Sitting quietly opposite Gospel Oak station is a building, its pink and green paints faded and flaking. Hundreds of people walk by this shop daily, failing to notice it. If they were to look a little bit closer, they would find this sign in the window.
This is not a toy shop. Any resemblance to one is a flight of your imagination back to the good old days when this could be called a toy shop! (This is a collection of "toys" as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, not by any other definition.)
That confusing handwritten note is followed up by a few others telling people that if they want to come in, they must knock loudly. So we do, entering the most incredible world.
The lady who opens the door is the shop's proprietor, Kristin Baybar. The shop's named after her, though there's little way to tell that from the outside and even less once you're in there. She greets us with a wide smile and tells us to look around.
It's overwhelming. The store is jumping out at us from every angle — toys lining every shelf available, board games stacked up to the ceiling, which itself is covered in mobiles hanging down.
Kristin closes the door behind us and wanders back to a few cushions she's set up on the floor in another room rammed with toys. She sits down and starts scribbling on a few notepads; every now and then she looks up to pick up some toy or other, study it, and place it back down.
Toys line up with other toys in every nook and cranny of the shop. Often two playthings sit next to each other from entirely different universes, but that doesn't matter. In our mind we create crossover stories to explain why the rotund wooden professor is stood next to the plastic man holding a duck. Why are they hanging out? Well, the bobbly teacher just wants to relax with his friend duck-saver Dave after a long day at work.
There's an endless sea of toys in here, and suddenly these miniature scenes we invent begin to infringe on each other. The flock of cats are invading the Russian dolls, and with that interaction another story pops into our head. The store is chaotic, but when we talk to Kristin, she knows exactly what — and where — everything is. In essence it's an organised mess.
Perhaps the reason Kristin knows the layout of the store meticulously, is because it hasn't changed since it opened over 30 years ago, and Kristin has been in the toy business all her life. She started making toys at a very young age, because she grew up in wartime. "We didn't have much money, so whenever I saw something I liked, Mama would say, 'let's try and make it.'"
From there it became a question of making money as she grew older. She was good at making toys, so ended up at Heal's in their toy department. That's where she came up with her most famous creation. Humpty from Play School.
Humpty greeted young children on their television sets for over 20 years, and has become such a cult character that an original toy used on the set sold for £6,250 in 2014. Kristin recently found a few different coloured unstuffed Humptys in her attic, and proudly shows us one.
Kristin's always had a slight issue with parting with her creations. One of her first big pieces at Heal's was bought by Peter Sellers — yes, that Peter Sellers. Most people would be out celebrating, but Kristin just thought:
Damn. I liked that one best of all.
This difficulty in selling her creations continued, as she tried to take her pieces to different stores. "I realised how horrid it was to sell your work. People would say stupid things like: 'well we like them but come back next year', or 'they're not our household colours.'" So Kristin realised she had to start up her own shop.
Much better to have a little shop of my own, doesn't matter where it is — that's why I'm in this godforsaken place. We'll have fun.
We wouldn't quite call Gospel Oak a godforsaken place — it's only zone 2 — but Kristin has years of experience of peeved toy collectors telling her so. "It's amazing how this is the back of the beyond to most people. Harrods is the centre of London to them. One person even went to Burnt Oak instead of Gospel Oak."
The assortment of toys here might seem random, but it isn't. "I tend to buy things I like. I don't buy them because they will sell. There's still a few things that are 30 years old here. And I don't mind that, because I chose them and I love them." Friends of Kristin's have been trying to help her become a bit more business-savvy, telling her that some toy's "prices are crazy", but Kristin argued that's what she paid for them. Eventually she relented, and now the store is more affordable.
I thought it didn't really matter where you were, people would come to you. And in a sense, that isn't happening. How many customers have we had today? Not a single one. There's part of me that says that's fine as I can just recline here. And the other half that bites my nails and says, 'Oh dear, how can I get going?'
It is a worry, but I don't let it worry me.
In the middle of the shop's front room is a doll house. There are many other rooms in this labyrinthine complex, most of them stuffed with dolls houses, which themselves are decorated with hundreds of miniatures. But this particular dolls house holds a special place in Kristin's heart (and shop) for a reason. It was decorated by her friend David when he was just 14. That was over 30 years ago, and the interior has remained exactly the same ever since.
As we're speaking, we hear the front door open and who should it be, but David himself. He's here to help assemble another dolls' house today. He's now a miniaturist in his own right, many of the cats in the store are his and he shows off something he found on Ebay to Kristin. It's a cooker for a dolls' house, made by some miniaturists they both know, who usually specialise in miniature prams. There's an earnest joy in both of them inspecting this rare piece, a reminder that they both truly love toys.
David then tells me the story of how he found Kristin and the shop; a happy accident.
"I grew up over in Wood Green and I only discovered the shop by absolute chance. I was going to Brent Cross and I was at Archway waiting for the 210 bus, and the C11 bus came along, and the destination was also Brent Cross. So I thought, ok, let's get on that bus instead. The C11 bus goes past the shop and I saw a dolls' house in the window — at the time I was just renovating my family's dolls' house. I thought brilliant!"
David hopped off the bus to check the shop out, but as it was a Monday, the store was closed, (the shop has the very same opening days over 30 years later). David came back a few days later, and that's when his friendship with Kristin began.
I've always said, as a 14 year old to be invited into this place and then given free reign to indulge and enjoy, was such a rare thing to happen to anyone. I've never ever forgotten that.
David explains the two main styles when it comes to dolls' house miniatures. He picks up a cat toy, which to our untrained eyes look like any of the hundreds of feline miniature which populate the store. "These are stunning, they're the perfect representation of a cat in real life [just in miniature]. Incredible workmanship. But they leave me slightly cold. I admire them, but they haven't got the dolls' house charm."
What David means by 'dolls' house charm' is best typified by another one of the houses he furnished. It's filled with the most fabulous dogs — they live the high life, wearing elaborate headdresses. There's a pair in there which David made himself, two canines luxuriating in the bath with a bottle of bubbly on ice. There isn't a hint of realism in them, but that isn't the point. Instead the charm and creativity rules this house.
David sets to work on assembling the house, so we return to Kristin, to chat about the rather rundown state the shop is in (at least from the outside).
It turns out the shopfront looking shabby and battered by time is not as accidental as it seems. In fact, Kristin always hoped it would go this way. "I was taken to the south of France once by my Mama, we used to go camping. All the houses there were peeling and had these faded fronts, so I thought I'll paint my shop beautifully, and that'll be it. So this is the 'it' stage that it's in at the moment."
Kristin loves the continuity of the store, and recently it paid off in a delightful encounter. "One day, it was dark and nighttime, and I hear a voice saying: 'It is! It is! I know it is!'" Kristin looked out and saw a woman outside peering into the shop's window. "I crept to the door so she wouldn't see me and I opened it. When she got to the door, she just came in as if she was in a trance, and she said: 'It is!' So I turned upside down and said, 'It is?'"
Finally, the woman explained, "'I was brought here as a child. I had no idea where I was in space, but your shop has been a lasting memory all my life.'" She had searched for the shop for many years without finding it. "She said:
Up to this moment, I didn't know whether you were real or I had imagined you.
"And I thought what a compliment to pay."
Nowadays, Kristin makes fewer toys than she used to, and part of her mind seems set on the shop's future. "I used to make a lot of toys myself, but I've lost the sight in one of my eyes, and now I'm happiest lying down. I try to keep up with making the dolls' houses, and when I'm in a good mood I make my miniature jigsaw puzzles, because I can make the smallest ones that are fully interlocking."
She thinks the group of friends she's accumulated who cherish the store and effectively volunteer there — "I give them what little I can, but it's not much" — will hopefully take it over when she stops. "They'll probably do a much better job running it than I ever did", she fatalistically quips.
We say our goodbyes and step out onto the street. The spell is broken, we've left the magical shop behind, for a semi-busy road on a gloomy weekday afternoon. We turn around to take one last look at the shop. If no one told you it was here, then you'd probably never bother to look. Kristin started a knock-only policy because she had a few issues with shoplifters in the past, but now she rather enjoys it.
"People tell me, 'I've walked this street hundreds of times and this is the first time I've seen your shop.' I think that's wonderful. Only the most curious people find us."
Kristin Baybars is on 7 Mansfield Rd, NW3 2JD. It's open 11.30am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't have a website.