'Many struggle to hold back the tears': Breathing new life into old dolls at Chch 'hospital'

There is a box of tissues on Joyce Reilly’s front counter, and it gets used quite a bit.

“It is hard for people not to cry, and many struggle to hold back the tears,” she said.

But her small cottage industry in Opawa isn’t connected with mental health services; the tissues sit on the front desk of the Dolls City Hospital.

“Everyone who brings in a doll, teddy bear or soft toy to be fixed has an emotional connection with it,” Reilly said.

“The toys are part of people’s history and heritage.

“The memories they recall when they see them all fixed up again, right as rain, just come flooding back and the tears are soon flowing, it’s often very emotional.”

Joyce Reilly works on one of her favourite patients, a walkie talkie doll, at the Dolls City...
Joyce Reilly works on one of her favourite patients, a walkie talkie doll, at the Dolls City Hospital in Opawa. Photo: John Cosgrove
Customers will open up and tell her about when and where and from whom they got the doll or teddy bear, and how it lives in a special place in their heart.

“It depends on who gave them the doll. It could have been parents or it could have been grandma, or even the lady next door. But some of them have got very vivid memories about their dolls or teddy bears.”

She said the other day a lady got her bear back and had difficulty stopping the tears.

“It was her childhood bear and was over 70 years old,” Reilly said.

She said dolls are her passion but when soft toys appear that are too well worn, she calls on friends and specialists who guide her through the restoration process.

“I bought this business in 2000 and I’m the third owner since it was started by Rita Brown in 1968.

“I’ve been collecting dolls for about 45 years, and I dabbled in their construction and repair, just the minor things.

“When I bought the business, the previous owner taught me all she knew about repairing them.”

Walkie talkie dolls are 60 to 70-years-old. Photo: John Cosgrove
Walkie talkie dolls are 60 to 70-years-old. Photo: John Cosgrove
Reilly said it gives her a lot of personal satisfaction fixing dolls, as she loves meeting people and enjoys the stories they tell her about them.

“And then they tell me their whole life history.

“Some are sad, some are very interesting, and through them

I get to know the history of their dolls.

She said sometimes she feels sorry for the dolls that come in looking like they’re on their last legs.

“But I have to do something to put them back together again.”

On the other hand, teddy bears “get really loved”.

“Some of them are a little bit beyond repair when they come in, because they’re threadbare.

“You can’t put their fur back on so I patch them up and tell the owners to go and buy some clothes for them.”

Reilly said of all the dolls she gets to see she most loves working on the old walkie talkie dolls.

“I’ve seen hundreds of them and they’re all the same, but they’re different.

“They come here with different problems: eyes, hair, legs, plastic splits, you name it, they’ve got it.

“But they’re the one of the most enjoyable dolls to work with as they always come up smiling.”

The next group of dolls waiting to be repaired. Photo: John Cosgrove
The next group of dolls waiting to be repaired. Photo: John Cosgrove
Reilly said many were made in New Zealand. The factory was in Auckland, but it closed around the 1970s. 

“It was a subsidiary of the factory in the UK, which came to life just after the Second World War.

“So these dolls are now 60-70 years old, making them very, very, special.”

Reilly said when she was a child a little girl next door had a walkie talkie doll, but she didn’t.

“So I think it’s been in my passion all my life, but now I’ve got lots of them.

“They are made in two pieces and glued together.”

She said the most common issue she sees with them are split seams.

“I learned how to fix most of their problems and make them whole again, making them once again so special in people’s lives.”

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