January 11, 2012

C. Marie’s: For women who never outgrew dolls

“This is a girl’s store!"

“This is a girl’s store!"

Connie Cotter’s warning is well taken for any man who stumbles into C. Marie’s Collectibles, her doll shop on West Douglas. Dolls – hundreds of them – stare out from the walls and shelves, and up from the floors, interrupted only by frilly hats, aprons and handkerchiefs.

There are life-size and startlingly lifelike dolls, as well as rag dolls, handmade dolls from Europe and a dozen other varieties.

“I wanted a small business," Cotter said of her reason for opening C. Marie’s. “But secondly, I wanted to make people smile and laugh."

Cotter has based her business on the idea that some women never really outgrow dolls. About a third of her inventory is collectibles geared toward adult buyers, ranging from $70 to $300 in price. The rest are baby and play dolls for children and priced far less.

In a best-case scenario, Cotter said, both mother and daughter (or grandmother and granddaughter) visit the store and find something they like.

Cotter got the idea for her shop when she was visiting Las Vegas three years ago and spotted a doll called “Ava" in a store. She’d played with dolls as a child, but hadn’t given them much thought since then.

But something about Ava’s big brown eyes spoke to her, and what she heard was: Start selling dolls.

“I just thought it was so beautiful," Cotter said. “And it was quality."

Cotter got in touch with the maker of Ava, who suggested that she open a store. Instead, she started collecting inventory and educating herself about the doll business. She learned there’s a “Doll of the Year," for instance, and met the Lennon Sisters, who have their own line of dolls (so does Marie Osmond), at a trade show.

“They’re the nicest people," she said.

Eventually, she said, “The basement was getting full of dolls."

That’s when Cotter suggested converting some space next to Prime Electric, owned by her husband, David, into a doll shop. Cotter said her husband has been supportive, although when he suggested she might be able to base her business on the Internet, “I said, ‘Oh no, they’ve got to see these dolls.’ ”

Cotter has gotten help from her children as well. Her daughter, Cara, an interior architecture student at Kansas State University, decorated the inside of the shop in pastels and a purplish carpet. Her son Steve, who’s in the advertising business, started her Facebook page and is developing a website for the shop. And her other son, Jeff, who’s in medical school, has been a good “cheerleader," Cotter said.

Initially, Cotter intended to focus almost solely on collectibles – dolls made of high-quality materials in limited or discontinued editions. Because those dolls can increase in value, she said, “It made sense in this economy."

But after opening in September, Cotter said she realized she needed to sell young girls’ dolls as well. There are no G.I. Joes or X-Men action figures in sight, but Cotter did add teddy bears at a friend’s suggestion, “and they’ve done great."

Cotter is still trying to stock her store with dolls that other retailers don’t carry, such as a Belgian-made rag doll she found in Paris. When she asked the maker, via e-mail, how many other stores in the United States carry his dolls, “He e-mailed me back: ‘You are the only one in the U.S. who carries them.’

“Yes! Paris and Wichita!” Cotter said as she pumped her fist.

Cotter also works part time as a nursing liaison for children with disabilities for the Wichita school district. For now, the store is open Thursday through Saturday.

Cotter said one man even found what he was looking for in the store, after complaining: “My daughter drags around a dirty doll!"

He left with a new one.

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