SPRING GROVE, MINN. — At eye level, it’s just another laundromat. The only one in this small, historically Norwegian city in the southeastern corner of the state. But look up, and faces stare back.
Plastic dolls with dark lashes, fabric dolls with pink dresses, vinyl dolls with matted hair. More than 2,700 dolls hang from the laundromat’s ceiling and walls, many of their arms outstretched, their eyes open.
The laundromat’s owner, Mike Volkenant, who goes by “Lucky,” has owned this place for 25 years and, at some point, hung a few dolls from the ceiling. “A 12-foot ceiling — nothing else you can do but hang dolls on it, I guess,” he says with a shrug. Lucky and his wife, Jean, own the secondhand store next door and have been collectors for years. So he had plenty of old dolls to choose from.
“Just like everything else, it was something that starts,” Volkenant says, “and once it gets going, I couldn’t stop.”
People started hearing about dolls at L J’s Ye Old Wash, and started stopping in on their way through town. They wouldn’t wash anything or buy anything. Instead, they’d stare. Some women, after many minutes, would tell Lucky about a special doll or a childhood memory. “That makes it fun,” says Volkenant, 74.
Then the boxes began arriving in the mail.
The Volkenants moved to Spring Grove — best known for Spring Grove Soda Pop — from Illinois, where Lucky ran a service station for 21 years. There, he carried a gun to work each day, he says, and by the end, “the veins on my hands stood up like that.
“I just couldn’t handle that high-tense thing in the big city anymore.”
Volkenant had grown up in Hector, Minn., a town about the same size as Spring Grove, pop. 1,300. And the city is “close enough and far enough away” from Jean Volkenant’s family in Onalaska, Wis. At first, he ran a bar and restaurant on Main Street. But the work didn’t suit him. Lucky likes to move — can’t quit moving, really — and felt stuck inside. The laundromat and adjacent store turned out to be a good fit.
If the place is quiet, as it was on a recent morning, Volkenant can step outside to garden, dig into a project or haul his own laundry to their home across the street. (“You’ve gotta keep busy, keep the blood flowing.”) Each summer, in plots around the building, he grows the ingredients for vegetarian chili — the meal he credits with helping him cut his cholesterol in half. (“Those peppers are medicine.”) It was here Volkenant babysat his grandchildren, holding his 2-week-old great-grandson close as the dryers hummed. (“I wouldn’t trade that time for nothing.”)
He doesn’t have a clear explanation for the dolls. It turns out Jean is the aficionado, her best Barbies stored at home, behind glass. “I have my own collection of dolls,” she says, “and they’re not hanging from a ceiling, believe me.”
Jean is quick to point out the problems with Lucky’s strange sculpture, chief among them: “It’s impossible to clean those dolls.” And she doesn’t like Volkenant getting up on a ladder — for good reason. Nearly a decade ago, Volkenant fell 15 feet off a ladder behind the building, injuring his knee.
He wears a brace now, limping mightily, refusing to see a doctor.
“He’s a stubborn German,” Jean says with a sigh. “I’m German, too, but there’s a limit.”
Of course, the laundromat could be self-serve. But Volkenant shows up at 6:30 each morning and stays until the place closes. Each night for supper, Jean brings him a bowl of chili. He never did buy a change machine, so he trades customers’ dollar bills, digging into his pockets for quarters.
Antiques and collectibles spill into the laundromat from the store next door. Handwritten signs advertise knives, jewelry and VHS tapes. Books are $1. “Free coat with $10 purchase.”
But the dolls are not for sale. Visitors point out the Rainbow Brite and the My Buddy, which according to eBay could be worth a few hundred dollars. Some dolls have become collectible just “because they’ve been hanging up there 20 years or more,” as Jean puts it.
Volkenant won’t add to the collection unless someone mails him a doll. He gets boxes monthly. The packages are postmarked from “all over, East Coast, West Coast, south,” he says. “They came traveling through in the summer, maybe. Then all of a sudden, here comes a box.”
One woman, from Minneapolis, recently sent three dolls she played with 54 years ago. Volkenant placed them on a shelf, next to a President George W. Bush action figure.
But most of the time, there’s no note.
“Most boxes that come in the mail, there’s nothing,” Volkenant says. “Just dolls.”