There are wooden dollhouses in almost every room of Barbara McGhee’s store in Brentwood. These two stand about four feet tall. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit

There’s a good chance you’ve already seen Barbara McGhee. She’s easy to spot and hard to forget.

Barbara McGhee puts the finishing touches on a food rack she made as a Christmas present for her next-door neighbor on Manchester Road, Baumann’s Fine Meats. Using clay, she molded each fruit, vegetable and cut of meat by hand. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Maybe you saw her at Brentwood Maddenfest in September. Her business, McGhee’s Miniatures, a dollhouse store, was in the Maddenfest parade. She was the one out front in her pink and blue satin Irish dance costume, big smile, wearing a tiara, step dancing.

Or maybe you saw her last December on the edge of Manchester Road, across from Schnucks. She was out in front of her business in a Santa Claus costume, tap dancing to Christmas carols from a boom box. Every night for a week.

If McGhee’s marketing techniques seem a little weird to the rest of us, what do we expect? You don’t run the only business in St. Louis that sells dollhouses and dollhouse accessories by being conventional.

“My favorite quote is the one about how ‘every mighty oak started out as a nut that held its ground,’” she said. “That’s the story of my business.”

McGhee is also unique in the contradictions she embodies.

• Though she’s creative and artistic, a free spirit with a whimsical personality, she has a degree in computer science and once worked in artificial intelligence for a large corporation.

• Though as a child she used to cry in art class, “because I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t do anything,” she now hand-makes a wide variety of tiny, intricate dollhouse items.

• With zero experience in retail, she not only started a retail business, but chose a niche in the largely uncharted wilderness of dollhouse miniatures.

A furnished dollhouse on display at McGhee’s Miniatures. All items are 1:12 scale to fit dolls that are from 5.5 to 6 inches tall. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

What Goes On in the Dollhouse House?

It was 19 months ago that McGhee moved her business from the Crestwood Court mall to the house at 8835 Manchester Road in Brentwood, next door to Baumann’s Fine Meats. It’s part store and part workshop. Customers not only order dollhouse kits or buy premade dollhouses and accessories, they can assemble and/or furnish the houses in McGhee’s workroom. She’s there to answer questions and offer free advice.

Barbara McGhee made this tiny Dr. Seuss book for a child’s book shelf.

“There are five houses being worked on back there, with two more to come,” McGhee said. “It’s getting to the point where I’ll have to start charging a fee, so people should take advantage of the setup I have now.”

After assembling a house from a kit, a customer can furnish it with flooring, wallpaper, furniture and countless other accessories, from lamps to table settings to ceiling fans. Many customers install room-to-room wiring for electric lights.

House kits start at $175. Flooring and wallpaper are about $25. A wiring kit with lights is about $125.

Typical customers are parents who come in with their children. Barbara recommends that the child be allowed to decide how a house is decorated and furnished. She said the hobby is empowering, especially for girls.

“For young children it’s a place to play with dolls,” she said. “When they get a little older it becomes more about the design and the arranging. Then when they get to their tweens and teens, it’s all about building and designing. It’s your house and you are the CEO. You are the main contractor.”

Barbara McGhee listens to customers Jennifer Grotpeter and her daughter Clara. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Her First Dollhouse

Barbara and her sister grew up in Kirkwood. Their father was an attorney, a partner at Herzog, Crebs & McGhee. He bought the girls a dollhouse at a school auction when Barbara was seven and they loved it. She graduated from St. Theresa’s Academy in 1991.

While attending Webster University McGhee was recruited by a former professor to work at SBC, using an artificial intelligence computer language developed by NASA. After two years she returned to Webster and finished her computer science degree.

“I finished my degree right when the tech bubble burst in 2000,” she said. “Also, artificial intelligence was such a niche that I had my résumé nationwide and couldn’t find a job.”

Rekindling the Passion

McGhee made this bottle of milk and box of cereal.

While working at SBC she’d found a dollhouse kit in her parents’ attic. Now that she was unemployed she had the time but not the money to furnish it.

“Once I lost my job, even though I had great savings built up, I didn’t feel justified spending money on a hobby while I wasn’t working,” McGhee said. “But I still wanted all the stuff. So I started figuring out how to make stuff myself. And unfortunately, having the personality of a computer programmer, I didn’t make one set of billiard balls and sticks, I made 200.”She handmade other dollhouse furnishings as well, such as food, plants, parasols, dresses, “and like 200 sets of panty hose that are 3 inches long,” she said.

Festivals Then Storefronts

McGhee made this model of a 12-pack of Diet Coke.

Barbara sold the items from her booth at the Greentree Festival in Kirkwood two years in a row and wondered if she could take it even further. In 2009 she saw a TV news story about the Crestwood Court shopping mall starting ArtSpace, where dozens of artists and other small shops could sell their wares for low rent prices.

“I was in my pajamas,” Barbara said. “I threw on my clothes and ran up there. He said he had a few spaces left but still had 250 applications to go through. Something was telling me I was supposed to be there.”

As instructed, she went home, filled out an online application and waited.

It seems nothing is too small for McGhee to mold out of clay, including a plate of orange slices.

“Three months later,” McGhee said, “I get this phone call: ‘This is so-and-so from Crestwood Court. We love your idea about a dollhouse store and would love to talk to you.’”

She finally had her own store, and the rent was only $100 month.

“As I signed my lease and was carrying my key walking up the hallway at the mall, I was like, ‘Oh my God, when they find out I’ve never worked retail and I’m not an artist, they’re going to kill me.’”

Centerfielder, Dollhouse Maker

After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an article about her store, she got a phone call from Chuck Diering, a former St. Louis Cardinal who had played with Stan Musial from 1947 to 1951.

“After he retired from baseball he became a car salesman and he started building dollhouses, which his wife loved,” McGhee said. “He really loved the detail and work that went into them so he built some gorgeous houses. He called me and asked if I’d sell them on consignment and part of the deal he offered is he’d come to the store in his uniform, sign autographs and tell baseball stories. We did it twice.”

Here’s one of the dollhouses made by former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player Chuck Diering, (Photo by Steve Bowman).

Dollhouse House in Brentwood

ArtSpace broke up after two years, when Crestwood Court closed.

Recalled McGhee, “I said, ‘Okay God, I don’t know what to do. You tell me.’ Well, that December my sales more than tripled what I’d had any previous month. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to find a new space.’”

Somebody at the Regional Arts Commission told her of a vacant business in Brentwood but they said they couldn’t find it. Barbara knew Brentwood from owning a condo at Brentwood Forest a decade ago so she drove over to investigate and found the house.

“When I pulled up it just so happened the landlord was in the building here,” she said. “It was empty. It used to be a daycare center, which explains the clouds on the ceiling and the ladybugs in the workroom. But that was fine.”

McGhee opened for business in May 2012. The house is smaller than the 3,200 square feet she had at Crestwood Court, “But this is a much better socioeconomic region,” she said. “People ask me if I miss the foot traffic I had at the mall. Well, most of the foot traffic was walkers exercising.”

A glance at the front windows of McGhee’s Miniatures hints that this isn’t your typical business. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

Something to Pass Down

But McGhee definitely wants to get more business. She thinks she will if she can convince people that dollhouses offer something lasting in a world full of obsolescence.

“Today if you ask kids what they’re going to hand down to their children, what can they say?” she asked. “Their outdated, useless iPhone that no longer works because the technology doesn’t support it anymore? I want to give kids the chance again to touch something and say, ‘Look what I made.’”

If she gets enough people to experience that benefit she knows she’ll fulfill her dream.

“Eventually I want this place to be a madhouse,” she said. “I want to be running around with wallpaper stuck to my butt, something stuck in my hair, wallpaper paste down my shirt, glue all over my pants, as I’m running from house to house helping everybody and laughing hysterically the whole time. That’s my dream.”

For more about McGhee’s Miniatures:
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Barbara McGhee has 13 dollhouses of her own. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

A set of wooden furniture for a baby’s room. (Photo by Steve Bowman)

A wooden bedroom set. (Photo by Steve Bowman)