Jan Davis loves dolls. So much so that a large part of her Southold antique shop is dedicated to them. And among the beautiful ones for sale -- perched lovingly in display cabinets and shelves around the store -- are others still that lie forlornly in need of help, those with peeling face paint or broken arms or even missing fingers.
This is the area of Davis' shop that she and her husband call the "doll hospital," and where surgery takes place. People send their dolls in need of repair to the Davises, who fix them with painstaking precision.
"It's more sentimental than anything," says Jan Davis. "They are family heirlooms ... memories of their childhoods."
She sits at the table, working on a Steiff teddy bear that has lost the padding from its paws. Part of its embroidered mouth disappeared, and it needs a good restuffing.
"He's cute, isn't he?" she says.
The doll whisperer is careful not to do more work on the toy than is needed. In fact, a bad restoration job on one of her own dolls is what led to her doing this work.
"We do this like a museum restoration," she says. "We want it to remain as original as possible.... If a child put nail polish on the doll, we keep it that way."
And any restoration should be reversible, she says. All the work is done by hand.
Davis is the artist, while her husband, Walter, a retired New York Police Department officer, does a lot of the technical repairs, such as restringing the dolls' hands and legs. They've worked alongside each other for 38 years, starting their business in Mount Sinai before falling in love with the North Fork and setting up shop in the circa-1856 store.
A 'LOST ART'
Dolls from the 1930s and before often are made of a material called composition; cardboard, sawdust and glue poured into a mold. Jan Davis remakes damaged parts by sculpting her own composite and improvising with handmade tools. After, she carefully mixes paint so it blends with the old faded paint on the doll.
Very few doll restorationists are left, she says.
"It's a shame," says the 77-year-old. "It's going to be a lost art."
SCROUNGING FOR PARTS
The Davises attend toy and doll conventions where they'll buy doll parts. "I'll go to a thrift shop to find skin donors," she says.
A Lucite box filled with dolls' eyes at the store seems a bit creepy at first. When dolls with moving eyelids are placed on their back too long, the eyes will eventually sink inside the head's cavity and break, Davis says.
Each job is different in the labor involved, but most repairs cost $50 to $200 and can take from a couple of hours to weeks, says Jan Davis.
Toni Lea Corwin, 59, of Southampton says she came across a Shirley Temple doll given to her mother by her great aunt aroud 1930. "The doll's eyes were milky, like cataracts," she says. "And she didn't have any hair."
Davis brought the doll back by finding original hair, putting in new eyes and a white polka-dot dress, for about $150. The doll was given to Corwin's granddaughter, keeping it in the family. "I like the connection between the past and present and future," Corwin says.
PRIMING AND PRIMPING
One favorite restoration was a Kammer & Reinhardt character doll worth about $6,000 that had been charred in a fire. She used triple 000 steel wool pads to gently rub away the soot from the circa 1900-1920 doll, and redid its hair.
"It's much like a wash and set on a person," she says.
Davis is now working on a large Raggedy Ann that had been in a dogfight. It's not valuable, she says, but holds sentimental value.
Among other patients awaiting work is a Baby Dimples, a 1928 Horsman American doll that needs cracks fixed in her face and scalp.
Jan Davis gets a little attached as she works on each one, she says. "I don't think I'll ever stop playing with dolls."
WHEN | WHERE Noon-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays during summer months at 45395 Main Rd., Southold (just east of Duck Walk Vineyards)
INFO 631-765-2379, lidollhospital.com