PONTIAC, Ill. — When Mary Gates and Betty Curl started patching up broken dolls in the back room at the Nook and Cranny in downtown Pontiac, they had no idea they would draw worldwide attention.
But within three years, their business had captured a spot on television's PM Magazine show. And it hit a soft spot in the hearts of women all over who began searching through attics for old dolls in need of repair.
"The TV coverage definitely gave us a boost," said Gates. Until then, the doll fixing business was geared only to local customers.
Gates, of Pontiac, opened Nook and Cranny, a gift shop, six years ago, and after a few months Curl, who lives in Fairbury, joined her in the enterprise.
Part of their merchandise included a selection of old and new dolls. When there was time, they found pleasure in mending the broken dolls brought in by customers and considered it a challenging hobby.
It wasn't long before they noticed that most of their business centered on the dolls--old and new. So they decided to specialize in that area and began running national ads that have brought in hundreds of customers from all over the country.
Today, they run one of the country's few doll hospitals and are known for fixing broken limbs, stitching worn and torn bodies and making the faces of old baby dolls bright again.
Perhaps their most unusual feature is the emergency room that is typically used by local children.
"A child's doll always takes priority," Gates said. Their dolls come in with limbs broken or pulled from sockets, poked-out eyes, or hair that's been loved off. "They just think those babies can breathe," she said.
Then there's the regular hospital setting where the partners repair dolls, about 20 a week, with the help of three other women who come in daily.
It's not unusual for a doll to have a three-month wait before a hospital bed is available. But once admitted, they get the best attention. If a doll is missing a limb, a new arm or leg is reproduced with a mold. If the limb is damaged or broken, it is repaired.
"We never know what we'll find inside the cloth bodies when mending them," Gates said. The list includes toy spoons, lollipop sticks and BBs. And in some of the older dolls, darned socks and old garments have been used for stuffing, she said.
Many of the dolls admitted to the hospital are composition dolls from the post-World War II era. They were made at a time when manufacturers were trying to come up with a synthetic rubber called magic skin. But Gates said the magic deteriorated after a while.
"The thing that amazes us is that we get calls from all over the world about repairs and each one is unique," she said.
Gates says the youngsters who come into the shop are fun because they arrive sad-eyed with a tattered baby in their arms and leave happy again.
But she said nothing could compare to the childlike sparkle in the eyes of a woman who saw her old doll repaired: "She can't believe it. It's like finding an old friend."