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This miniaturist is trying to keep the lights on in one of the last dollhouse shops on the East Coast

Posted at 12:44 PM, Jun 16, 2023

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — People looking to escape the day-to-day grind may choose a road trip or tropical getaway.

All James Opher needs to do is show up at work.

“We call this the happy place. We have signs that say ‘The fun starts here.’ I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Opher said. “If these walls could talk it would be amazing. Fun things in a tiny world.”

Opher is living large by going small.

“Well, we’re looking at a house in the bedroom. The furniture is from Germany,” Opher explained as he peered into a dollhouse.

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He operates My Little Town Dollhouse and Rehab Showplace on Route 301 in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

“They have everything from the harp in the music room. We have food. We have all types of things. I think it is amazing,” Opher said.

It is a business that grew out of a childhood hobby of building model cars.

“And then I find out later, as an adult, actually that there is such thing as a miniaturist,” Opher said.

The 65-year-old miniaturist owns about 200 dollhouses of all shapes sizes and selling points, like a home with electricity.

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“Well that is the only way to go and you have to it as real as possible. Not all of the houses are, but when we can we do,” Opher said.

Bargains can be found, but Opher said the world of miniature can come with mammoth price tags.

“If you want to go in the other direction we have furniture that cost $300 to $400. All handmade and hand painted. Yes sir,” Opher said.

The married father of three prefers hand-crafted to mass-produced. His version of a 1930s movie palace complete with a working screen his pride and joy.

“So I went to the Dollar Store and got me some matchboxes. Some stickers and gold paint and some Joanne Fabric and tada,” Opher said.

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Reactions vary when the retired city worker shares what he chose as his second act.

“When you talk about what you do, they’re either going to have a glazed over look on their face and say ‘Oh that is nice. Or you’re going to have the ones who say ‘Really! Are you kidding me,’” Opher said.

He doesn’t just sell items; he rescues them.

Aging owners who are downsizing or adult children who no longer want their family’s dollhouse turn to James Opher.

“It is not a great feeling because I like history. It is like having a piece of history go away in miniature,” Opher said.

It pains him to know treasures like these get trashed.

“I take them all in. I call myself the steward of these things until the next person takes over,” he said.

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Many beloved keepsakes find a new neighborhood in James Opher’s museum.

“Back here is my European village. I have things from England, Germany all over the place,” he said. “Without traveling. I have traveled.”

One donated dollhouse with a backstory would lead to an appearance on national TV two years ago.

“Antiques Roadshow. I’ve always wanted to be on Antiques Roadshow. I watch it religiously,” Opher said.

His Gottschalk Dollhouse from Germany was appraised for thousands, but it's not for sale.

“It was made in the 1860s and it still survived,” he said.

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The question James Opher asks these days is will his livelihood survive.

The shop and museum’s days appear to be numbered.

“I’m kind of down now,” Opher said. “It is hard.”

The owner of the building he rents is selling. Opher and his collection must find a new affordable storefront.

“So I’m in a strange place right now. I’m having to close up and not knowing where to go,” he said.

One of the last dollhouse retailers on the East Coast could shutter for good on July 31.

“I’m one of the only bricks and mortar around. Everyone else is online. It is expensive,” Opher said.

Despite the deadline, James Opher remained upbeat and determined.

“I think the hobby is so important to keep it going,” he said.

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The craftsman truly believes brighter days lie ahead.

“I want to go bigger and better,” he said.

He is a business owner who found purpose in his toy hobby.

“There are certain things around here that need to be preserved. I wish I could take it to the next level. Or at least to another building,” he said.

James Opher — the miniaturist hoping to leave the tiny lights on and escape a little while longer.

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“Still knowing I can come here and create and have people come here and see the magic and take some of the magic home with them. It is a win-win,” said James. “Miniature means quality in small. Because it is the world you can always tinker with. You can get away.”

James's shop is located at 10379 Chamberlain Road in Hanover County. If you would like to reach James, he can be contacted at 804-616-2281

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