Shop Hopes Doll Maker Can Bring Business Back To Life Gambina Visits Store At East Park Center

December 04, 1990|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

They perch atop shelves in Hazel's Gift & Cards, world-famous dolls with names like Isabel, Desiree and Grace, porcelain-smooth complexions and garments of Chinese silk.

New Orleans' Gambina dolls surrounded creator Charles V. Gambina on Friday during his visit to the Glen Burnie gift shop -- the most recent addition to a string of outlets around the world.

The doll maker's visit gave a much-needed shot in the arm to Albert Jones' business in the struggling East Park Shopping Center.

Jones' family opened a chain of gift shops more than a year ago. But sales in East Park, off Crain Highway near the I-97 intersection, have dropped off this year, especially since Ames closed last summer, Jones said. He's hoping the Gambina line will help reverse that.

On Friday, Jones sold 50 dolls, with some help from Gambina, who signed certificates of authenticity and posed for photos with customers.

"Is this your first Gambina doll?" Gambina asked one elderly customer who'd bought her daughter a Little Bo Peep doll and stopped to get her picture taken with the doll maker.

It was.

Gambina, a 67-year-old New Orleans resident, discovered his talent for doll making at age 50. He started C. V. Gambina Inc. with three doll designs, then went on to produce the largest line in the nation, with 80 models. His dolls, made of porcelain, vinyl or cloth, sell for between $20 and $300.

"I started this business by taking a little old lady out of a flea market," Gambina said during a break from customers Friday. "I didn't know anything about dolls. I learned by doing it. I used to fall asleep on the factory floor at night."

Gambina, who'd worked as a pewter and silver manufacturer's agent for 20 years, tells the story of his walk through a New Orleans flea market one cold, damp Sunday morning, almost 20 years ago.

He noticed an elderly woman wrapped in a blanket, sewing rag dolls.

"I said, what would I do if that was my mother," Gambina recalled.

He saw the woman there several Sundays in a row. Once, he bought her coffee.

"Impulsively, I said what I wanted to say," he said. "I asked her, 'What would you do if somebody bought all the dolls you could make and you can go home?' " He worked out a deal with the woman. She would sew rag dolls, Gambina would buy them and store them away. By the time the woman decided to stop, Gambina, his wife and daughter had become accustomed to the dolls. They began creating their own designs.

"We'd sell 10 dolls one week, five another week," said Gambina.

Now, Gambina employs 42 workers in his factory, who design, cut, sew, assemble and ship all dolls from the New Orleans plant. The porcelain dolls are signed and numbered.

Workers also hand-finish all garments and dress the dolls in styles such as Victorian, Early American, French or Southern belle.

These days, Gambina spends much of his time traveling across the United States, Europe and the Orient to promote his dolls.

Jones is hoping Gambina will be back in his Glen Burnie shop next year.

"One customer said she'd just stopped by to say hi to Mr. Gambina," Jones said. "She bought three dolls."

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