantasy baseball for money anymore and he no longer fishes year round because the licenses cost money. But everyone chooses their priorities: He made sure to get a license for trout season.

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Dominic Stumpo, 4, eyes a couple of green Corvettes. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Trying to decide which car to buy, Dominic ran wide-eyed through the store, climbing behind the counter and pushing cars across the floor.

Kimmeth didn’t seem to mind.

“When I designed this store, I did it like I was a kid,” he said, adding that he doesn’t understand why parents tell their children not to touch anything. “This is a toy store, man. You have to touch them. They’re toys.”

Many of his customers own Corvettes and are looking for miniature versions of their own. But then there’s the other side to his business -- people who want to own a Corvette but can’t afford it -- so they get the closest thing they can, a toy version of their dream.

It’s why he put the sign up two months ago.

Kimmeth noticed more people coming into the store to sell model cars for quick cash and he knows at least one man who sold his real Corvette for far less than it was worth because he needed the money.

“He had a ‘68 Corvette, all original,” Kimmeth said. “I said, ‘You sold it! How much did you sell it for because I would have bought it?’”

“Five thousand dollars!” he said looking at Michael and me with an exasperated expression. He added that the '68 was worth $50,000, if not more.

Kimmeth feels almost obliged to buy cars from those in need, even if he often ends up buying models he doesn’t want. “I’ve seen guys that really need the money,” he said. “It might be a $5 car, but he wants $10 to buy some gas, so I give him $10.”

Dominic spent more than half an hour debating which car to buy -- a red one or blue one -- and finally settled on both. He held up $2 to Kimmeth.

It was much less than the $12 Kimmeth had sold the same models for online, but he didn’t say anything. He smiled as if he had sold a real Corvette and took the two bills from his newest customer.

True to the sign, everyone can afford a car here -- maybe even two.

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Chuck Kimmeth holds a photo of his first Corvette, a 1969 Stingray, in the basement of his shop where he stores thousand of Corvette models. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 15, 2009; 1:13 PM ET
 
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Comments

What a charming, interesting, fantastic little story. A lot of people talk in abstract terms about the better parts of America's character, but this is a perfect example of it.

Posted by: mindkiller1 | September 15, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

I just wanted to say this was an absolutely amazing blog to read! I just came across it while surfing the web, and I was completely captivated by the descriptions from what you guys have witnessed on your road trip on what is going on in America, along with the fabulous pictures that say a 1000 words. Thank you very much for what has to be one of the best/interesting things I have read lately. This would make a really great book!

Posted by: theresafortune | September 15, 2009 7:48 PM | Report abuse

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