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For Niche Businesses, a Shift Online Threatens What Makes Them Unique

Trying to sell 20,000 miniature cars is easier—and more fun—when you can schmooze in person.

Bill Johnson in his warehouse in St. Augustine, Fla.

Bill Johnson in his warehouse in St. Augustine, Fla.

Photographer: Malc Jax for Bloomberg Businessweek

For more than a decade, drivers heading north from the brick-lined streets of St. Augustine, Fla., would pass a boxy storefront lacking the colonial charm of downtown, but chock full of another kind of history: shelves crammed with scale-model Corgi, Hobby Master, Hot Wheels, and Matchbox cars in a riot of colors, dating back to the 1930s. In February, though, Big Bill’s Die Cast went dark. At 84, “I’m not going to be on this Earth a lot longer,” says owner Bill Johnson. “I was doing it as a fun thing, and it just got out of hand.”

But he’s finding that going out of business is also a lot of work. While Johnson no longer goes to the shop, he drives to a pair of storage units on the city’s outskirts nearly every morning before the heat and humidity set in. There he spends hours photographing the 20,000-plus toys in his collection to sell them online.