They arrive in Oak Island from all over the globe, in shoe boxes and Amazon boxes and, in the case of a life-size — perhaps even larger than life — polar bear, inside a refrigerator box: hundreds upon hundreds of that most classic toy on any Christmas wish list: the teddy bear. They come from every continent to Winey Bears Country Store, from soldiers stationed in faraway places, and from celebrities, and from children. They come eyeless and earless and hairless and holey. Sally Winey understands their bereft and lonely owners; knows the bears have been, as she charmingly, euphemistically, puts it, “overloved, or suffered a trauma.” They come bearing letters.
Hello, my name is Teddy. My owner’s name is “mommy” or Miss Sara Erdman. She is 15 years old and going to summer camp soon. I always go to camp with her to keep her calm. Teddy has no eyes. Please do repair vision. I am loved without eyes. Please return as soon as possible and write “Teddy” on the box outside. Thank you, Teddy … Sara.
P.S. As you can see, my Bubbe (grandma) has been stitching me up for a long time. We both love her. Bubbe does not know how to sew. She tries.
Sally’s grandmother was a seamstress and an alterations employee for Macy’s department store. As a child, Sally sat beneath her grandmother’s 1897 Singer sewing machine and sewed scraps. Finally, her grandmother gave her a hand-cranked machine, clamped to the same sewing table, so that Sally could work on her own creations. Today, in a small, windowless studio at the rear of her store in a beachside town, Sally is still creating and re-creating. And she does it on the same 1897 Singer sewing machine, complete with treadle, that belonged to her grandmother.
Corduroy bears. Chenille bears. Velvet bears. Tapestry bears. Long-haired and short-haired and plush bears and porcupine-y bears. Bears wearing camo, capes, shorts, tutus, scarves, diapers, and bells. Bears sporting tams and yarmulkes and houndstooth deerstalker hats. Bears with long snouts and amber eyes and suede feet; with floppy legs and button eyes. Bears with patchwork tummies; with Jerry Garcia likenesses on their bellies. And those are just the ones on the store’s shelves.
A tanned, chatty, curly-haired woman, Sally began making bears in 1983, when she brought her third child home from the hospital. “I’d always heard that when you bring a baby home, you should bring something for the other children to love, too,” she says. So she made teddy bears for the two siblings. Her timing was serendipitously perfect. What Sally calls “bear season” began in the late ’80s, when bears — think Teddy Ruxpin and Care Bears — were on every child’s Christmas list and bedroom shelf. By 1987, Sally was traveling, designing bears for a number of companies, and building her reputation as a teddy bear artist. Self-effacing about every aspect of her life but this one, she says, “I’m responsible for how bears look today.” Before Sally’s designs, teddy bears’ eyes were on the sides of their heads, like horses’ or squirrels’ eyes. She moved them to the front.
This comforting, closer-to-human, look-you-in-the-eyes trait is behind some of the beloved, if unrecognizable, “traumatized” bears that arrive in Oak Island. Trauma usually comes in the form of a dog’s teeth. “An animal will attack anything that stares directly in its eyes,” Sally says. “I get phone calls that say, ‘The dog ate the face off,’ ” and days later the bear will arrive, faceless indeed, and gooey with slobber.
I have enclosed Stripy. Stripy is my daughter’s most beloved toy since she was two. Ava is now seven years old. During the past five weeks we have managed to avert many disasters involving Stripy. A few weeks ago we were not so lucky and our new puppy Pearl got a hold of Stripy and could not resist chewing off a few body parts. As you can imagine, it was devastating for all of us.
Since the accidents, we have had many conversations about forgiving Pearl for mistaking Stripy for a dog toy and about forgiving Mommy for leaving the gate open and allowing Pearl access to Stripy when she was vulnerable. Mostly, we discussed that while Stripy’s injuries will make her look different, we will love her just the same.
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Stripy comes swaddled in a blanket. Sally will spend two to three days hand-cleaning her. She may put her in the freezer overnight to kill any bugs that might be on Stripy. She’ll search for the same fur, with the same nap. Often, she buys bears at yard sales or thrift shops or on eBay just to have extra fabric for repairs. She’ll pore through the hundreds of eyes filling dozens of spice bottles in racks above her sewing machine. She’ll study Internet photographs to see how Stripy originally looked (though she’s familiar with most every bear ever manufactured). She’ll do her best to heal Stripy.
Still, she’ll include, as she always does, a disclaimer when she returns Stripy to Ava. “Sometimes I have to be the bearer of bad news,” she says. The pun is no pun to Sally. “Sometimes you can’t ‘make it back.’ But this is okay,” she believes, “because for those children, it’s a lesson in life that things change, but it’s still okay. A not-quite-perfect bear can teach young people to accept things in a more gentle way. It’s been through a trauma, and it’s changed, but it’s okay.” The philosophy is so sensible, so simple, and, like Sally herself, utterly genuine. “Let’s use it as a learning method, to accept change,” she says. “Life can go on.”
I pick up a bear wearing a tiny pullover of cream yarn. Sally knitted the sweater to cover a wound too gaping to match perfectly. “A nap that’s been deeply loved is hard to match,” she says without irony. The language isn’t funny to her. She hands me another bear and places my fingers on its tummy just so. There, beneath the fur, I can trace the seams — the scars — of recent surgery.
We received Vernon, our stuffed elephant, yesterday afternoon. We took him to give back to our granddaughter early that evening. When we walked in the house with the box, she immediately started yelling, “Vernon is home!” She just knew it was him. She hugged him and smiled the biggest smile you can imagine. Her mother, my daughter, said that Julianna would sleep good tonight.
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Teddy bear facts are fascinating. Most early stuffed bears were made in Germany, of mohair, the fur from Angora goats. Today, a Texas herd supplies 90 percent of American mohair. “It’s expensive,” Sally says, “$300 to $500 for a yard of mohair.” But it dyes well, and it comes in a wide variety of “feels,” from stiff to soft. Most bears’ insides are a polyester fill, but they’ve also come stuffed with steel shotgun pellets, or straw. As we talk, children wander into the store and pick up and stroke a minky-soft, deep brown bear as large as they are. The kids can’t help themselves.
Has she ever made a bear of real mink? Oh, yes. Many. At the moment, both a rabbit jacket and a mink stole lie on a table beside the sewing machine. To create a bear from the former will cost $250. The mink is unusable. “Old fur gets brittle,” Sally says, “and hard to handle. Leather is the hardest material to work with.” But favorite blankets, flannel shirts, jeans, T-shirts, and quilts have all become bears. This year, a woman brought in all the bathrobes that her husband, who died 15 years ago, had worn throughout the years, and had them made into nine bears: three for her children, and six for her grandchildren.
The bathrobes inspired Sally to make bears from her old wool Pendleton coat with its Aztec design. Her children instantly recognized the bears; their mother had worn the coat to dozens of their soccer games. She’s made teddy bears from wedding dresses and tuxedos, too. One terminally ill gentleman brought in his tuxedos. “I’m not going to live very long,” he said, “but I just know I’m going to have nine grandchildren, and I want them each to have a bear.” Sally obliged, and his widow keeps up with Sally. “At last count,” she says, “he had four grandchildren.”
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In teddy bear circles, and on the Internet, and in magazines, and at toy conventions, Sally is famous. When she was living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the height of “bear season,” she was traveling, consulting, appearing on QVC and the Home Shopping Network. In 2000, she was named one of the Top 50 Businesswomen in Pennsylvania and received an award from Governor Tom Ridge. But, she says, she’s “been quiet” for the past 10 years, after her husband was transferred to the Lake Norman area. When he retires, they’ll move permanently to Southport.
“Quiet” is relative, though. Sally does repairs for the renowned auction house Christie’s when they’re preparing a collection for auction. Steiff, the legendary manufacturer of stuffed animals, refers all distraught customers to Sally. She’s repaired a 1907 teddy valued at $10,000. (It’s believed the earliest teddy was created around 1902.) She’s made or repaired bears for celebrities whose names she’d rather not reveal. “Mostly, their handlers call,” she says, but she mentions Annette Funicello, Demi Moore, and Erin Murphy, who played Tabitha on the TV show Bewitched. Jeff Gordon’s mother had her make one for the NASCAR driver.
And she repairs for the rest of us, too. The stories are legion, each more unintentionally charming, with a heartstring tug, than the previous one. A woman from Pennsylvania recently drove to Oak Island just to take in her six-foot panda, McKenzie, for repairs. The woman cried when her husband took McKenzie into the store, she cried when she left the bear overnight with Sally, and she cried when she came back to pick up McKenzie, newly restored. Several times a year, one client brings her bear to be repaired. “His arm is too short,” she’ll say. Or, “His eye is crooked.” But “manufactured bears are not symmetrical,” Sally says. “They just aren’t.” She’s had people bring in a teddy and request that their feet match perfectly. Sally never really changes the hypochondriac teddy; she merely takes it back to her studio, where awls and pincushions, pliers and stuffing sticks and needles and tweezers clutter surfaces, and brushes the fur, flexes its legs, adjusts an eye. Whatever comforts its owner.
Is this weird? Sally doesn’t think so. “Lots of people are too embarrassed to admit that they have a stuffed animal. I’m a haven for people to bring in their overloved one. People say, ‘You don’t understand,’ and I say, ‘Oh, but I do.’ Because it’s so personal. I have to become that person and find out what’s important to them about their animal. I ask everything: ‘New eyes or keep the old?’ ”
No matter the time, Sally answers the phone. Customers call every day, and every hour of the night, in tears, in a panic. And to check on their bear’s progress. “They ask how it’s going. Say, ‘I can’t sleep tonight.’ I tell them, ‘You’ve got to let me go so I can fix it.’ ” One client has thousands of bears, all over the house. At least 700 of them are Sally Winey bears, signed by Sally herself, on the bottom foot. A crazy collector? Not to Sally. “They’re not crazy. They’re just different. They’re peaceful, caring. They have business cards for their bears, give them baths, change their clothes. There’s a culture.”
“The most important thing is to make people’s hearts smile,” Sally says. As we talk, several locals drop by the store for no discernible reason. Sally shrugs acceptingly. “Coming in just validates their existence.”
Unsurprisingly, she’s a giver, as anyone associated with an industry — and she would never call it an industry — that creates something made for hugs and kisses would surely be. After the Osaka earthquake in ’93, she made bears free of charge for Japanese dignitaries to sell, raising $60,000 for earthquake victims. She’s made Sir Cough-A-Lot bears — also free of charge — for sick children, and she provides bears for children at Dove House, an advocacy center for abused children in Iredell County.
What’s crazy, she says, is the Christmas season, when teddy bears — new ones, repaired ones — top so many wish lists that she gets at least 50 requests per week. Another busier-than-usual time is early fall, when children are going to college and taking their stuffed animals. With that longevity in mind, Sally has some gentle advice for new parents: “Though we never know what a child will choose to love, get two of whatever you give. Put the second one back. Four years later, you’re going to want it.” But not as a replacement for the original. “Don’t try to replace. Use the second to fix the first.”
To gift-givers and parents of children of any age, she says, “Don’t take away their bear. Don’t take away something they love. Don’t tell them it’s dirty. It’s unconditional love, and everybody needs that. A grown child will come in and say, ‘My mom has all these stuffed animals and it’s disgusting.’ ‘Why?’ I ask. What’s wrong with some small pleasure that people get out of an inanimate object that represents death and love and decisions and changes?”
Dear Mrs. Winey,
Thank you for speaking with my son, Chuck, this morning about the enclosed toy stuffed monkey which has been in my family for nearly 100 years. Undoubtedly, like many of your “patients,” this monkey carries great sentimental attachments. The monkey was given to my aunt by my uncle (her brother), who was killed in World War I just five days before armistice was signed. My aunt treasured the monkey as a young girl, and I fondly remember being allowed to play with it as a little girl as well. The monkey came to me upon the death of my aunt.
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At Sally’s mention of Christmas, it strikes me: the polar bear. Where it belongs is in a massive display of stuffed bears in the Christmas window of the iconic FAO Schwarz store in New York City. We stroll outside, and, even with Sally beside me, I keep my distance as she points out ripped vinyl on the toenails, a gash in his back. Astonishingly, the bear arrived with no return address; Sally has no idea who sent it. “This is a $10,000 bear. Shipping alone would have cost $500,” she says. In 30 years of creating and repairing more than 50,000 bears, this enormous, apparently ownerless specimen will be her most expensive fix ever. But someone, somewhere, has held it close and loved it dearly and, like 90 percent of all bears that arrive in Oak Island, probably calls it Teddy. We should all suffer such fates — to be overloved and find ourselves in Sally Winey’s caring, restorative hands.