It's a Small World
Greg Dostie spends evenings and weekends working on his houses, tinkering with the windows on the brownstone he recently acquired or redecorating a room in his yellow Victorian. During breaks from his job in the Sterile Services Department at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, he surfs the Internet for information on period furnishings and tips on homes going on the market.
Rather than building new, Dostie prefers to put his energy into renovating someone else's handiwork. But he isn't all that interested in real estate. Dostie's passion is for dollhouses or, as he prefers to call them, miniature homes. "I always liked building things; as a kid, I always built models," says the Hallowell resident. "But I'm not so much into kits, where you buy the kit and when you build it they all look alike. I like to get something already built and change it to make it totally unique."
In that regard, Dostie is unique among dollhouse aficionados, most of whom prefer to buy their works of residential art unsullied by modern renovations. And in Maine, collectors have an array of resources at the ready, from retail stores to auction houses to the International Guild of Miniature Artisans' annual weeklong seminar in Castine. "Our collectors tend to be more focused on or more interested in all original," says Andrew Truman, sales coordinator for the toy and doll division of James D. Julia, Inc., a Fairfield auction house that has seen dollhouses sell for thousands of dollars. "When something's been monkeyed with or refurbished more recently, they tend to frown on that a little bit."
At Lucy's Dollhouse Antiques, a Camden store that specializes in high-end houses, owners Susan Singer and Lucy Morgan display an 1850 Spanish dollhouse they acquired from what Singer describes as a "famous collection" for a whopping $192,000. The high price tag is justified, Singer says, by the house's incredibly detailed exterior and by its all-original furnishings. These days, the house resides under a protective Plexiglas cover; although its age and history render it a valuable antique, children see it as an object of curiosity. "One little girl's raincoat wiped out the living room," Singer says ruefully, adding that she and Morgan are currently negotiating with collectors interested in acquiring the house and its furnishings.
Greg Dostie aside, dollhouse collectors tend to be women forty and older, according to Singer and others; presumably, they've established the careers, and incomes, that make such a pricey hobby possible. That's not to say, however, that you can't launch a dollhouse habit on a budget. Dostie, for example, picks up fixer-uppers for no more than a few hundred dollars. His most recent acquisition, the brownstone he bought because of his Chicago-born partner's fondness for the style, only set him back $105 in an eBay auction. Still, by the time he's renovated a house and furnished it, the tab frequently runs to a few thousand dollars. "Sometimes I look at the money I've spent on it and think, for that price I could've replaced something in the real house," Dostie says, noting that he finally owns the full-sized Victorian of his dreams.
The perceived expense of a dollhouse habit — not to mention the room necessary to display the homes, which are typi-cally built at one-twelfth scale — has been blamed for a dropoff in young hobbyists. But Jamie Lucas, who runs Jamie's Miniatures, a retail store in Belfast, disagrees, noting that many of the dollhouse furnishings she stocks cost a few dollars or less. "Parents are so busy that the kids don't know how to do hobbies," she theorizes. "Kids just don't even know how to use their hands."
As a result, Lucas' business relies on tourists, eBay shoppers, and out-of-state collectors who respond to her ads in dollhouse magazines. Likewise, Susan Singer says the best customers of Lucy's Dollhouse Antiques are serious collectors who plan a trip to Maine around a visit to the shop; since it opened last year, customers have traveled from California and even Australia to add to their collections.
Still, dollhouse fans like Dostie ought to give Lucas hope. Though he built a dollhouse for his mother out of a piece of plywood when he was a teenager — she'd grown up wanting one, but her family of thirteen couldn't afford it — Dostie didn't return to the pursuit until he was in his early forties. When he restarted work on his mother's miniature house, which he's dubbed the Victorian Seaside Farmhouse, he lovingly configured the cozy kitchen with baked goods on the table and a grandmother coming through the door with groceries, hung dark blue wallpaper in the dining room, and set up a Victrola in the living room.
Now, he has fourteen dollhouses on display throughout his house, and their renovations take up much of his spare time. But his hobby pays dividends in the rest of his life, too. "I'm looking into replacing the doors in the house, and I got a couple ideas from the dollhouses," he says, a hint of a smile evident in his voice as he confesses, "It's an obsession."