Margaret Mullooly is spending one of her final afternoons as a dollhouse shop owner showing off collectibles she's gathered in 40 years running a small-business -- emphasis on "small."
Pausing amid the narrow, cluttered aisles of her Miniature Manor dollhouse shop at 731 Franklin Ave. in her hometown of Garden City, Mullooly, 84, picks up a "hand-dressed" bed (price, $110). It's an exact model of a real, full-sized bed, right down to the folded quilt and pillows, and, like most of the merchandise here, it fits in her hand.
"I had a lot of these, but they're gone now," she says, admiring the tiny piece of dollhouse art before putting it back in place on the shelf. Also on her shelves: tiny rocking chairs, tiny "boudoir sets" and just about anything else you'd want to furnish one of the many dollhouses lining her shop's aisles, forming a miniature skyline.
Almost hidden in a corner is one of her most prized acquisitions: a Victorian-style dollhouse purchased from a Bridgehampton antiques dealer on July 4, 1976, Mullooly's first summer in business. It once belonged to Gloria Vanderbilt, the author, heiress, socialite and mother of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Mullooly says. The dealer told Mullooly that Vanderbilt had played with this dollhouse when she was a child summering in Southampton.
"We had just opened the shop, so I thought that would be something good to have," explains Mullooly, , who is the aunt of Kidsday editor Pat Mullooly. Four decades later, with the wallpaper inside it deteriorating, the Victorian probably won't sell before she closes up shop for the last time later this year, even with the original $3,500 price slashed in half.
The end of an era
It has been a long goodbye since Mullooly announced last winter that she was closing Miniature Manor, one of Long Island's few remaining dollhouse stores, a small business in a small world that has been shrinking every year. While dollhouse collecting remains popular, much of the buying and selling of the houses and miniatures that grace their rooms has moved from downtown mom and pop-type stores to online websites like eBay, according to industry experts. With both vendors and collectors fading away, and at the urging of her family, Mullooly has been reducing her inventory, working fewer hours and looking forward to post-retirement life out in the big world.
"I'm tired," says Mullooly, who has a calm, businesslike manner. "I want to relax. I like to play bridge, and I'm trying to learn mah-jongg," she says.
One who will miss Mullooly's shop after it's gone is Mark Foltz, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based importer, manufacturer and distributor of miniatures who was one of her suppliers. Miniature Manor is one of about 100 storefront dollhouse shops that remain open nationally, down from a high of about 300 before collecting began to move online about 15 years ago, he says. A collector himself, Foltz laments the move away from in-person shopping.
"It's a better experience to go in a store like Peggy's," Foltz says. (Mullooly is known as "Peggy" to her business associates, friends and 17 grandchildren; Margaret to other family members, says Barbara Walsh of Garden City, one of Mullooly's six children.) Foltz explains, "It's easier to appreciate our hobby when you are there, and it's in front of you." Furthermore, experienced shopkeepers like Mullooly can finish a dollhouse with wallpaper, carpet and wiring, he says. And sure enough, there's a small workshop stocked with wallpaper and other customizing materials, tucked away at the rear of the Miniature Manor.
Other interests came first
Mullooly didn't start out wanting to be a dollhouse entrepreneur. She doesn't even remember playing with a dollhouse as a girl growing up with her family in Floral Park. She taught second grade in the Franklin Square school district until her first child was born, then became a stay-at-home mom. Her husband, James, 86, a retired Uniondale school district teacher and administrator, has ribbed her about her career choice. "My husband said if I had continued in the teaching profession, I might have been retired by now with a nice income," she says, smiling.
Instead, she went into the business of miniatures, opening her first shop in Malverne -- and staying there for about 10 months. She spent 13 years apiece in Franklin Square and Mineola before relocating again to her hometown more than a dozen years ago. Over the decades, hundreds of scaled-down items were garnered at Manhattan gift shows or ordered from vendors around the country. The inventory grew so rapidly that she bought handmade cabinets from a Riverhead drugstore to store it all.
The clutter was always part of the store's charm, says Mullooly's sister, Janet Curtin, 67, who also lives in Garden City. "It's jam-packed and it's hard to see things," Curtin says, "but if you tell her something you want, say a highboy dresser for my dollhouse, she would know exactly where to get it."
'A cool place to go'
Having a dollhouse shop in the family meant impressive gifts for children's birthdays. "Usually you got one when the baby was 2 or 3," says Walsh, a registered nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center's presurgical testing unit. Not just children's toys, they were collector's items, she says. Walsh says she was too old to play with dollhouses by the time the shop opened, but she enjoyed working there as a teen. "It was cool to have a place to go, and you made a few dollars," she recalls. But that was years ago, and now Walsh is one of the family members who urged her mom to retire.
"She's a pretty neat lady for going to college when a lot of women didn't, and having all these babies and opening a business," Walsh says, "But every chapter has to end and then a next chapter begins."
Curtin agrees, saying, "We were trying to get her out of the business for a long time so she could relax and enjoy her other activities." Mullooly enjoys going out to lunch with her family, and attending Rosary Society meetings at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Garden City, where she goes to Mass daily, her sister says.
Mullooly, who is the aunt of Kidsday editor Pat Mullooly, says she, too, is ready for a more leisurely, retired lifestyle without the worries and responsibilities of running a store.
"Miniatures are like three-dimensional art," Mullooly says. However, many of the artists and vendors she depended upon have either died or gone out of business. "I've seen a lot of them go," she says sadly.
But selling off what remains of those aisles and cases and shelves full of tiny items -- even at half-price -- is going to be a big job, she admits.
The enormous number of pieces in her inventory surprises even those who are familiar with it, Mullooly says. "My sister came in the other day, looked around and said, 'Now I know what a million looks like.' "