Real Good Toys has an unpretentious name and an equally down-to-earth location - it's nestled among some nondescript industrial buildings on the way to Thunder Road in Barre. But this manufacturer turns out high-end dollhouses and do-it-yourself kits, some of which retail for more than $1000.
On a weekday morning a month before Christmas, workers are busily churning out tiny, finely detailed pieces. The company ships about 20,000 kits a year, and this is peak season. Could it be a coincidence that production manager Gary Root looks a bit like Santa Claus?
Root, who studied engineering in college, has been overseeing the shop for 25 years. The 55-year-old father of four cheerfully offers a tour of the factory floor, and shows off an unfinished "Queen Anne" model.
SEVEN DAYS: Who puts your dollhouses together? Is it mostly kids?
GARY ROOT: No. It's almost always adults. The instructions for this dollhouse right here are 52 pages long. It's got hundreds of different paragraphs. A 12-year-old isn't going to read a 52-page instruction and follow it one step at a time. This dollhouse would take me 60 or 70 hours to assemble and paint. How many kids are going to do that?
SD: But aren't they playing with it?
GR: Not this one. Some dollhouses, yes, but this dollhouse right here is going to end up in the hands of a miniature collector who's going to put it together and display it in their house and spend $50,000 on furnishings for the thing.
SD: Fifty thousand - are you serious?
GR: Of course, $50,000 is very unusual, but it's easy to spend thousands of dollars on furnishings. Every single thing that you have in your house, you can buy in miniature and put it in a dollhouse. You can buy a Campbell Soup can. You can buy a Playboy magazine. You can buy TVs that work. You can buy original art for a dollhouse. There are artists who work in a 1-inch scale with tiny little brushes and special dyes.
Miniature collectors want to take a photograph of a room in a dollhouse and have you not be able to tell that it's a miniature. That's the level of precision we're attending to.
Now, we make toys as well. We make barns, and we have a group of dollhouses called Playscale. It's never going to pass the photo test - it's to play with.
SD: Do you design the houses?
GR: I work with the owner of the company on the design. He is way better than I am with coming up with the general shape and the style of the house. What I know is, a line on a paper is just a line on a paper. I know how to turn that into a piece. So the technical part of the design process, we interact on that.
SD: What are you thinking about when you design a dollhouse? What do you want to evoke in someone who's building or playing with it?
GR: You want to evoke the sense of a house, even though the thing is just a caricature of a house. In the case of the more elaborate ones, you want to grab somebody's sense of style. At some point in time, everybody's looked at a house and said, "Oh, what a great house, I'd like to live in a house like that," right? Well, whether you live in an apartment in Atlantic City or a cabin in Woodbury, anybody can manage to have a dollhouse. It gives you an opportunity to live that other part of what you always wanted to do.
There are two different styles of dollhouses that grab people's attention the most. One is a fairly standard Colonial farmhouse. You know, the white clapboard farmhouse that you see all over the place in Vermont.
And then there's another kind of dollhouse that people just really attach to, and that's the "painted lady" house - the Victorian that's got frou-fraws and gingerbread, and 17 different colors, and porch rails that are turned, and archways and all that kind of fancy stuff that dates from 1885 to about 1925. That's difficult for people to maintain, difficult for people to afford nowadays. There's an attachment we all have, I think, to that kind of lifestyle and ornamentation. You can play out that attachment in a dollhouse.
SD: What kind of house do you live in?
GR: An 1840s, rambling farmhouse. I lived that dream, you see.
SD: Are there any features on this half-finished "painted lady" house that you're particularly proud of?
GR: I wish I had one all put together right now to show you, but I love the way the staircase fits in this house. It's really neat. It goes from the main floor up to a landing. The landing has a molded edge, and it's got railings all around it, then three more steps come up to the second floor. And you've got a railing all the way around the second floor, then you have a narrower staircase, all with banisters as well, that come up to a point. Then there's a pinwheel staircase, so you have four steps that spin up. It's a wonderful staircase, and it's all got turned posts and turned spindles and shaped balusters.
SD: I never played with dolls as a kid, so I don't really get the appeal. What is it about these dollhouses that you love?
GR: I think that we as a people are really threatened by all the different ways we find to separate ourselves from each other. So many of our pastimes are plugged into stuff, but there's no organic connection. I think that talking to people and doing stuff together is really important. Finding any opportunity for people to do things with their hands, where they're actually touching the thing they're working on, is important.
I love it when a young mother calls for help on a dollhouse who says, "I'm building this with my 11-year-old daughter." I just love that. Any time you can find a chance to do stuff with your kids, that is a treasure beyond measure. Going out and playing ball with 'em in the summer; building a dollhouse with 'em in the winter. Or any craft project. It teaches kids they can do good things, that they can make things they can be proud of.
What are the things that make kids the most proud now? I won at this video game that I'm playing online with people I've never met. Big deal. But when they build something, and somebody else comes along and says, "That's really neat" - that's awesome.
Sure, I'd love for every house to have a dollhouse in it, but I think on a more global sense, any craft project, any house project will make people better and happier and more at peace with themselves.
SD: So you're not just building dollhouses here.
GR: That's right. We're making the world a better place.