Interest in miniatures grows as collectors create perfect little worlds

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Have you ever looked through the windows of a dollhouse and wished you could climb in and exchange your reality for that fantasy world?

If so, you aren't alone.

The world of miniature collecting can be captivating, devotees say.

"It's an addiction that nobody wants to get away from," said Terri Hirt, owner of Plum Miniatures and an avid collector of tiny items.

Miniature houses aren't just for dolls.

"It's not a dollhouse, it's a piece of three-dimensional art," said Debbie McManus, owner of Lynlott Miniatures Dollhouse Junction in Aspinwall. "No matter what else is going on in your world, with a miniature house, you can always make it perfect."

The world of miniature collecting is making a comeback from its heyday in the 1970s, as children from that generation are now looking for ways to re-create their favorite youthful pastime and pass it on to new generations.

Ms. McManus has 3,200 Facebook followers and a thriving online and brick-and-mortar business as proof of the resurgence.

"There used to be 10 dollhouse stores in this area," said Ms. McManus, whose mother Judy Lynch opened the shop with her friend Betsy Lott -- hence the name 'Lynlott' -- in 1977. "This was the first -- and the last -- store dedicated to miniatures in Pittsburgh."

When her mother died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 50, Ms. McManus found herself in charge of liquidating the shop. But fond memories of her mother and grandmother and their miniature collections piqued her interest, and before she knew it, Ms. McManus had reopened the business.

She sold it in the late 1990s so she could raise her three children but ended up repurchasing the business after seven years. Online purchases now account for 25 percent of sales.

The two Olivias

"It's definitely a labor of love," said Ms. McManus, 54, who has outfitted several dollhouses of her own, including one called "Olivia," named for her daughter, who was 2 years old when Ms. McManus started the house.

Olivia -- the daughter -- is now in college, and Ms. McManus estimated that she has spent more than $10,000 in furniture and accessories for her namesake, a miniature Cape Cod mansion that's on display at the shop.

Ms. McManus also carries dozens of other house kits that range in price from under $30 for a simple cardboard kit to $2,950 for a one-of-a-kind weathered cottage with gingerbread trim. House kits come in just about every home style. One called "Northside" is a townhouse made of teeny-tiny bricks.

The kits contain the materials needed to build the shell of the house. Paint, roofing and flooring materials, decorations, furniture and accessories -- even wallpaper -- are available at the shop.

The general rule of thumb is if you can find it in your real house, you can buy it for your dollhouse. That includes even the most mundane or unusual items, such as a Beatles album, beaded purses, books, kitchen utensils, food and even a tiny ship in a bottle.

Ms. McManus said she draws customers from all over the world, including a woman from Australia who twice came to the U.S. just to visit the store.

Ms. McManus is president of the Ohio-based Dollhouse Miniatures Merchants Association, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting retailers.

"We've been trying to get support for our brick-and-mortar stores," Ms. McManus said. "We're the ones who create the customers and help them build it."

The collecting bug bites

Rich and Sally Wheland of Hampton are avid collectors who frequent Ms. McManus' shop at least once a week.

"We're doing this seven days a week," Mr. Wheland said of miniature collecting.

The collecting bug bit the couple when Mr. Wheland was laid up after back surgery in 1989. With little to occupy his time or hands, Mr. Wheland quickly assembled the miniature house his wife brought home one day.

The dollhouse was relegated to the garage when Mr. Wheland went back to work as a social worker, but it was rescued from the dust 15 years later when he found himself laid up again after a knee replacement.

Mrs. Wheland, a dollmaker and substitute paraprofessional at the Hampton School District, encouraged her husband's new hobby, helping to pick out wallpaper, furniture and decorating schemes for the dollhouses he builds.

"She does the decorating, I do the building and the wiring," Mr. Wheland said. The wiring allows the homes to be lit with tiny lamps, chandeliers and even Christmas bulbs.

The couple is looking forward to building a dollhouse for their 4-year-old granddaughter, and the hobby has helped the now-retired Mr. Wheland discover a creative side he didn't know he had.

For parts he can't find, such as a particular type of wood flooring he wanted to use, Mr. Wheland manufactures it himself in a home workshop.

"I wouldn't have thought of it, but it's been an absolutely wonderful hobby," he said. "I can use my hands and I can still use all of my tools."

Ms. Hirt, who has been collecting miniatures for 20 years, also got her husband, Caesar Palermo, involved in recent years as the economy began faltering.

Business at his Plum framing shop isn't always robust, so Mr. Palermo began using framing materials, such as wood pieces and leftover glass, to make miniature terrariums, greenhouses and glass conservatories for his wife to decorate and sell.

"I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I didn't think I'd be any good at it."

But, the miniature glass structures with copper trim have been a huge hit for the couple, who sell the items out of their home-based shop, at Lynlott Miniatures and at collecting shows, such as one coming up in Penn Hills next weekend.

"I wanted a greenhouse and he decided he'd make me one and this has evolved from that," said Ms. Hirt, who said the glass houses sell out before she even finishes placing them out for display at shows. "People were buying them as fast as he could make them."

Ms. Hirt also makes and sells unique miniature wicker furniture, along with holiday-themed pieces, everyday accessories and centerpieces.

"If I need something for my own house, I figure out how to make it, then I sell them," she said.

Ms. McManus said she has some customers who will spend thousands of dollars on their miniature homes, although most collectors keep it a low-cost pastime by buying older dollhouses to refurbish on Internet sites or at flea markets.

When will Ms. Hirt stop collecting?

As her husband says, "That ain't happening."

"There is no time to stop collecting," Ms. Hirt said. "It's just like a real house. It's never finished."

Items from Lynlott Miniatures and Plum Miniatures will be featured at the Three Blind Mice Miniature Show March 8-9 at the Comfort Inn on Rodi Road in Penn Hills. Details: www.dollhousejunction.com.

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published February 28, 2013 12:00 AM


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