Ocean City —
"Our aim is for children of all ages to come in and use their imagination again," said Marianne Flanagan, owner of Hello Dollies on the Ocean City Boardwalk. "I want kids to dream again."
Walking into the new store at 826 Boardwalk elicits gasps of surprise and squeals of delight from girls, young and old. Flanagan spent months finding the merchandise for her store before opening this past March. Hello Dollies carries clothing, accessories, and an impressive collection of diverse dolls.
It seems Flanagan is making it easy to dream again with Hello Dollies. After all, opening the store is one of her own dreams come true.
"I've always loved dolls and as a fantasy I used to say that one day I would like to own a doll shop on the Boardwalk in Ocean City," Flanagan said.
Flanagan was a nurse for 37 years prior to opening Hello, Dollies! this past spring. A stroke last summer prohibited Flanagan from returning to nursing, so she was left wondering what direction to head in.
Hello Dollies was a natural choice. The name seemed natural, too.
"I was trying to come up with a name and I thought it was catchy," said Flanagan. "Everybody seems to like it. Men go by and stick their head in the store and sing the first six bars of the song, 'Hello, Dolly.' It's funny. It's not women, just men."
When Flanagan opened Hello Dollies, she had in mind what she wanted customers to say about her store.
"When kids walk into the store they have the exact reaction that I wanted. They gasp, and they say that everything is so pretty," said Flanagan. "I wanted customers to say my store was magical. So far, I've had three that have."
Walking into Hello Dollies is not just a magical experience, however. After a quick look around the store, it becomes clear that it is not your typical doll shop.
"I have all races and just about every nationality," Flanagan said of her dolls.
There are white dolls and black dolls. There are dolls from around the globe - from Egypt, the Czech Republic and Manchuria. There is a line straight from Ireland. Another comes from Central America.
"There's been a great deal of interest. A lot of people have been coming in," said Flanagan. "It's really been phenomenal. I didn't expect this."
The Sew Able Dolls are geared toward children with physical handicaps or illness. One of the dolls has a bandanna and wig to cover a bald head from chemotherapy. Another is wheelchair-bound. There are crutches, a seeing eye dog, and even miniature hearing aids.
"I've noticed that many dolls are only structured to one race. This world is filled with different races and different nationalities. These children need to see that represented. They need to see themselves in the doll," Flanagan explained.
However, the children aren't necessarily buying the dolls that mirror their own face. "The blue-eyed blonds choose dolls of different races," said Flanagan, "and that shows progress to me."
The features of the dolls are realistic, too. Skin tones are not painted onto the same face. The noses, eyes and mouths are each molded to match particular ethnicities and races.
"It took months. I guess it took about six months all together to come up with all of these different dolls," said Flanagan. "I want this to be a happy place. Of course I want to sell things, but that's not my main goal. I want people to come in and relive their childhood for a few minutes. Or for children to experience a new part of their own childhoods."
She also wants to teach children. Flanagan did not spend countless hours shopping only for diverse dolls - she also searched for dolls and items that gave opportunity around the globe and, in buying them, would make a significant difference.
Hello Dollies carries the Downy Doll line with Danny and Dolly Downs. The dolls are representative of children with Downs Syndrome. They carry a backpack with cassettes that tell the story Donna, the real-life inspiration of the dolls. Each doll is handcrafted by developmentally disabled adults at the Camp Venture Sheltered Workshop in Stony Point, N.Y.
Another item Hello Dollies sells is miniature mosquito nets for a doll's bed.
"Three thousand children die from Malaria every day," said Flanagan. "If anyone purchases this netting, I put all the money toward purchasing real netting for children in equatorial countries."
Hello Dollies brings smiles to the faces of children that walk through its doors, and Flanagan is always there to greet them with a smile of her own. Her dream has come true with Hello Dollies. She's opened the store she always wanted to, and she's making a difference while doing it.
"I always wanted to own a store like this," said Flanagan. "I've found myself."
Hello Dollies is located at 826 Boardwalk, Ocean City. The store can be reached at (609) 399-2800.