Deb Baker. Goodbye Dolly

(Dolls to Die For — 2)


Jennie H. Graves created the Ginny doll in the late 1940s. Her small home business quickly grew to become the Vogue Doll Company. Ginny's popularity sent other companies racing to emulate the eight-inch plastic play doll. The most innovative feature of the new doll was its separate clothing. Ginny came wearing underwear, ready to dress in costumes designed by her creator. And what wonderful costumes they were.

– From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch Gretchen Birch stood next to the flatbed trailer parked in the driveway leading to the house and eyed the mounds of dolls. Howie Howard, the auctioneer, worked the crowd like a harmonica tongue slap, all swinging elbows and agile, fluid mouth movements. Gretchen had a firsttimer's knot of nerves in her stomach the size and weight of a Sunkist grapefruit.

'Do I hear twenty? There's a two oh. Thirty. Forty. Fine box of dolls.' Howie's head bobbed like one of the swivelhead dolls boxed up in Gretchen's doll repair workshop.

'Fifty? No. Forty going once… Sold for forty dollars.'

The smell of popcorn from a portable concession stand wafted through the air, catching the attention of a group of neighborhood kids. Cars filled with potential buyers searching for curbside parking edged slowly past the auction site.

Gretchen glanced at the stucco-and-tile house where Chiggy Kent, the once-vibrant founder of the Phoenix Dollers Club, had lived. Dragging an oxygen tank connected to her nostrils, Chiggy had finally succumbed to the persistence of her concerned neighbors and the ravages of lung disease and now resided at Grace Senior Care. But if she'd had the breath to resist, she would have forced them to haul her out kicking and screaming.

Chiggy's doll-making skills hadn't improved with experience or with advanced age. At least six hundred handmade dolls cluttered the open-bed truck, and Gretchen winced at the poor workmanship. Dolls' eyebrows wisped in unlikely directions, painted with heavy, awkward strokes. Eyelashes that would have impressed the legendary Tammy Faye, notorious queen of eye art. The doll clothes were worth more than the dolls that wore them, but many of the shoppers who bellied up to the truck weren't serious collectors and couldn't tell the difference between an original and a poor reproduction. Howie Howard wasn't about to clue them in. 'Here's a priceless imitation of a German Kestner. Full of character. Who could resist? Do I hear ten?' The words melded together, strung without the briefest pause, and Gretchen smiled at his singular ability to sell certifiable junk. A man beside her lifted a doll from a heap and made space on the flatbed to prop it up. He smoothed the doll's bright blue gown and rearranged the curls framing her face, then stepped back and snapped a picture. Gretchen watched him move along the truck from doll to doll as he repeated the process again and again.

His camera, a Leica digital, looked expensive-too expensive, considering his gaunt, unshaven face and the faded T-shirt stretched over his protruding stomach. The sun beat down on Gretchen.

She glanced around for a shady spot to stand in. The last day of September was hot and dry, and Gretchen needed a respite from the intensity of the Phoenix sun. One lone palm tree cast a pencil-thin shadow across Chiggy's now barren yard, not nearly enough for protection. Where did I put it? Gretchen dug through her purse for the list of dolls her mother had wanted her to bid on. She must have left it at home. Now what? She didn't have time to search for it. No choice but to wing it. She hoped Howie wouldn't auction off all six hundred of these handmade copies before moving on to the real reason she stood here suffering from the heat. Chiggy's private collection. The real dolls. Gretchen recognized several serious collectors in the crowd and a few impatient doll dealers looking for bargains. She edged closer to Howie.

'Change of pace,' he shouted, as though reading Gretchen's mind. 'We can't sell everything one at a time, or we'll be here through Sunday. Let's dig out something new. What've we got, Brett?' He turned and accepted a cardboard box from his assistant. 'Box of Kewpie dolls.'

He held one aloft. 'Cute little things. Whole bunch made by the same talented doll artist, Chiggy Kent.' Howie held up a three-inch Kewpie. 'Who wants to start…?' And he was off and running.

Bidding on the box of Kewpies started low. Gretchen watched with interest, because her turn was coming. She was fascinated by the speed with which Howie flew through the bidding process and the different ways the registered bidders had of alerting the auctioneer to their bids. She had sorted through the Kewpie dolls before the auction and noticed that most had been repaired in some way. Almost all were bad reproductions. Gretchen saw imperfections in the molded bodies, amateurishly shaped topknots, and tufts of babyish hair.

Someone was actually bidding on this mess?

'Sold for thirty dollars.' Howie's voice slammed through the group, and Gretchen craned her neck to see the successful bidder. Him again. She'd watched the shriveled old man bid several times. Who could miss his stooped shoulders, full head of white hair, and Groucho Marx eyebrows? He waved his registration number with gleeful abandon and slapped his knee in delight.

Howie's assistant, Brett, continued to bring items to the auction block. A collection of paper dolls, then an AshtonDrake Little Red Riding Hood. Gretchen tried to imagine the list her mother had composed. No paper dolls. She was sure of it. Or was she?

Why do I have to be so forgetful and disorganized?

Howie, appreciating the scope of his mission, began to clump groups of dolls together to step up the pace. Brett continued lugging boxes out of the garage.

'… Ginny dolls.'

Gretchen snapped back to the call of the auctioneer. Ginnys were on the list. Here goes. Her reason for standing out in the desert sun for… how long?… two hours and counting. Her body felt clam-baked, and her hair, hard to manage on a good day, frizzed out from her damp scalp. Someone pushed past her, another bidder positioning for the same round. Gretchen's palms felt sweaty, and she grasped her number firmly, waiting for the opening volley. Calm down. This is like a horse race. You don't have to start out in the lead to win. She remembered her mother's coaching. Don't look desperate. Lay low. Wait for the right moment.

Gretchen gulped and felt the thrill of competition. Right this minute she wanted that collection of Ginny dolls more than anything in the world. Is this how it always felt? What a rush of adrenaline! No wonder her mother always covered the auctions and left her to handle repairs. The dolls that Gretchen lusted after were eight-inch Vogue vintage dolls from the late forties and early fifties, all in their original boxes. They came with a variety of costumes: hats, dresses, purses, and snap shoes. Howie's voice sliced the sun-scorched air. 'This is it,' he said, his words coming fast. 'The finest of the fine…'

Gretchen's heart sank into her stomach and settled next to the grapefruit-sized nervous lump. Why did he have to call special attention to the dolls she was interested in?

Her eyes never left his as his voice rang out.

'Who'll give me fifty?'

Gretchen raised her number against her sweat-laden halter top. So much for her mother's sound advice to lay low. Howie trained his eyes on her, acknowledged the bid, and worked it up. From the rapid sweep of his head, she guessed that three or four others were placing bids.

'One hundred. We have a cool, crisp bill.' Howie kept going, and Gretchen felt the sting of impending defeat. One of the bidders dropped out, and Gretchen held up her number again.

Another bidder dropped out.

Yes. Gretchen slapped an internal high five at the dwindling competition. The Ginny dolls whispered her name, and she did the math in her head. Twelve dolls. She could sell them at the doll show for at least fifty each. That would be a total of six hundred dollars.

She still had some leeway.

The current bid shot past two hundred.

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