Laverne Hall -- Doll Maker Designs Positive Self-Image For Black Children




- Owner: LaVerne Hall

- Business: Designs black paper dolls and sponsors several shows to promote black doll makers.

- Goal: To increase national exposure of the traveling show, expand paper-doll business into a full-time operation.

- Tip: Keeping a good idea small can mean losing potential revenue.

In the 1940s, LaVerne Hall and her sister, as children, made their own paper dolls.

On scraps of paper, they drew and cut out their dolls. They used crayons to color in hair and facial features, and designed clothes and paper furniture.

The children also made up stories about their dolls.

Fond memories of those dolls came back to Hall in 1982 when her daughter, Mahji, was 3.

In hopes of sharing that experience with her daughter, Hall set out to find Mahji a set of her own paper dolls.

However, Hall wanted Mahji's dolls to be black.

``It would help her understand her heritage,'' was Hall's line of thinking. ``It would help her realize that, even though she might look and talk a little different from the other children, being black was OK.''

The only problem, Hall discovered, was that there were no black paper dolls available.

She decided to design a doll herself, using construction paper to draw a doll that resembled Mahji, and colored in the skin. She designed a couple of dresses as well.

``It turned out really well,'' she said. ``I asked Mahji if she would mind sharing her doll with other boys and girls. She said it would be OK.''

The pact between a mother, who is now 52, and a daughter, who is now 13, led to a business that has given Hall a reputation among black retailers nationwide.

She's known as ``LaVerne the Paper Doll Lady.''

Besides the Mahji doll, Hall designs paper dolls and clothing for individual customers. She also has designed a multicultural group of characters and a book of stories about such things as how they go to school, ride the bus and visit the zoo.

Hall sponsors several shows throughout the country that display the work of black dollmakers. It's her way, she says, of helping a less-visible group of entrepreneurs gain some exposure.

The doll sets sell for about $3.99. Hall's customized paper dolls, which she designs from photographs, sell for $60.

Many companies who stock her products believe Hall is the nation's only designer of black paper dolls.

``She's really on to something,'' says Stan Hicks, owner of Oakland, Calif.-based Black Earth, an African-American store which has sold Hall's dolls for several years.

``It's very crucial in children's development that they see themselves in a positive image. Being able to play with a doll of their color helps to reinforce that image.''

Joseph Antoine-Zimbabwe, owner of Blackbird Books in Seattle, adds, ``It's an original idea that helps parents find toys their kids can relate to.''

But Hall differs from many entrepreneurs. Instead of taking an unusual product and marketing it aggressively, Hall refuses to devote more than 10 to 20 hours a week on her product.

One indication of this is, perhaps, her annual sales.

After seven years of business, she had sales in 1989 of a mere $8,000. Rarely have her sales exceeded $12,000, she says.

She earns a little money from the black-doll shows held in three to five cities every year, though the exhibition cost is minimal - $100 to $150.

Money, in Hall's eyes, is of little importance.

``I sort of realized that I can wear only one pair of shoes in a given day, and that there's only so much room for so many clothes,'' she says. ``I just don't need a whole lot of stuff.''

What she does earn is reinvested in the business, she says, or it goes toward one of her favorite hobbies - collecting dolls.

A clue to that hobby is in her Bellevue home. Dozens of handmade black dolls are scattered around the sitting room.

A Raggedy Anne in a floral dress sits on the floor next to a Raggedy Andy in a sailor suit.

A farmer with tufts of ``hair'' in his armpits grins as he sports a pair of blue overalls, a button missing from one strap.

An angel shows off her halo, gauzy wings and a toe-length gown, while an elderly woman in a beige overcoat leans wearily against a cane.

Hall gets the dolls mostly from exhibitors who attend her shows. And, in many ways, her interest in them is part of her dream to expose the talents of black doll makers.

``All of this,'' she says, ``has been more of a mission for me than a business. I want to let people know that there are black dolls, beautiful black dolls on the market.

``There are people producing these dolls who are entrepreneurs, trying to make it, and they're getting very little recognition.''

Hall started her business with $1,500 from personal savings, and investments from her late husband, Ellsworth, and two sisters, Betty and Voncille. The first-name initial of each investor makes up the name of her company, VELB Associates.

With the start-up investment, Hall took her construction-paper drawing of the Mahji doll to a graphic designer, who printed 2,000 copies of the doll on slick, commercial paper.

The doll came in a book called ``My Little Mahji Doll Set'' and included a set of clothes, some of which were designed by Hall's sister, Betty.

Since Hall had little money, she printed a one-page flier and order form, and mailed it to the members of several national African-American organizations to which she belonged.

Fashion magazines such as Vogue and Glamour got wind of Hall's paper dolls and printed blurbs about the product and where to get it.

``I couldn't afford to advertise, but word managed to get out all over the country,'' Hall recalled.

As the product's popularity grew, Hall began showing it at doll shows and marketing it to retail outlets. Shops that specialized in African-American merchandise picked up the product, but Hall had little luck selling it to mainstream retailers.

``They kept telling me that a black paper doll would never sell,'' she said.

The attitude frustrated her, especially because black families shop at large retail outlets as much as white families and others do.

Hall now markets her dolls mostly through her shows. A Seattle show usually occurs around Thanksgiving, and the dolls are sold locally at University Bookstore, other smaller bookstores and card shops.

They also can be ordered by writing to P.O. Box 1212, Bellevue, Wash., 98009.

But a growing need to try again to bring her dolls and other black entrepreneur's toys to mainstream markets is pushing her, a bit reluctantly, toward expanding her business into a full-time venture.

``I think I need to pour more energy into this, to market more aggressively and get my dolls and other doll makers more visibility.

``It's beginning to be time to give this business the attention it deserves.''

Small Business Snapshot appears regularly in the Business Monday section of The Seattle Times.