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PRIVATE LIVES

Let's Get Small : There's Nothing Like Being Hooked on a Hobby That Makes You the Big Cheese

November 04, 1990|MARGO KAUFMAN

I FELL OFF THE wagon, and it's all my sister's fault. I'd been clean for years. But the other day, before I could stop myself, I bought a four-poster bed, a table, a Tiffany lamp and a door. I put them in my purse and carried them home. How can I explain my behavior?

I, Margo, am a dollhouse junkie, a compulsive builder of miniature rooms. For weeks, I've been cheerfully sawing tiny cornices, painting bantam bay windows and running to the copy shop to reduce books to a Lilliputian scale. I know there are more important things I could be doing. But a hobby, like a habit, makes you forget about important things in life.

"I wouldn't know," my sister, Laurie, said when I pointed this out. "I've never found a hobby I liked. I hated needlepoint. I was bad at clay. I grew plants, they died. Fish died. I don't have any patience or time." But she does have a passion for intricately detailed model rooms. "You build one for me," she exclaimed right before her birthday.

"It's been ages," Michael Lyttle said when I walked into his cavernous store, Miniature Estates (without so much as a backward glance at the $12,000 Victorian mansion in the window). I explained that I had kicked the habit. I just needed to do one more project. Lyttle rolled his eyes. He knows the early signs of hobby abuse.

"One middle-aged man, in one of his many dollhouses, had a tiny glass fish bowl," Lyttle said. "And he actually bred fish in a big tank, so he had a tiny baby fish swimming in the tiny glass bowl at all times." I began to hyperventilate. "And then there was the woman who wouldn't buy a particular chair because, when she pressed down on the seat with her finger, it wasn't soft enough."

For the record, even at the height of my mini-mania, I was never out of touch with reality. I didn't expect the itsy-bitsy clay avocado pit sprouting in the teeny-weeny glass on my diminutive kitchen windowsill to grow. I quit because I became obsessed. Once, I actually told my ex-husband: "Not tonight, dear. I'm shingling the roof."

This doesn't surprise my friend Bob, a model-train fanatic. He's built three very complex--"they even have graffiti and things like that"--layouts in his garage. "I'd be in a lot better shape if I didn't stay up late building these things," Bob says. "But it's so peaceful. Just you and yourself tinkering away, squinting real hard. It's tough to get it out of your system."

Hobbies are one of the few arenas in life in which a person can always feel in control. Whatever the pastime--collecting baseball cards, growing orchids, flying fighter kites or putting ships in bottles--you set your own pace; you do what you want, and nobody criticizes you.

"It's your one chance to show how you'd reshape the world if you were given the chance, which you never are," Bob says. "I can build a whole city and not worry if it's going to fall down in an earthquake. Though I did have a building fall over in the last one." (All he had to do was pick it up, dust it off, maybe glue the roof back on.)

Of course, this sense of power doesn't come cheap. Whether you're hooked on photography, stamps, skiing or if-you-have-to-ask-how-much-you-can't-afford-it follies like sailing, there's always some new prize or piece of equipment that you see and desperately crave.

"It makes it hard for me to tell my kids I can't afford to send them to private school," Bob says. "I know I could. But it's all disappearing into the garage."

I tell myself that I quit making miniatures once and I can quit again. But my sister's gift is almost finished, and suddenly I'm not so sure. My editor called, and I said I'd have to call her back because I was varnishing the pygmy parquet floor. Then I bought a cordless phone so that I could do business while I was outside gluing dwarf spider plants onto a midget etagere .

But what really scared me was that I found a new supplier right near my house, and I keep finding excuses for stopping by. "My regular customers drop in all the time for a fix," says Sue Garfield, owner of Petite Designs, an elegant dollhouse boutique. She confides that she can always spot an addict because "anything they see in the real world they're trying to figure out how to create in miniature."

I shuffle my feet guiltily. Ever since I visited Organizer's Paradise, I've been dreaming about building a small shrine to organization. I'd need built-in bookcases and high-tech furniture and maybe track lighting and . . . Sue laughs and leads me to the back room where her resident craftsman, Dale Kendall, is showing a customer how to electrify a pint-sized kitchen.

"Dale can help you do anything," Sue promises.

"See you tomorrow," I reply.

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