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Junior Meets: Teddy bear designer, Rikey Austin of Alice’s Bear Shop

The author, illustrator and mum-of-three shares the secrets of her teddy bear hospital and tells us about her pop-up soft toy surgery at Selfridges


Posted: 5 September 2013
by Alex Lloyd

Rikey Austin
Rikey signs one of her beautiful illustrations.
Ting Finds A Bell book cover
One of Rikey's books, Ting Finds A Bell.
Woodroffe bear from Alice's Bear Shop
Woodroffe is one of the bears on sale at Alice's Bear Shop and in Selfridges.
Big Tat Bear
Big Tat bear is a big hit with children who visit Alice's Bear Shop.
Dr Dave and Nurse Lesley at Alice's Bear Shop
Dr Dave and Nurse Lesley care for the sick bears who are brought to Alice's Bear Shop.
Alice's Bear Shop window
Some of the Alice's Bear Shop bears, waiting to be taken to loving homes.

Rikey Austin is the creator of Alice's Bear Shop, a range of beautiful cuddly toys and story books, as well as a store in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Her bears are now available to buy from Selfridges. She is married to a fossil hunter called Paddy and they have three sons - Tom, 24, Jack, 22, and Leon, 14. 

Where did the idea for Alice’s Bear Shop come from?

Since my eldest boys were six and five years old, I've been involved with repairing old bears. I love the character they acquire with time and only wish they could talk. I found myself giving them a voice for my children and making up adventures for them, making little sketches. Soon every bear had to have a story.

How did the brand progress from that point?

The brand originally came out with Russ Berrie (a teddy bear manufacturer) who saw one of my drawings and asked who made the bears. I explained that they were characters I'd made up for the stories and were all in my head. They asked if they could make them. As we have several very talented people here at the bear hospital, especially Dr Jojo and Dr Dave, we made samples of each character. They have now been released by the lovely people at Asobi as part of the 'Slow Toy' movement. Asobi like me are very keep on social responsible and I love their ethics.

How long does it take you to come up with the stories for the books? What about the illustrations?

The stories are the easiest bit. I think my head would burst if I couldn't get them out. As a family we're lucky to have good imaginations. The painting is the bit I love most. Really bringing a character to life, capturing their character in a picture is the best job in the world.

Why do you think teddy bears have such universal appeal, for adults and children?

When we're very small the world revolves around us. As long as we're loved, warm, fed and not thirsty, we're usually content. The first time we often feel a responsibility for anything else, before we're old enough for pets even, we often have a soft toy. We tuck it up in bed, fret if we leave it behind somewhere. I think that's a really important part of our development and it stays with us.

Describe your first teddy bear for us. 

My first beloved softie was a grey mohair cat. If I close my eyes I can still see him now. He looked like a slightly flattened bear but with a tail and pointy ears. His mohair was short and a little bristly. I adored him. He was left in a service station on the M5. I sobbed until my dad drove all the way back but he was gone. I think the smallest hope of finding him is why I love car boot sales and bric-a-brac stalls even now.

For those who haven't visited the shop before, what can they expect. 

Alice's Bear Shop is a teddy bear and doll hospital in Lyme Regis, Dorset. As well as repairing much loved softies we sell soft toys, vintage and collectable bears and dolls, and educational games including the Alice's Bear Shop Brainbox game, which I'm very proud to say is an award winner. We also teach bear making classes from very simple plush bears for children to mohair jointed bears for adults.  We've been here for 14 years and we're open seven days of the week. You just never know when a teddy related emergency might occur!

How does the teddy bear hospital work? 

A bear who is lucky enough to get played with often will show signs of wear and tear. Children (and adults) bring in their much-loved teddies and dolls for repair. If they live too far away they send us photographs by e-mail and we can diagnose and quote for repairs. We have a dedicated team of doctors and nurses. Dr Dave and Nurse Lesley, who are a husband and wife team, are usually to be found in our teddy hospital at the back of the shop. We have a ward there where bears can be seen through the windows. They have little beds and they love to get visitors. We often receive lots of 'get well soon' cards to decorate the walls.

Have you had any particularly memorable, old or unique patients? 

We once were brought in a grubby modern plush bear by a lady whose mum had passed away. She'd been hoping to find her mum's lovely old mohair bear which she remembered always sitting on her mum's bed but he had disappeared years earlier. As soon as we began checking over the new bear we realised that there was something very odd going on. We asked permission to do some exploratory surgery where we soon discovered that beneath the modern plush hid the beautiful, if rather delicate, 1920s German bear. We were able to fix the old bear and add new stuffing to the plush bear so the lucky lady got two bears to remind her of her mum.

We also once had a lovely old bear in who had been used to smuggle love letters into and out of a work camp during the Second World War. We've fixed Winston Churchill's grandson's wife's bear, but possibly the most memorable was a loved-to-bits dog with the unforgettable name of Poisonous Mushroom!

What is going to be happening at Selfridges in London this weekend?

Dr Dave, Nurse Lesley and I will be offering free check-ups for people's teddies (and other softies) if they bring them along to the Selfridges Toy department between 12pm and 4pm on Sunday 8 September. We may even have time for a few minor repairs and Dr Dave can give advice on more serious repairs and bear care. 

I will also be reading my books about the teddy hospital and I'm delighted to say that the bears from the books will be available too. They can all be signed and dedicated. People will also be able to see our wonderful teddy bear story-time chair and see the big Tat bear.

What other children’s writers and illustrators do you admire? 

There are so many great books out there for children. If I'm able to go with personal choice then Allan Ahlberg and Roald Dahl. As an adult reading to a child I simply love Graham Oakley's Church Mice books and Bob Wilson's Stanley Bagshaw books, which are loads of fun to read. Their wonderful illustrations inspired and still do inspire me.

What were your favourite books as a child? And what books did your children enjoy?

Other than the above, Winnie the Pooh was definitely amongst my favourites and I've shared them all with my own children. I especially remember sharing Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH with Leon. He was mesmerised and we still find ourselves looking for places that we think the rats could use as a new home. If I don't mention Leon's favourite, Michelle Paver, it won't be worth me going home today.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Always an artist. I am just so lucky to be doing exactly what I wanted to do. I am the daughter of a bricklayer who was the son of a bricklayer who was the son of a bricklayer...you get the idea? Imagine their horror when I declared I wanted to be an artist! Still, I can build a passable wall when needed.

Who is your favourite fictional bear (or toy), other than your own creations?

It has to be Bagpuss. We often get lost teddies handed in here at Alice's Bear Shop so I totally understand the joy of reuniting a much loved lost or mended toy and it's human.

We have become such a throw away society and I believe that finding a toy that will become your child's lifelong companion is something we need to rediscover. Selfridges have delighted me in their vision not to bombard children with toys but to bring them a true friend. It gives me real hope for the future that such a prominent store shows such a warm heart and such corporate social responsibility.

Take your teddies along to Selfridges on Oxford Street, London, on Sunday 8 September, 2013, to see the team from Alice's Bear Shop. Find out more at www.alicesbearshopuk.com

Did you know... Selfridges won the Junior Design Award in 2012 for the Best Childrenswear Department

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