Walking in to the All Small Miniatures shop in downtown Frankfort is a bit like walking in to a fairy tale of sorts, what with its intricately designed dollhouse furniture and accoutrements.
In fact, the passion for the miniature world of dollhouses that owner Hildegard Popoff possesses has its own fairy tale feel as well. Popoff grew up in Germany's Black Forest just before World War II, living with her widowed mother and brother. They had no TV or radio, so to pass the time together, Popoff's mother taught them to sew and do other crafts.
"I have always loved little things. I've loved dolls, old things, little things, and it stayed with me all my life. ... I just like delicate, small things.," she said, adding that eventually as a child, she longed for a dollhouse.
"We had a carpenter in the family, but he had no time to make a dollhouse," Popoff said. "So my mother said, 'Why don't we make some shoeboxes and make dollhouses out of them?' And pretty soon we had this whole set of shoeboxes. She showed us how to sew and make things from little scraps of material she had left over. This is how it all began."
Popoff, who, along with her husband, Nick, has lived in the United States since the early 1950s and moved to Frankfort in 1974, opened All Small in the mid-'80s after she bought the store from the previous owner, moving it to its current Ash Street location about five years ago. Along with selling everything someone needs to furnish his or her dollhouse, Popoff also helps customers design, renovate and even build their miniature mansions.
"Someone who is a collector or does a dollhouse, they don't just come in here and buy. They like to be helped," she said. "They live to be advised. They have a lot of questions, and I'm very happy to help anybody, and whatever knowledge I have, I like to share with them. I don't know everything, but I know a lot."
But in a high-tech world of videogames and cellphones, are people still interested in dollhouses? Absolutely, Popoff says. She gets a variety of customers from children coming in with their parents to hard-core collectors to architects and interior designers who enjoy building and furnishing dollhouses as a hobby.
"I have customers now who bring in their little girls who are now 5, 6, 7, because they came ... with their mothers and they still remember the shop. And they're so happy I'm still here," she said.
For Popoff, it's her regular shoppers who add a special joy to what she does at the store. They're not just clients. In some cases, they're friends who she has cultivated rich relationships with. One customer and friend from Mount Prospect whose husband recently died created a small, handmade scrapbook for Popoff, memorializing the time the three spent together.
"I love my customers, and I love people. I love to be amongst people," Popoff said. "And I knew when I started this, I knew I'm not going into a business that you expect ... to make a lot of money. It's a labor of love. If you don't like what you're doing, don't start it. It's not like a clothing shop or a shoe shop. ... It's helping somebody to fulfill a dream that they have. "
And Popoff is intimately familiar with those kinds of dreams. Her childhood dream of a dollhouse eventually came true when that capenter relative surpised her with a big, hand-built miniature house. It's in her brother's house in Germany, still in the family, like so much else she learned as a child.
"That memory how we did things, how I was taught to treat people and be respectful to people and when there's a need to help, help people and do something in your life that you like to do, that you can enjoy doing. Sure, it's stayed with me. ... If something leaves here, I want the people to be happy with the results. That makes me happy, too."