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Convention boasts more than the bear necessities


THE ANIMALS that you'll see in Barbara Baldwin's nicely decorated country home are Grunt, the wrinkly Shar-Pei that greets you at the door, and the bears.

The teddy bears, that is, the friendly ones that recline on the mantle, the unbearably cute ones showcased in the oak display in the living room, the handful of miniature black, brown and white ones sitting in a crock on the dining room table.

They're known in the Baldwin household as "mommy's toys," the collectible and vintage teddy bears neatly and carefully placed all over the house. Baldwin, 46, is mother to a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old and is the proud owner of more than 100 fuzzy bears and stuffed animals, some nearly 90 years old and many worth in the $10,000 range.

"If you think about it, a teddy bear is the only thing that survives," said Baldwin, who lives in Sparks.

Cabbage Patch dolls, Atari video systems, Trivial Pursuit -- these toys come and go, but teddy bears are here to stay. Each fuzzy little creature has a charm of its own -- shoe-button eyes that cry for a hug, crooked ears that ask to be caressed, a pot belly that begs to be rubbed.

"They're all different," said Baldwin. "It's almost like there are no two . . . the same."

For bear lovers and fanciers, the eighth annual Teddy Bear and Buddies Fall Frolic takes place tomorrow at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Those who come will get a chance to vote for the best-dressed bear, best childhood bear and the bear that looks most like its owners, among other categories. The convention boasts a show and sale where folks can hobnob among 150 experts, dealers and collectors from across the nation and from as far away as England. It's billed as one of the biggest bear shows in the United States, next to the Walt Disney World Teddy Bear Convention in Orlando in December.

Baldwin will be at the Timonium convention to sell her bears and wares and help novice collectors get started. She's considered to be a specialist and has turned her hobby into a full-time job, which she operates out of her house with the help of a computer and many teddy bear catalogs and price manuals. She travels with her husband to London and California to trade shows to upgrade her collection.

Other bruin lovers may not be as serious but they're just as fervent.

Cumberland-based Hobby House Press, which publishes "Teddy Bears and Friends," a magazine for stuffed-animal collectors, has a circulation of 60,000. It estimates that there are more than half a million collectors in the United States.

England, Japan and Germany also boast high numbers of bear lovers, according to Rene Trezise, public relations manager for Hobby House Press. These collectors belong to more than 150 teddy bear clubs, including the International League of Teddy Bear Clubs, the Teddy Bear Artists Association and the Good Bears of the World.

"It's surprising how many people have teddy bears," Baldwin said. "It's almost unreal how many people like teddy bears."

Baldwin and her husband, Byron, 44, started their collection innocently enough 10 years ago, when they shopped around for toys and items to decorate their son's nursery. They stumbled upon a Steiff tiger, and "we got so interested in Steiff because the toys were made so well . . . that we started buying them."

Among the companies known for making quality bears are the German Margarete Steiff toy company and the now-defunct Schreyer and Co., better known as Schuco. They started hand-making quality mohair teddy bears about 100 years ago, and their bears now command prices in the thousands.

Baldwin appreciates the craftsmanship and care that went into making these vintage bears.

"It really gets hard for me to buy my kids toys," she said. "The toys are almost disposable. They're built to fall apart after X number of plays. The new cars they make for little boys, the wheels just fall off."

The stuffed animals of today are just as bad.

"You have to remember, the ones they make now come from China, where they'remade at the cheapest rate and with the cheapest material," Baldwin said. "There's very little time involved.

"The very first bears made in Germany were known for having the best material," said Baldwin. "Everything was done by hand. That's why it was so expensive."

Her favorite bear, which she got just last month, is a 1907 mint-condition Steiff bear that stands 20 inches tall and has plush, golden mohair. The price she paid was roughly $9,000.

"The people who owned it had treasured it dearly," she said. "They needed to sell it because they had some unfortunate accident happen in the family. It meant so much to them that the bear find a good family."

Bears are not the only items she collects. Her house is full of early American pottery, Royal Doulton ceramics and Handel lamps from the '20s, each neatly tucked away in a corner, handsomely displayed on a table or carefully put away on a shelf. And she's starting a collection of antique dolls.

Baldwin is not the only one who collects in the Baldwin household, either. Her son, Christopher, a fourth-grader at Sparks Elementary School, boasts a fine collection of Matchbox cars as well as a mammoth collection of 9,000 baseball cards. He and his dad are planning to open a business to swap, sell and trade cards in the near future.

Meanwhile, Baldwin's daughter, Jessica, a student at Epiphany Pre-School in Timonium, is an aspiring Barbie Doll collector.

Christopher and Jessica are also the proud owners of some of the vintage bears, and Baldwin said they give their stuffed animals lots of tender, loving care. "They both have respect for Mom's toys," she said.

The eighth annual Teddy Bear and Buddies Fall Frolic runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Timonium Fairgrounds. Admission is $4.50 for adults, free for children under 12. For information, call (301) 255-8717.

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