Edgerton doll shop survives by treating customers with care

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Jake Magee
August 23, 2015

EDGERTON—In a bright yellow building on the corner of South Main and High streets sits Clara Snell.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, sporting a floral shirt and glasses, she's the stereotypical kindly grandmother—the type who looks like she probably  overindulges her grandchildren with treats and presents.

Snell works at a desk along the wall, surrounded by thousands of dolls and accessories. Wrought-iron furniture made by her son Duane Snell Jr. lines the walls. Porcelain dolls ranging from $75 to $125 that she and her husband, Duane Snell Sr., cast and fired themselves fill the shelves.

Although she's retired, Snell devotes full-time hours to Clara Mae's Dolls & Other Things, the doll shop she's solely owned and operated in downtown Edgerton for five years this week.

When she's not interacting with customers, she slaves away at her sewing machine on a new project—usually doll clothes such as dresses or pajamas. When she's not at the shop, she spends time at home designing her next project.

Despite the hours and countless dolls and accessories, it's not a job to Snell.

“This is fun stuff. It's not work,” she said with a smile. “People say, 'You're going to work,' and I say, 'No, I'm going to play today.'”

Treating her business less like work and more like a profitable hobby has contributed to Snell's success.

At a time when small businesses quickly come and go, it's word of mouth that has kept Snell's shop afloat. She establishes relationships with her customers, which keeps them coming back, she said.

“People feel that it's a happy place; it's a fun place,” she said. “So I don't make $1,000 today. No big deal.”

Snell's fascination with dolls began before she can remember. As an infant, she was given a doll her grandmother had fashioned from an old blue sock. The 77-year-old doll now sits in a glass case overlooking Snell's store.

“I've always loved dolls. They've always been my bestest of friends,” Snell said. “If you needed a hug and you had a sad day, you could just play with a doll and enjoy.”

Snell knows children nowadays can relate, and seeing kids' reactions as they browse the store is one of the most rewarding parts of Snell's “job.”

Snell hosts a few children parties throughout the year. Kids come with their dolls to socialize, do fun activities and eat snacks together. It's another example of what Snell said makes her job so special: interaction with people.

The doll shop has seen customers from all over the United States and different parts of the world, including Chile, Switzerland and Japan, Snell said.

“It amazes me they can find me in little Edgerton from so far away,” she said.

Snell's business began several years ago when she started making doll clothes for her family. People began asking for doll accessories of their own, and it took off from there.

Snell operated out of her home, but customers felt like they were inconveniencing her and her husband by stopping in at all hours of the day. When the property at 202 S. Main St. became available, Snell jumped at the opportunity to buy it.

At the time, the area was overrun with corrupt landlords and drug-addicted tenants. Snell recalled that the building's seller told her she shouldn't operate a business there without putting bars on the windows.

Refusing to succumb to fear, Snell and her family set to work. They gutted the building, poured a new floor, lowered the ceiling, and painted and installed a porch, among other things.

After years of work, Snell has helped eliminate corruption and crime from the area, making it the nice neighborhood it is now, she said. On nice days, she keeps her doors wide open while she works.

Snell operates her shop simply. Credit and debit cards aren't accepted, as that would increase prices. She doesn't even touch the Internet.

“I'm not good at being on the Internet. Plus, I wouldn't have time,” Snell said. “It's such a jungle out there.”

Snell claimed love goes into every stitch of her work—and into her dolls, too.

Casting and firing a doll is a process that can take months because each one must rest before being fired again. Snell paints her dolls in layers up to five or six times, re-firing the doll after each coat to ensure a professional paint job.

“It's so rewarding to do something like this people so enjoy and makes them so happy in such an ugly world,” Snell said. “If I can pass happiness onto someone, that's what I'm here for. That's what the good Lord put me here for.”

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