Toy Story

Real Good Toys makes tiny replicas of elegant homes

by Rosie Wolf Williams

toys0315Chris and Jim Abrams are the owners of Real Good Toys in Barre, a manufacturer of handcrafted doll houses with a worldwide following.

When First Lady Rosalyn Carter’s decorator called the owners of Real Good Toys, they knew it was going to open up a door to opportunity. A dollhouse door.

Jim and Chris Abrams, president and vice president of Real Good Toys in Barre, remember the presidential decorator’s call in 1980 to commission a special dollhouse to be put under the White House Christmas tree (Jim then owned the company with John Javna). Real Good Toys was one of very few manufacturers at the time making dollhouses.

“Dollhouses that year had a lot of exposure as a popular hobby, and ours in particular because it was under her tree,” says Chris. “That gave us a huge boost. That was our diving board into the marketplace.”

Jim, originally from Cleveland, had attended the Art Center College of Design in California. He eventually headed to New England to work as a landscape painter and visit the places he had enjoyed as a child going to summer camp. He landed in Vermont in 1971 and met Chris in 1973 at the Thrush Tavern in Montpelier.

Chris was born in Elizabeth, N.J. — “Exit 11 on the turnpike, just like Tony Soprano,” she says, laughing. She was completing her degree in art education at Goddard College, and was listening to music at the Thrush when Jim came around the corner. “There was only one chair left in the room, and it was right next to me. It was fate.”

They married in 1975. Jim was still painting, but not selling anything. He realized, after their daughter Ela was born in 1976, that he needed to have something more stable. “I went to work in the fall of 1977 for a friend at The Drawing Board in Montpelier doing picture framing. And then in 1979 a casual friend joined us at a poker game one night. He was the person who actually started Real Good Toys.”

The friend, John Javna, was looking for a partner for his business, which was then located on the Barre-Montpelier Road. Jim agreed to sign on as production manager, although he had no experience in that field. “In those days John didn’t run a year-round operation,” says Jim. “In the summer he would hire people to make things that he had accumulated orders for during the first eight months of the year. And our crew was probably about six people at the time.

I came from a manufacturing background — my family had a house-paint manufacturing company — and I was really opposed to the idea of starting over with new people every year. So we became a year-round operation. John and I became partners as of January 1, 1980.”

“In 1980 there was no miniature dollhouse industry,” says Chris. “There was one show in New York where people who were doing miniature dollhouses kind of gathered in a row. That was a time where collectors started to open up shops — specialty shops of strictly dollhouse miniatures — to help support their hobby.“

The First Lady’s designer contacted Real Good Toys after seeing its display at the New York show. He wanted a dollhouse: a brick Victorian with a wrap-around porch. They had two weeks to complete the house, at their busiest time of the year. They customized one of their kits, adding gingerbread, cornices, trim, bricks, and shingles.

The partners attended the unveiling of the custom-made “First Lady” at the national press party on December 15, 1980. Publicity from the commissioned work not only helped their business, but also boosted the industry.

A year later, Javna decided to take a year off to write a book — 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth — which landed on The New York Times best-seller list. In 1982, he told Jim he wanted out of the dollhouse business so he could continue to write. Jim saw that as an opportunity to create a solid business of his own.

In the midst of the recession, he and Chris came out with a low-cost line of dollhouses called The Children’s Choice. The line pulled them out of the slump. Chris had a retail store in Montpelier called Weaver’s Web that sold yarn and weaving supplies (her preferred media as an artist). She was already involved in Real Good Toys, and saw the potential in the wholesale business. She sold her store to Judy Chase in 1986 so she could devote more time to the dollhouse business.

“Around that time period, people made dollhouses for themselves or for their children, but they didn’t consider it an industry. It was something that you just did on your own,” says Jim. “During the ’80s, it suddenly became a true industry where it was supporting employees. I think that the growth of the industry and the growth of the miniature-retail stores was primarily driven by middle-aged ladies who were working to support their hobbies.”

The Miniature Association of America was formed in the mid ’80s. More people began to handcraft miniatures and import products from other countries. By 1988, Real Good Toys was growing out of its space on Barre-Montpelier Road. The Abramses looked to the Vermont Industrial Development Authority (now the Vermont Economic Development Authority) for a low-interest loan to purchase a larger building. They moved into the 25,000-square-foot Lawson granite shed on Quarry Hill Road in Barre.

The company expanded even more with the addition of the 13,000-square-foot warehouse across the tracks. “This has been a good town to do business in,” says Chris. “We don’t compete with the granite industry. We weren’t competing for the same workers, and we weren’t competing for the same business. It was a win-win situation when we took this granite shed over and turned it over to woodworking.”

The business peaked in 1999, when Real Good Toys employed around 52 people. Today, it employs 12, including office personnel. Gary Root, the production manager has been with the company for over 33 years, and its “newest” employee has logged 15.

Last year, the company sold 25,306 dollhouses, room additions, and displays for housing dollhouse miniatures. It also sold 21,452 packages of a wide variety of dollhouse accessories, such as furniture, windows, and doors.

Marj de Koster, owner of My Doll’s House in Torrance, Calif., has ordered the company’s dollhouses for 24 years. “Their dollhouses are simply the best quality product on the market,” she says. “Real Good Toys is known for standing behind their product. That kind of support is very important to us, to be able to give our customers the very best customer service possible.”

The Abramses live in East Montpelier. Both like to hike, and Jim enjoys snow sports, golf, and kayaking. Chris practices yoga, reads, and plays mah-jongg. They have two daughters, Ela and Corinne, and five grandchildren.

Their customer base has changed over the years. “It’s not as nostalgic a world as it used to be,” says Jim, adding that the evolution is largely due to Title IX, which opened up university sports to women, and the emergence of the digital world when young people spend so much time texting. “And the middle-aged women are no longer collecting for themselves.”

After Bill Lane started building dollhouses to keep himself busy after becoming disabled, he tried several brands of dollhouses, but found that the Real Good Toys house kits were sturdier and more suitable for kids. The Tupelo, Miss., resident built and gave away over 100 houses in 2013 to organizations such as Toys for Tots and military organizations. He plans to build at least 100 again this year.

“This year the barns have caught on like fire,” Lane says. “I do the custom work here and decorate them differently. The kits are all uniform and every piece comes out exactly the same, even when I mess up. They go out of their way to make sure I have what I need. I called them about some dollhouses that were no longer in production. I asked them about putting them back into production for me, and they did; I asked for rounded staircases, and I got them. I am impressed with the quality. I can’t say enough nice things about them.”

The company has made many dollhouses for Ralph Lauren, and was recently commissioned to build its largest one to date, which will be used as a display for Lauren’s flagship store in Tokyo. One of its dollhouse kits shipped to Antarctica (a winter project for a scientist), and other houses have been featured in the Smithsonian catalog; the Margaret Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.; and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum store. A few years ago, the cable TV series How It’s Made produced a segment on the company.

Real Good Toys distributes to retail hobby stores and online retailers, and sells direct to consumers through its online site and its Factory Outlet Store in Barre. A new line of toys targeted at retired boomers who like projects and building things for their grandchildren is being worked on. Real Good Toys uses no computerized equipment to craft dollhouses and kits. Prototypes are created from drawings.

“I always like to say that we’re a business from the turn of the century” says Jim. “We are not a fancy woodworking shop. Everything really is crafted by hand with table saws and very common equipment. It’s home-grown, and it’s humble in that respect. We try and keep manufacturing simple.” •