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Doll Parts

March 12, 2009

The Dolls’ Hospital at the Dublin Doll Store The Doll Hospital is what you think it is, but then again, it’s not. Owner Melissa trained as a dollmaker, and now most of her time is spent fixing dolls and stuffed toys, and dealing in dollhouses and miniatures. The first Dublin doll hospital was opened by Jewish immigrants in the 1940s, and operated until the 1970s. It was elsewhere in the city, but the atmosphere here is evocative enough to convince people otherwise. “People come in and say ‘I was in here as a child.’” She points to glass-fronted cabinets along the walls. “I don’t remember going into the old dolls’ hospital, but apparently it had brown cabinets, and they’re convinced it was here. So we don’t bother saying any more that it wasn’t.”

The original Doll Hospital had legs, heads and arms hanging from the walls and ceiling, but Melissa’s stock of disembodied doll parts is placed wisely out of view, as are the dolls they buy from charity shops, which they…well, which they harvest. It sounds a little macabre, but it isn’t. Okay, there was that person who wanted Granddad’s ashes put into a teddy bear. And sometimes particularly bad cases spend a few days in the freezer, to kill any flora and fauna. People don’t come just to buy. Sometimes they sit down, bring cakes. “It’s not your ordinary kind of shop.” Melissa hands a key to the display cabinets to Thomas, a dollhouse enthusiast and shop regular. We live in a culture where everything seems disposable, so it’s nice that this shop survives. No matter how many people like to throw away money, the value of teddy bears and dolls is neither quantifiable nor material.

Sometimes repairs mean replacing almost the entire toy, but it’s not the authenticity of the doll, it’s the sincerity of the attachment to it that matters. Toys are not just childish frivolities, they are monuments to childhood, beneficent guardians of memory, escapes into innocence. A doll once came in covered with ink spots. “The girl had been a twin, and the other twin had died from the measles.” Melissa says. “When the twin was sick, the girl who was okay put spots all over this doll, and when she died, this became her sister.” The girl later decided she wanted the spots removed, but the best Melissa could do was get a similar face. There is the biker couple who have their bears cleaned and re-stuffed (and, Melissa thinks, maybe babysat) every year when they go away. Sometimes they kiss their bears goodbye. 

There was the woman in Liverpool whose boyfriend cut the hands and feet off her teddy bear in a psychotic rage. Melissa fixed it and received a thank-you note reporting the bear’s safe return and a good riddance to the boyfriend. There are no toy stories not replete with emotion because there are no well-loved toys devoid of it.

An elderly woman once brought a doll into the shop. “She was in the Jewish nursing home. She said, ‘I know what happens when you die up there: everything is thrown out and the room is cleaned. I have no one to leave it to, so I want to sell now.’” Melissa wouldn’t usually buy something like this, but she did, and assured her it wouldn’t be thrown out. “The eyes were wild, it’s as if it was shocked. I think at the time I gave her something like fifty pounds for it. I knew that it was a comfort to her even though I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.” The woman had been in Auschwitz as a child, and when she eventually arrived in London, she’d been given a doll. “She said that when she got it, she dropped it because she thought it was a dead baby. After that, she loved it.”

Thinking about a childhood where toys are outside one’s frame of reference, where a doll is alien, more likely to be a dead infant, puts things in perspective. She eventually found a home for it when a man from the RTE orchestra came in to buy musical instrument miniatures.”I was chatting to him — how it came up, I don’t know, but his wife had been in a concentration camp. So I gave it to him because my heart said to me that this is where it should go. It’s not the sort of doll you ever could have sold.” The Doll Hospital, it’s just what you think it is, and sure, they fix stuff, but when you think about what they really repair, it also might be the only hospital in town that manages to care for people. Eat that, Mary Harney.

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