Doll City USA is the kind of place an unsuspecting person might enter as a shopper and leave as a collector.
With 7,700 square feet of dolls--from $1.49 babies to $2,000 Princess Grace look-alikes--the Orange store has made regular customers out of more than a few browsers.
Take Jeanne Koers. Five years ago Koers had no intention of launching an expensive doll collection when she decided to kill some time in the shop across the street from the Orange Mall. She spied a Judith Turner limited-edition doll named Kristi that had captivating little features and a big price tag: $850.
For three weeks Koers kept returning to the store to admire the little moppet with the long, dark, human hair, until one day she bought it. Now, 5 years and more than 40 dolls later, Koers is a full-fledged collector feeding her habit once a month at Doll City.
The 9-year-old store, owned by Norma Noble and her son Dale, caters to parents shopping for children as well as collectors. In addition to approximately 30,000 dolls (some aisles are filled with bins of tiny figures), the shop has houses, shoes, clothes, beds, strollers, linens, accessories and books. The Nobles also own a mold company that sells molds for doll makers, and a pattern company that caters to folks who make their own doll clothes.
Both the Nobles are collectors who fell into retailing as an offshoot of their hobbies. Building up their collections and the business meant visiting doll shows and gift markets throughout the West. But as the business grew and more manufacturers began calling the Nobles to alert them to available merchandise, less scouting was required.
Other changes in the business over the years include the switch from stocking both old and new dolls to selling only new merchandise and moving the operation farther north on Tustin Avenue to a bigger building.
A big portion of Doll City's merchandise is the thousands of dolls bought from the doll-making company of Effanbee when it went out of business recently. Dolls that still sell for about $80 dressed and in boxes can be found in dozens of bins throughout Doll City for $5 and $10 (undressed).
Lifelike babies are the hottest dolls right now, according to Dale Noble. At least 20 inches long, with weighted bodies that feel like real babies, the dolls made by Terri DeHetre, Lee Middleton and Jan Goodyear are in big demand.
They start at $149. Also popular are the Barefoot Children limited edition dolls designed by Annette Himstedt ($450 each). They have real human hair and eyelashes and are modeled after children in Himstedt's family.
Always good sellers are celebrity dolls, and Doll City keeps in stock Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, Liberace, Brooke Shields and the "I Love Lucy" quartet of Ricky, Lucy, Fred and Ethel. Favorites also include Shirley Temple and "Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind" dolls.
"You got your baby doll people and you got your people who only collect celebrity dolls," Dale Noble says. "But both groups are just as strong . . . some do it for investments, some do it for pleasure."
Along with limited-edition and celebrity dolls, Doll City carries Mattel's Barbie dolls and accessories that cannot be found in most toy stores. The shop has a limited-edition porcelain Wedding Party Barbie, fashioned after the original 1959 Barbie ($199.88), and the Barbie Dolls of the World Collection including Canadian Barbie, Russian Barbie and Mexican Barbie ($17.88 each). The store stocks more than 50 Madame Alexander dolls (about $40 and up), which have been popular for more than 60 years.
But perhaps the most unusual and expensive dolls at Doll City are a flamboyantly dressed trio made of porcelain from limited edition molds by Marilyn. The store has Princess Grace, Showgirl and Judy Garland--just $5,085 for all three.
Another intricately detailed group is the Best of Friends Collection by Dolfi of Italy. Susie, Nadia and Verena ($419.99 each) have been nominated for the 1988 Dolls of the Year Award. Each doll is 13 inches tall, hand-carved of maple and hand-painted. A far cry from the Cabbage Patch kids.
"People are looking for quality items," Dale Noble says. "They're tired of buying junk that falls apart. They want better dolls that will hold up even if they cost more."
Dolls with human hair, lifelike features and $400 price tags. What's the appeal?
Dale Noble says dolls are keepsakes that can be handed down from generation to generation. They are like having real children. But there is another reason.
"Dolls keep you young at heart," he says.
DOLL CITY USA AT A GLANCE
What: 7,700-square-foot store stocked with thousands of dollsby such makers as Robin Woods, Vickie Walker, Annette Himstedt, Terri DeHetre, Lee Middleton, Mattel and Madame Alexander.
Prices: From about $1 to nearly $2,000. Store also sells beds, houses, clothes, accessories and doll-making molds.
Address: 2040 N. Tustin Ave., Orange.
Phone: (714) 998-9384.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.