The Doll Doctor

There is a little shop in Paris on Rue Parmentier where for more than half a century self-taught master Henri Launay has been repairing dolls, particularly French porcelain poupées. I first glimpsed him through the storefront window at work in the dusty shadows within. He was wearing a white lab coat, and he held a celluloid baby doll in his hands that he was assessing with the bespectacled tenderness of an old-fashioned country doctor. All around him were piles of broken dolls and various parts: eyeballs, limbs, and torsos. Here and there was a well-loved Teddy bear too.

I walked by the shop a few times in the course of the days that followed, and finally I pre-composed a sentence or two in French, and steeled myself to enter. I wanted him to know that I respected and admired him, and that his work reminded me of a time when things were still deemed worthy of repairing rather than discarding, when craftsmanship had value, and work was done with care.

I understood, too, that the ancient dolls and stuffed animals come to him with names and stories, and in restoring them to life he is restoring memories and continuity, providing comfort to someone. Also, I think there is great beauty in finding one’s passion, even an odd one like doll repair, and doing it well. It was clear to me that Monsieur Launay is a treasure–and he’s ninety years old. I felt I must pay homage.

He was standing at the counter when I entered, wooden file drawers behind him, and shelves crammed helter-skelter with doll heads, spools of cord and thread and wire, a bit of wig and stuffing, a chubby leg with a pink knit bootie on its foot, a pair of tiny red shoes, and a few tools, like scissors, files, and pliers––although he has said that his favorite tool is simply his hands. From a boom box came the sounds of classical music, through the front window, sunlight slanted, and the busy street outside receded into unreality. Time seemed to have stopped inside this shop.

I stammered out my well-intentioned sentiments, and I’m sure he understood. He’s heard this sort of thing before, and I was just another fan. He pointed out a newspaper clipping from the New York Times published about decade ago…”en anglais”…and I learned some basic facts about him from that. He started out as a young man repairing umbrellas and belts, and gradually shifted to dolls, accumulating very specialized expertise. But the dolls he repairs are real ones, dolls of quality and character, dolls that have been cherished companions. (He is disdainful of the mass produced modern dolls–Barbies, for example–which he can do nothing to fix.)

He has amassed an inventory of doll parts over the years from defunct stores and factories, and can make eyes open, limbs move again, and broken shards whole. The dolls he repairs are so beloved to those who bring them in, he views his clinic as humanitarian. His skill and patience are breathtaking.

The journalist who interviewed him when he was eighty years old asked him if he thought about retirement. His response: “This is like an arm or a leg. If didn’t have the boutique I would miss something, I would feel mutilated.”

Ten years later, he’s still here.

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