Since Danny Shapiro opened The Toy Shoppe in Richmond, Va., in 1975, he and his wife, Barrie, have paired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of collectors with the highest quality dolls and teddy bears. The Shapiros are matchmakers, relationship experts. Above and beyond anything else, they are partners.
“Danny and I are such a unique team,” shares Barrie, who met Danny in the shopping center where the original Toy Shoppe was located (the store has since relocated to a business park). “It works. There’s no conflict between the two of us. We fill in where the other one doesn’t like to be.” While Barrie generally focuses on the artistic side of things, Danny deals more with business matters. Both enjoy working closely with collectors and artists.
“We love what we do. I couldn’t imagine life without The Toy Shoppe. I love the people we’re involved with,” Danny says.
“I think we both have this feeling with the shop that we’re so proud of what we represent and for what we’re able to do for the artists,” Barrie adds.
Their efforts on behalf of the designers do not go unnoticed. Doll artist Berdine Creedy, of Berdine Creedy Originals in Gainesville, Fla., remembers admiring The Toy Shoppe’s magazine advertisements when she came to the United States from South Africa in 1996. “I always thought what a privilege it would be if they asked me one day to sell my dolls in their shop,” she says. “But I waited and waited patiently for a few years. When it was my 10-year anniversary I met them in my booth at IDEX, and they ordered some dolls and also asked for a shop exclusive. My heart was pounding that year, and I knew I had made it!”
The Shapiros’ reputation for offering the highest quality dolls, bears and toys is one they have worked hard to achieve and maintain. Whether creating advertisements to showcase their latest offerings, publishing a stunning catalog that serves as a picture book of collectors’ dreams, setting up gallery-like displays in their shop, or determining which dolls and bears to offer collectors, the couple keeps one thing in mind above all others: quality counts.
When selecting pieces to offer through The Toy Shoppe, Danny says he looks at the quality of design, artisanship and material used. “It starts with design,” he explains. “How does this feel? How does this look? There are a lot of things that are going through your mind. … Is it something that’s just a copy rather than really original?”
Finding unique pieces for their customers is something the Shapiros pride themselves on. They often work with artists and manufacturers to design limited-edition shop exclusives that are second to none.
R. John Wright’s “The Little Prince,” inspired by the character from the book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was the first exclusive piece made for The Toy Shoppe. “John had come to us in the early ’80s and asked if I’d like to have something done specifically for The Toy Shoppe,” Danny recalls. “I’ve read [that book] dozens of times. It was a classic that really touched me emotionally. I thought John could bring the character to life.”
The Shapiros were not disappointed—nor were the many collectors who added the striking doll to their collections. Since then, R. John Wright and his creative partner and wife, Susan, have created several more sought-after shop exclusives for The Toy Shoppe, as have a number of other companies and artists—Lynne and Michael Roche, Elisabeth Pongratz, Alexander Doll Co. and Tonner Doll Co., to name a few.
Building a Dream
The beautiful bears and alluring dolls beckon to customers from the gallery-style showroom at the Shapiros’ store and from the gorgeous catalogs and attractive Web site where The Toy Shoppe showcases its superior offerings.
“I consider The Toy Shoppe an art gallery,” says Wanda Miller, a doll and bear collector who lives in Richmond, about 20 minutes from The Toy Shoppe. “While it has dolls and bears from many different price ranges, the gallery is extraordinary. Exquisite dolls are displayed in vignettes that are incredible. Barrie and Danny are so gracious in answering questions and providing explanations about the various dolls, bears and artists to new visitors to the gallery. Many new collectors are born following a visit to the gallery.”
Danny understands the emotional pull toys, particularly bears and dolls, can have on children and children-at-heart. He recalls going to FAO Schwarz in the 1950s and “your eyes popping because you saw so many fabulous things. That’s how retailing can inspire. Good stores can be inspirational for children and adults, too.”
A native of Richmond, Danny got started in the toy business when he began working with his father, a mainstream toy wholesaler, after college. But Danny says his real love was for the imported and specialty toys from Europe. He has long been attracted to toys of the past. In college at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., he began as a business major. “I hated it,” he says. “I then went back to my love: history. It could explain some of my love of older objects. I definitely have an affinity for antique toys and antique dolls. All of these makers whose work we love to sell … are very much connected to the past.”
In the beginning especially, The Toy Shoppe specialized in all kinds of toys, particularly wooden ones. But the emphasis was always on dolls, teddy bears and stuffed animals. “Remember, most of the toys that are made are functional, inanimate objects, but a doll and a teddy bear have a direct connection to human emotion and animal instinct,” Danny notes. “So there’s that deep connection to your past. That’s what I think is so special about dolls and teddy bears. And they are really difficult to create as compared to many other types of toys.”
Barrie shares Danny’s affection for toys of the past. “I have always had a fascination and a love of toys. I’ve always loved finely crafted things,” Barrie says. “I like the open-endedness especially that the articulated dolls allow you, creating your own stories and using your imagination. The dolls I’m really drawn to allow that. Dolls that can be posed are the first ones that appeal to me. It’s the magical mix of emotion, warmth and humor. Some the materials used are reminiscent of another time.”
While tuning in the allure of the past, the Shapiros always keep their collectors in mind. “We get to know our collectors well enough to kind of take them in directions they wouldn’t have normally gone,” Barrie notes. Whether offering artists suggestions for exclusives or calling up customers to tell them about a doll or bear they think will be the next great addition to their collections, the dedicated shop owners seem instinctively to know what will tug at collectors’ heartstrings.
“Barrie and Danny are warm individuals who are really interested in promoting the art of doll and bear collecting. We share the same philosophy in that we consider our dolls and bears to be works of art,” says Miller, a Toy Shoppe customer since the early 1980s. “We appreciate the use of expression, color, texture and proportion in our dolls as you would a beautiful painting. I have learned so much from them over the years and look forward to our conversations. They develop an interest in the individual and their collection. They share their knowledge and offer suggestions that enhance a collection. It is not unusual for them to pick up a phone and chat about a new artist or piece from a favorite artist that they think the collector will appreciate.”
When Miller’s beloved schnauzer, Winston, passed away, her sister gave Barrie and Danny a call to purchase a soft-sculpture schnauzer in remembrance of her pet—but the Shapiros had an original idea. “They suggested that a wonderful memory could be created by having an oil-painted canvas of a favorite picture incorporated into a fabulous bear. They worked with the artist and my family to create this treasure that captures the spirit of my Winston,” Miller says of the Oz Matilda bear the Shapiros helped her sister to have made for her. Her sweet schnauzer is memorialized in a painting on the bear’s belly.
Creating lasting memories—and lasting friendships—is what the doll and bear business is all about for the Shapiros and their staff of 16 dedicated employees. “The real fun is still finding the beautiful object and then being able to show it to someone who would love it,” Danny says.
Derie Trujillo, a dentist, says her relationship with the Shapiros began when she was looking for a few dolls with teeth. “It certainly turned into much more,” says the collector from Westminster, Colo. The first doll with a toothy grin that caught her eye was Zwergnase’s 2002 “Annemore.” “I called The Toy Shoppe for the first time ever and spoke with Danny,” she recalls. “He was so nice and took the time to fill me in on the Zwergnase dolls and also sent me more literature on dolls he felt I might like. There was no pressure to buy anything; he just wanted to guide me in a fun and positive direction. I had not been collecting until that time, and the rest is history.”
Trujillo says she has “always had the utmost respect for Danny and Barrie. They are both very nice people, and I truly believe they enjoy what they do, as it shows in the enthusiasm in their voices and the fact that they take the time to learn what a collector really wants. They are teachers of collecting. I have learned so much about my beautiful dolls from them. I think it is great that they are so familiar with so many artists; it makes me feel comfortable buying an artist doll from them, as I feel they are guiding me in the direction I want my collection to go.”
Collector Mary Helmers of Saratoga, Calif., agrees with Trujillo. “Barrie and Danny are extremely friendly and very knowledgeable in the collectible market,” she says. “Their honesty allows me to know that what they tell me is extremely reliable. I can’t say that about 99 percent of the people I’ve dealt with in this world.”
The Business of Friendship
Artists, too, cherish the relationships they have with Danny and Barrie. “They are always friendly and very supportive,” German doll artist Heidi Plusczok says of the Shapiros. “They are highly involved with the collectors and are excellent representatives of my work. They are … at events and in close contact with the collectors, bringing so much life into the doll business.”
Annette Himstedt, also a German doll artist, treasures the special bond she has developed with the Shapiros, too. “Over the years our relationship has turned from an extremely good business relationship between Barrie, Danny and myself into a great friendship, which I wouldn’t want to do without,” she says. “They both have an unbelievable sense of humor, which has often proved to be a great source of comfort. Something that is outstanding about both Barrie and Danny is the fact that with all the fun we’ve had together, the business … never got neglected.”
Barrie, in particular, is quick to share stories of special moments with artists and collectors. “Every day when I come into work and I have something new waiting for me, whether it’s on the computer from an artist with something new or a box I’ve come back to the warehouse with, I feel like it’s my birthday,” Barrie says. “I can honestly say I feel like I make new friends every day.”
She fondly remembers one collector who never fails to make her “job” even more rewarding. “When she comes into the store and you put the doll in her hand and she sees these dolls, you light up because she lights up,” Barrie shares. “It’s like that sense of discovery by collectors of something new. It’s magically transformed doll collections into serious art collections and, often, into emotional collections.”
It is a true labor of love as the Shapiros and their equally enthusiastic staff share their passion with one another as well as with collectors and artists worldwide. “I feel … these last 30 years I’m looking at this patchwork quilt of magical moments spent with all these artists,” Danny says.
“I know what we’ve done in our own hearts and in our own home here at the shop and how happy we’ve made collectors,” Barrie adds. “And I know what we’ve done for the market. I’m really, really fortunate in that we both believe that anything that you do, you do well.”
In August 2008, at the Doll & Teddy Bear EXPO in Washington, D.C., the publishers of DOLLS and Teddy Bear Review magazines are recognizing the Shapiros’ dedication, hard work and ability to inspire by awarding The Toy Shoppe with the Jones Publishing Lifetime Achievement Award. “We are especially excited to honor Danny and Barrie with the Lifetime Achievement Award,” says Joe Jones, president of Jones Publishing in Iola, Wis. “This marks a milestone since they are the first retailers ever selected to receive this award. They are known and respected by artists worldwide and, in many instances, they have been instrumental in the success of a new artist. I am certain there is unanimous agreement in the professional world that the doll and bear collector world is better served with the expertise, dedication and love of the industry that this team brings to the marketplace.”
Danny and Barrie are humbled by the recognition. “I feel very honored and I feel very proud because we are being acknowledged for running our business well, and I’m so proud of Danny for what he created and love that we worked as a team,” Barrie notes.
“I think one of the greatest opportunities is having this great relationship with my partner, who is my husband,” she continues. “We love to eat; we love wine. Friday night is still our romantic night, and we can still close down the restaurant. Work is not tedious. … It’s just a really good part of my life. I could not even imagine it any other way.”