A visit to the Long Island Doll Hospital in Southold

06/13/2016 10:47 AM |

My teddy bear, Bjorn, was in a terrible accident 20 years ago.

Bjorn had been my mother’s childhood teddy bear before she gave him to me as a gift back in the 1980s. She had let me play with him when I was younger and I cherished him.

My promise to care for Bjorn was broken when my dog, Lucy, got hold of him.

Two of the bear’s paws and part of its muzzle were chewed away to reveal his sawdust stuffing.

From then on, each time I looked at Bjorn sitting on my shelf, I got a painful reminder of my irresponsibility. I’ve never had him repaired because he’s an antique and I couldn’t find a professional to take care of his wounds — until now. 

Jan and Walter Davis inside the Long Island Doll Hospital. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Jan and Walter Davis inside the Long Island Doll Hospital. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

A robin’s egg blue house with a striped awning recently caught my eye on Main Road in Southold. A sign outside read: Long Island Doll Hospital.

I called for appointment to visit the doll repair shop, which is owned Jan and Walter Davis.

“In dog fights with toy bears, the dog wins,” Ms. Davis told me. “It’s very common because the bear has the scent of the person and they seem to attack it because of that.”

Ms. Davis gave an informative diagnosis of my teddy bear. Bjorn is not a Steiff bear, made by the famous German teddy bear maker. Based on his golden color, she determined that Bjorn is a European-made bear and believes he’s close to 100 years old.

“I can match the bear’s colors,” she said during the examination. “I would embroider the claws with black thread and make a patch for his face and re-embroider his nose.”

Ms. Davis is very meticulous in her repair work. She told me she scours thrift stores to find old fabrics and old stuffed animals that can become what she calls “skin donors.”

Jan examines at her workshop. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Jan examines Bjorn at her workshop. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

She and her husband have been repairing dolls for nearly 40 years. What began as a hobby for Ms. Davis, who collects dolls, turned into a business when she realized she could do a better job than the pros.

“There was something wrong with one of the first dolls I bought — it had a broken finger,” she recalled. “I had it repaired, but when I picked it up, she had painted it up to the elbow. I couldn’t get over that because when you over-repair things it detracts from the value of the doll.”

Built in 1856, the Long Island Doll Hospital is a former general store. It still has the original wooden floors and shelves, as well as the bins that once held produce.

Currently, nearly every square inch of the shop is chock full of dolls, stuffed animals, doll house furniture, other toys and antique dishes. But the dolls are what catch the eye when one first enters — antique dolls with creamy faces, Shirley Temple dolls from the 1930s, vintage Betty Boop dolls. Nearly every decade is represented by a doll or stuffed toy.

“Originally we started selling antiques,” Ms. Davis said. “Then we started the doll hospital and now that business has taken over.”

Dolls, parts, and supplies crowd Jan's work table. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Dolls, parts, and supplies crowd Jan’s work table. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

After taking correspondence courses, she traveled extensively in Germany for doll restoration workshops, where doll and toy repair is a common and respected profession. She also went on “doll tours” to visit doll “doctors” in at their homes.

When asked why she loves dolls and has dedicated much of her life to their well-being, Ms. Davis had a very matter-of-fact answer.

“They have a history and they belonged to someone — someone played with them,” she said. “We’re only conservators. We’re only going to take care of them for a short time and then they’ll fall into other hands, so it’s important to restore them properly.”

Walter Davis handles the mechanical side of the doll repair work, fixing the moving parts — the eyes, the joints — so they work again. His wife calls him her “surgical nurse.” He also has a deep connection to toys because his mother worked for Gund, a New York toy company that competed with Steiff.

“She was the head finisher,” he recalled. “She would make sure all the seams were straight. She would do all the work, so when they went into the showroom and the salespeople came in, they could show the Gunds.”

These days the Davises are snowbirds, living most of the year in Florida and returning to the North Fork to open their doll hospital only for the summer months.

“People bring something in that they’re sentimental about in their family,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s a piece of history, so they want to conserve it and take care of it.”

Dolls of all types line the shelves at Jan's shop. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Dolls of all types line the shelves at Jan’s shop. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Occasionally, a doll belonging to a child will find it’s way to the shop. That’s when she sometimes has to offer up a temporary replacement.

“Sometimes they don’t want to leave it here for a week or a month,” she said. “So, I give them a loaner doll and they can take care of that doll while theirs is in the hospital.”

As for Bjorn, his prognosis involves a lengthy recuperation — almost a month.

But Ms. Davis assured me everything will work out fine.

“They make a really good patient,” she said. “They don’t move or anything and they get very happy. Once they’re fixed, they smile.”

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