Editor’s note: A version of this story appears in the March edition of Park Cities People.
Gayle Harrison was just looking for a job when she walked into Tom Workman’s office. What she got was a career.
Gayle and her mother, Dorothy, bought a dollhouse-supply store from Workman in 1974. They’ve been in the business ever since, but that business isn’t what it used to be. The Bluffview residents plan to close their store, Through the Keyhole, by month’s end.
“There’s some girls who love their dollhouses, and I have some ladies who love their dollhouses, but there’s just not enough of them,” Gayle said.
Through the Keyhole, which was originally called Minikins, was a side business for Workman. He also owned a company that made miniature prototypes for architects and inventors, and he met Gayle when she applied to be a secretary there.
“I didn’t know how to type or do shorthand,” Gayle said. “Why I applied for a secretarial job, I have no idea.”
During the interview, Workman found out he needed to replace the manager at Minikins.
“She called him while I was taking the interview,” Harrison said, “and she goes, ‘I hate retail,’ and I went, ‘Ooh, I love retail,’ because I’d worked in a toy store for a long time before that. So he goes, ‘You wanna do that job?’ And I said, ‘That sounds like a lot more fun!’”
Indeed it was. Gayle was having so much fun that, within a year, she had convinced Dorothy to help her buy the store. Workman wasn’t about to get in the way of her passion.
“It wasn’t as big a deal for me as I thought it could be, and I didn’t want to put the time in to make it into manufacturing or something like that,” the Highland Park resident said. “So I just sold it to them.”
The store was originally in Olla Podrida, the craft mall that once stood on the Coit Road site now occupied by Yavneh Academy and Akiba Academy. The Harrisons moved to the Preston Forest Shopping Center in 1995, “and that was about the time that everything started going down,” Gayle said.
Coincidentally, 1995 was also the year that companies such as Prodigy and America Online began offering World Wide Web access to the general public. The rise of the Internet and the decline of dollhouses are undoubtedly connected.
“Kids today want to do electronic games and things with their thumbs,” Gayle said, as she pretended to send a text or play a video game (or, as a more accurate portrayal of today’s youth, perhaps both at the same time).
Dorothy said dollhouses’ popularity took off after the hobby was featured in Southern Living.
“That really was a wonderful thing that happened,” she said. “People became very interested in it. It really was an art form — not just a dollhouse, but an art form.”
The Harrisons have slashed prices to reduce their inventory, and they’re not sure what they’ll do with whatever’s left on March 31. But Gayle is looking forward to seeing her grandchildren play sports on Saturdays rather than minding the store. Of course, they’ve developed plenty of other relationships via Through the Keyhole.
“We just have so many friends,” Gayle said. That’s the hardest part. I feel like I’m letting people down by going out of business.”