One of York’s most distinctive shops closes for a major refurb

Iconic… Mary Shortle in 2016. Photograph © Google Street View
3 May 2017 @ 6.14 pm
| Business, Shopping

When you glance into this shop window, usually dozens of pairs of tiny eyes look right back at you.

But one of York’s most distinctive retailing displays has disappeared – albeit temporarily.

Mary Shortle, doll shop extraordinaire, is closed for between six-to-eight weeks. And when the 1,000 dolls that normally inhabit the Lord Mayor’s Walk store return, they won’t recognise the place.

Flagship store

Growing fast: Mary Shortle on Lord Mayor’s Walk. Photograph: Richard McDougall

Mary Shortle celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017. “We decided for our celebration we would expand the shop and make it a flagship store,” said Victoria Shortle, one of the family who own the business.

Although they now run two shops in Leeds, the York branch was the original – and it will soon be back to its best.

“We’re building on, we’re extending at the back. We’re having a completely new shop front built,” Victoria told YorkMix.

“I’ve just ordered eight big chandeliers for it – it’s going to be beautiful!”

Photographs: Mary Shortle on Facebook

Victoria said they were investing £80K on the refurb – but it was likely to end up closer to £100K.

It will see the ceilings raised and the shop expanded by about 300 square feet.

With the former Bulmers building being restored, and after the Giant bike store also expanded, it will mean that whole row of shops have been smartened up.

Although the distinctive hand-painted sign will be replaced by a more modern vinyl display, the distinctive shop window display, packed with dolls, will return.

“I do all the windows myself. It’s like my handwriting.

“I’ve got a very cluttered mind. Everything I have is packed with stock. I’m obsessed!”

Eight chandeliers

The dolls are astonishingly lifelike

Victoria admits the business is her life. “When you’re passionate about anything you specialise in a subject and work at it – I travel all over Europe exhibiting.

“It is 24/7 – I won’t lie, I don’t have any other life outside the dolly business.”

The dolls are made from German-made kits created to her designs. And she leads a team who hand-paint and finish each doll individually, some of which retail for £300.

TV babies

A fan… Derren Brown. Photograph: Derren Brown/ YouTube

And when she isn’t doing all that, she is in demand from stage and screen.

I make all the TV babies. I’ve done everything from Emmerdale to Kay Mellor in The Club – I did 12 beautiful babies for her last year for the BBC1 series.

 

I’ve just done Stella on Sky1. I did the baby for the Halifax advert.

And the shop has some famous fans too.

“Derren Brown, he’s a fan of ours. He has some of our dolls. We’ve got a really wide audience.”

Long history

Back soon: the note in the shop window

The shop on Lord Mayor’s Walk has been in the family for 64 years.

Her grandparents bought it in 1953, her grandad being chemist and wine and spirit merchant Edward Byrne.

So how did the doll shop come about?

“My parents are antique dealers,” Victoria explained. “A little old lady brought in an antique doll to sell.

“My mum said ‘£50, that’s a lot of money, I could buy a wardrobe’. But she fell in love with it, bought it, put it in the window, sold it within ten minutes and the rest is history.

“We spent a lot of our young lives in Christie’s or Sotheby’s, specialising in the dolls.”

Named after her mum Mary, the York shop is still run by Victoria’s dad Christopher Shortle.

These days most of the dolls sold are contemporary rather than antique. However her brother Dominic – a Savile Row-trained tailor by trade – keeps the antiques connection going as he runs Fully Furnished on James Street.

“We all help each other and work together in every business. That’s why it’s successful,” Victoria said.

Positive future

Mary Shortle is popular with collectors far and wide, and their oldest customer is an 86-year-old woman from Scunthorpe.

But there’s a young audience emerging, Victoria says.

“In the Leeds business, the 7-14 year old girl is our audience. It’s a big catchment. If you get one in the class you get the whole class – they get so inspired with what their friends are playing with.

“It’s lovely. And obviously we want to encourage that because that is, hopefully, the future collector.

“I started at eight collecting antique dolls.”

Children’s parties

They host regular events at the shop aimed at the younger age group – after all “we are fighting technology!”

  • We can get up to a thousand children during a two-day event in Leeds. It’s amazing.

    They come all the time, and we know the names of their dollies, so it’s lovely. It’s a very unique world that we live in.

She expects the York store to attract a younger customer when it reopens, probably in mid-July.

Although High Street conditions are “challenging” – especially as they have just endured a “shocking” 80% rate rise – she is hopeful that the business will enjoy a prosperous future.

“It’s very niche, and people will always find money for their hobbies and for things that give them pleasure. So it is very strong,” Victoria told YorkMix.

“We’re investing some money in it to take it to the future. Because I’ve got a little girl now 16 months. She’s the next Mary Shortle.

“And I’m hoping one day we can say the business is 60 years old.”