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TRENDSPOTTING

The hobbyists who love travel, even when they can’t actually do it

“I like being artistic with these," plane-spotter Sam DeBartolo says of his photos.
“I like being artistic with these," plane-spotter Sam DeBartolo says of his photos.Sam DeBartolo

MIAMI — There are model kits for practically every type of aircraft, in every possible livery, and shelves of bag tags, travel posters, apparel, collectibles, and toys with the logos of airlines from all over the world, including many that no longer exist.

It can be hard to find the Airplane Shop, hidden as it is on a dusty industrial street beside the Miami International Airport runway. But two things draw a steady stream of customers to this unique place: It enjoys the reflected glow of the most famous airline that ever flew; and there’s a huge if hidden subculture of people who love this stuff.

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Upstairs in a cavernous building whose principal tenant is a flight school that has licensed the familiar blue globe logo of Pan Am, the store serves a world of travel-o-philes — enthusiasts of travel, but not necessarily in the sense of actually doing it.

These are hobbyists who build airplane models (including together, on YouTube), go train- and plane-spotting, produce videos about the histories of theme parks and theme park rides, and collect vintage travel-related merchandise, travel guides, maps, and art. Many of these avocations have been passed along from parents to children and are shared in Meetups, Facebook groups, and fast-expanding virtual communities.

Even in the best of circumstances, after all, most people can’t travel all the time. And some choose to live vicariously through these kinds of substitutes for it.

Reading about travel, for example, dates from a time when “it was a hard thing to do. So a lot of people said, ‘Oh no, I’m not really traveling but I will travel in the sense of reading that book,’ ” said Stefan Baer, owner of Connecticut-based Complete Traveler Antiquarian Bookstore, which sells only travel books and guides, online.

“It’s the same way that people nowadays are going to Google Earth and traveling around that way, because they can physically not travel at the moment,” Baer said.

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Reading vintage Baedeker’s and WPA guides from the 19th and 20th centuries not only transports readers to exotic destinations, he said; it can take them back in time. Among his customers are city planners, authors writing historical fiction, architects restoring landmark buildings, and purists who just want to know what Vienna looked like before Starbucks got there. “Like science fiction, it’s a good way to time travel.”

So are documentary series such as “Defunctland,” about the histories of theme parks and amusement parks, which has 670,000 subscribers on YouTube.


“These places were built for escapism,” said Kevin Perjurer, the filmmaker who created and produces the series. “And there’s escapism to be had in hearing about them.”

Travel is different from most other industries, Perjurer pointed out; it evokes nostalgia and emotion. Theme parks in particular “are designed to produce an emotional payoff. Everyone’s childhood congregated around these places. That’s why learning about their histories has such a big appeal. It’s fascinating. And it takes you back.”

Among the most visible travel hobbyists are plane-spotters — people who hang out at or near airports and watch planes take off and land, recording their movements and photographing them. The central parking garage at Logan International Airport is a favorite local spot for this (although a permit is required to photograph from there). So is Castle Island, which is directly under one of the city’s busiest flight paths.

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It’s a longstanding activity, but one whose popularity has heightened with the advent of social media, where many plane-spotters show off their best shots. It’s also seeing a surge of activity as airlines’ plans to phase out their 747s and A380s have been accelerated by the coronavirus crisis, and plane-spotters scramble to photograph them.

When he took his first flight as a toddler while growing up in Auburn — from Boston to Detroit, on Northwest Orient — Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren “hated every minute of it. I screamed and cried so much that they cleared out the whole section of the plane.” But then he started plane-spotting at the airport in Worcester. “I loved that,” Dwyer-Lindgren said. It turned him into what he and fellow plane-spotters call an “av-geek.”

His hobby “is something you either get or you don’t get, in the sense that I can look at some sports and wonder what on earth is the appeal of that. It’s kind of similar.”

Sam DeBartolo sees it as a form of expression. “I like being artistic with these photos — the wing sweep, nose-on, or you look at an A380 coming down extremely slowly. There’s a beauty to it,” said DeBartolo, of Swampscott, one of the administrators of the nearly 800-member New England Aviation and Spotting group. “And with the landscape of Boston and Winthrop and East Boston in the background, it’s sheer art.”

Many plane-spotters are drawn to the technology of aviation, said Thomas Okaty, a power plant engineer for jet engines and one of what he describes as “just a bunch of nerds” who run a guide for plane-spotters all over the world called Spotterguide.

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“You can see cars anywhere. You can touch them, you can see them at auto shows. But with planes, unless you’re a pilot or you work at an airport, you get to the fence and that’s the closest you can get. There’s always a natural distance.”

A photo by Sam DeBartolo, an administrator of the nearly 800-member New England Aviation and Spotting group.
A photo by Sam DeBartolo, an administrator of the nearly 800-member New England Aviation and Spotting group. Sam DeBartolo

A modern airplane, Okaty added reverently, “is a machine that you can see. You can watch it perform. What’s really exciting is when you get a really nice banking shot of an aircraft — when you see it flying a nice curve. This is living grace.”

That’s not the only attraction for plane-spotters, however. Okaty grew up near an airport in a family that didn’t take many vacations, he said. “So there was also this thing that you knew that plane was going far. And in your mind, you’re going there as well.”

Dwyer-Lindgren thinks the same thing. The planes he photographs from airport parking garages and boundary fences “are going to these places that seem so awesome and far away — Tokyo, Singapore. That’s always had a really big appeal to me. Not just that something so heavy can fly, but that it can take you to all these cool places.”

"With the landscape of Boston and Winthrop and East Boston in the background, it’s sheer art," plane-spotter Sam DeBartolo says of his photographs.
"With the landscape of Boston and Winthrop and East Boston in the background, it’s sheer art," plane-spotter Sam DeBartolo says of his photographs.Sam DeBartolo

It’s a fascination that also has inspired him — like many other travel hobbyists — to collect relics related to travel. Dwyer-Lindgren has about 5,000 vintage items, from airline-branded travel bags to those seat-back safety cards that show you where the exits are, which turn out to be hot collectibles (though only after they’re updated and replaced).

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Steve Silberberg, who lives in Hull, has an even more unusual collection: more than 3,000 air-sickness bags, which he’s been amassing since the 1980s.

“I’d like to say I’m sating some deep travel need, but it’s not that. It’s about nuances and design,” said Silberberg, who maintains a virtual museum of his collection. (“A lot of people come to it as a curiosity factor — as in, ‘I didn’t know this existed.’ ”)

Another kind of travel collectible enjoying surprising popularity: folding road maps, tourism guides and pamphlets people used to stuff into their glove compartments before the age of GPS — especially road maps produced between 1920 and 1960.

This kind of hobby can be pricey. An original Disneyland PeopleMover vehicle sold in December for $121,000. Reproduction Pan Am drink carts cost $1,300. One airline executive has built a replica of a 1970s Pan Am 747 first-class cabin in his garage.

Sam DeBartolo

But it’s likely to persist. Plane-spotting parents indoctrinate their children. “People sit under the runways with their kids and watch the planes,” Dwyer-Lindgren said. Okaty takes his son along, and just bought him a camera for his 16th birthday. DeBartolo’s father took him to Logan to look at the planes, starting when he was 9.

At the Airplane Shop, too, the customers skew young. They post YouTube videos about building airplane models, racking up hundreds of thousands of views.

It’s not just because people can’t always travel, said Perjurer, of “Defunctland.”

“People are looking for alternative forms of entertainment,” he said. “And one thing that’s changed is that it’s cool these days to be interested in something weird.”

Sam DeBartolo
Sam DeBartolo
Sam DeBartolo
Sam DeBartolo
Sam DeBartolo
Sam DeBartolo

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.