Gloria Senti scrutinizes the fine cracks crisscrossing her latest patient's bald head. She looks at the instruments fanned out on a table beside her: mallets, scissors, needles. At her feet a scramble of minuscule arms and legs poke through a white wire basket, and torsos tagged with odd reminders like Need Head litter countertops around her. About 300 patients await her tender touch, but she likes to take her time. Finally she slips two fingers inside the baby cranium, selects a sponge brush, and begins filling fissures.
"I use a lot of dental tools, because they're tiny," says Dr. Gloria, as she's known to patrons and lifelong friend and business partner Pat Blasi. The two women own and operate P.G.'s Enchanted Dolls & Doll Hospital, where both have bought, sold, and repaired all that is doll for the last 14 years.
You say your dog chewed your childhood teddy's head off? Don't sweat it. Blasi, who also collects vintage sewing machines and fabrics, sews like a whiz. "My pride and joy is from my aunt: an old-fashioned pedal Singer. Every once in a while, I'll run it, but I won't use it [for repairs]," says Blasi. "It's too gorgeous."
Have a Raggedy Ann with a missing button eye? Not a problem. Senti has a whole drawer full of eyes: green, brown, marble, plastic -- with lashes and without. Because Senti values authenticity, she hoards limbs she's cannibalized from other beyond-repair dolls, who serve as organ donors for the salvageable.
"I try and keep everything original. When you do a restoration, you want to respect what the doll had," says Senti.
P.G.'s hospital wing is about the size of a kitchen, and from floor to ceiling, stacked shelves house more than 200 varieties of naked dolls waiting for Senti's magic hands to restore their cracked, damaged, and aging façades. A three-and-one-half-foot-tall Barbie with matted hair awaits a comb, set, and style. A wild-eyed, circa-'60s Judy doll marks time until Senti sculpts her new hands from clay. Each patient receives admission papers, a bed number, and his or her own Tupperware bin.
Blasi arrives with lunch and begins to divide rice and beans between the two. But Senti's not easily distracted. She pauses only to blot her brush on the orange bath towel beneath her leg and peers over her large-framed glasses. The baby head on which she's working crowns an antique composition doll, essentially composed of sawdust and glue pressed together in a mold. If the dolls are stored in extreme temperatures, fine lines develop. That's where Senti steps in. Typically she sponges the lines with filler, then sands before she paints. The hardest thing about repair is blending new paints to match the old ones. But Senti knows her stuff.
"This doll came in with a similar problem," she says, holding up yet another head she's finished. Its glossy pink blush appears uniform, her touchups utterly invisible. Satisfied that her work's on track, she trades the brush for a small sander.
Senti learned her skills with paints and repairs when she and Blasi lived in New York in the late '60s, with Senti studying commercial art and Blasi opting for nursing. But Senti ran into a bout of bad luck. Her marriage didn't work out, and she had trouble finding a job in her field. Blasi suggested she become a nurse.
The road that led both from nursing to dolls follows a familiar American theme. After returning to Florida and nursing for a while, the two women longed to own their business and decided to start selling their old clothes and knickknacks at local flea markets from the back of their 1980 Tercel. The two returned each week in their white uniforms and gummy shoes. Eventually the Tercel morphed into a van, then a 23-foot mobile home, then a storefront on Commercial Boulevard. The merchandise evolved as well. What started out as junk became crystal vases, figurines, and dolls. By the time they opened their current shop on Oakland Park Boulevard, their stock was strictly doll.
"We thought it was a very enchanting building," says Senti, referring to the small house that now serves as both retail and repair shop. With its peaked and faded blue roof and its slightly peeling, glitter-white walls, the outside of P.G.'s does indeed resemble a well-worn dollhouse.
Inside it's heaven for a girl of any age, the kind of place you could circle twice and still not see every velvet slipper or gleaming ribbon. More than 40 lines of dolls spill from every nook: teddy bears and cloth dolls, specialty Barbies garbed as Thai princesses and Civil War nurses, porcelain girls and boys toting tiny books and baskets, lifelike babies with soft scalps and chubby feet. A back room enshrines antiques and collectibles, and the women offer a plethora of reference books for customers eager to price their own dolls.
"The neighborhood library doesn't have what we have!" quips Blasi. "There just isn't any one book that has everything in it. I have more at home that are like our bibles."
A few years ago, Senti and Blasi even created their own doll, a 24-inch porcelain number clad in purple silk and velvet. The inspiration? Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet. Asking price: $895. The women sold all 250 of them in a snap.
"We had an artist out in Oregon do it for us. We put a Passion perfume bottle in her hand for everybody who bought. Elizabeth Taylor got the first doll. She wrote us a letter and thanked us very much; I have it locked up in a vault," says Senti.
These days, both women look forward to adding a sewing room for Blasi and are planning a christening party for a recently acquired line of baby dolls. Still, they like to revisit their flea market roots once a month in West Palm Beach at the Piccadilly Antique and Collectibles Show, where they sell some of their rarer dolls and accept those in need of professional care.
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"You should see the expression on people's faces when we give them back their dolls," says Blasi. One woman, when we gave it back to her, she was so overwhelmed that she sat down and cried because it looked just like the doll she remembered as a kid."
Blasi no longer nurses, and Senti works part-time as a hospice nurse. She's grateful to Blasi for pointing her toward nursing more than 30 years ago, although she balked at the idea at first.
"I looked at her and said, 'What are you, nuts?' But I had a little boy, and I had to do something. So I tried it, and I was good at it. I liked it. Taking care of people, accomplishing something, always repairing something, whether it's a person ." Senti stops sanding the baby head for a beat. "Or a thing."
Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org