OCEAN CITY – Katy Himes and her family have been in the doll-selling, mending, and sewing business for so long that she can’t remember when they started.
Her grandfather Milton Emmert owned Emmert’s Doll Hospital in Philadelphia in the early 20th century; he employed ten doll “doctors” who could fix delicate items like then-popular porcelain dolls coveted by collectors, and easy to break.
Milton was born in the doll hospital owned by his family and opened his own doll hospital when he was an adult. Milton passed his skills on to his daughter Kay Jay, after whom the doll shop is named, and eventually to Katy. Her great-grandmother was into dolls, too. But before that, “it’s a mystery,” Katy told the Herald on a chilly Friday afternoon, as customers came into the store even during the deep winter.
Doll shops were once a common fixture at the shore. But Kay Jay’s Doll Shoppe has been the last man standing in Cape May County ever since Oma’s Doll Shop in Cape May closed more than a decade ago. Katy said that she is “obsessed” with maintaining a high standard for her store. And her customers – who she said come back year and year – can tell.
Her daughter, Maggie Himes, runs the store alongside her and works with distributors across the globe to import dolls that they think are of the highest quality. Llorens dolls – realistically sized babies – and Nines d’Onil dolls – smaller and stylized – fly off the shelves whenever an imported order arrives.
Maggie said that the best dolls made today are designed and manufactured in Spain, and that the quality of many American doll brands has slipped. Many of the popular Spanish brands are still family-owned and made in smaller quantities, Katy said, in contrast to American doll brands that have focused on profit and quantity at the expense of quality.
She has a great eye for what separates a quality doll from a dud: high-quality vinyl, secure connection points on the limbs, and tight stitching on the clothing.
“We are so fussy,” Katy said. “We play with everything extensively to see if they’re up to the task. If it’s not good vinyl on the vinyl dolls, we won’t bring it in.”
Katy runs the family business alongside her four daughters April Jamie, Rachael, and Maggie, all of whom care deeply about dolls and their clothing. It was obvious that her obsession with quality and brand integrity was passed onto her daughters, two of whom were present for the interview.
Jamie Himes serves as the store’s “doll doctor” when something breaks – she fixes common issues like loose joints that need to be re-strung, ruined hair, and dirty or damaged vinyl. At one time, the shop served as a doll hospital, but the Himes family stays so busy that they can’t serve that function anymore.
Maggie runs inventory. April helps make doll clothing, and Rachael has worked at the store since she was 8 and still helps out when she is in town.
To stay open for so long, Katy and her family have employed clever business tactics to keep expenses low. For starters, much of the family lives together, and they are the only ones on the store’s payroll. Their shared expenses, and the small family-only staff, keep expenses predictable.
The store is now in its fourth location in Ocean City. The store began life in 1985 on 8th and Wesley, where the store was branded as a “doll emporium.” Katy said that, at that time, collector dolls were extremely popular even among adults. Brands like Madame Alexander and Cabbage Patch Kids were prolific.
They soon moved just a street over to 9th and Wesley, and as the business expanded, moved quickly again to 9th and Simpson. The store was a behemoth at that location; it had two stories, the second of which served as a porcelain doll-making studio where the family and other doll experts held classes. The shop finally moved to 737 Asbury Ave. in 1999, where it is surrounded by the largest shopping district in Cape May County.
As dolls have ebbed and flowed in popularity over the decades, the family has introduced other items into the store to supplement the business. Almost all of the toys and games are analog, old-fashioned, and encourage hands-on play.
Hurricane Sandy rocked the shop when it struck in 2012. 18 inches of water flooded the building, destroying the carpeting and decor that the shop was famous for. Maggie said that the hurricane, despite the damage, was a blessing in disguise because it forced them to move away from the all-pink decor that had once defined Kay Jay’s.
Maggie said that the pink decorations scared away boys and anybody who was not a young girl or a parent of a young girl. But the items sold inside – board games, puzzles, miniature toy food and house supplies, and even dolls – are for everyone. The neutral colors are more inviting for a wide audience, she said.
Katy knows that many of the products in her store are high quality because she makes a significant portion of the stock by hand. She is a professional seamstress who makes miniature dresses, gowns, bathing suits, and outfits of all sorts for 18-inch dolls, the most popular size.
Almost all of the doll clothing in the store was hand-made by Katy or April.
“But we don’t really take any home,” she laughed.
Maggie, who coordinates the store’s inventory and communicates with suppliers, said: “I find a lot of joy in the buying process of picking something someone else will love.” She also said that it’s a blessing that she, and the rest of her family, do not collect dolls in their personal lives.
“Could you imagine how crazy our house would be?” she joked.
Katy spends a lot of her time creating custom-order doll outfits. These projects, which Katy said are sometimes very challenging, bring her the greatest personal joy. She has made a wild variety of outfits, many of which match the outfits of their owners. She has made holy communion outfits for dolls that will be present for their owner’s First Communion ceremonies, cheerleading outfits for kids and their dolls, and Easter outfits that match their owner’s Easter fashion walk fits.
“It’s so rewarding to see the joy they get out of a custom doll dress,” Katy said. And that ethos – of bringing joy to customers through products the family believes in – is the ingredient that has helped Kay Jay’s Doll Shoppe survive across four locations and nearly 40 years of business.
Do you collect dolls? Do you have memories at Kay Jay’s Doll Shoppe? Contact the author, Collin Hall, at firstname.lastname@example.org or give him a call at 609-886-8600 ext. 156