Photos Cameron Flaisch
Situated in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and only a two and a half hour drive from Rome; Helen, Georgia offers visitors the chance to get away, eat yummy German food and buy unique gifts. One such gift shop is a hidden gem of our state in the form of a local toy store owned and operated for the past 11 years by toymaker Tim Bramlett.
Bramlett got his start woodworking when he was just a kid. “We had tools in the basement, and every time I found something, I’d [accidentally] destroy it trying to make it look better. My best project was a cedar chest that someone threw out. I drug it home, and I chiseled it out and painted it green. I ruined the whole thing,” he jokes.
“I did furniture for a while,” he adds, “but people are so picky with furniture; it took the joy out of it. So then I got into toys. And kids don’t ever complain. They don’t ever say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t look like a truck.’”
Bramlett’s love for kids and the joy his homemade toys bring them propelled him into a career selling his toys at crafts shows for 20 years. It was after a craft show in Hiawassee, Georgia about 11 years ago that he visited Helen “like a regular tourist.”
He fell in love with the city and its beauty. And while exploring downtown, he found the shop he currently inhabits off of the main street. “But it was full of trash and boxes,” he explains. After convincing the owner to let him rent the space, Tim set up his woodworking shop, began selling his toys and he hasn’t looked back. Six years ago he even expanded the shop, doubling it in size.
The toys that he sells are all made in shop, 100 percent original and 100 percent handmade by Bramlett himself.
“You know, in 11 years I’ve not been able to find another toymaker [in Georgia] who makes stuff in their shop and only sells what they make. I’ve found people who do sell what they make, but they also sell plush toys or toys from China. I don’t do that. If I don’t make it, I don’t sell it,” he says.
As for the kinds of toys he makes, Bramlett is up for making almost anything out of wood. His store is filled with wooden cars, trucks, trains, planes, helicopters, ping-pong guns, rubberband guns, swords, shields, knives, tops, train whistles and more.
Crafting his toys keeps him very busy, which is why he is in the shop every single day of the year besides Thanksgiving and Christmas day. “From start to finish, a car might take just five minutes. But I always make 10 to 20 at a time, and I always love to stop and talk to customers.
“Customers inspire me,” he continues. “They tell me what toys they had as a kid, and I try to recreate them or make a variation of them.”
Every toy, sign and gift is customizable, as the Bramlett offers branding and engraving options. Bramlett and his employees take each individual order very seriously, with the goal of providing one-of-a-kind, personalized gifts. This has lead to not only customers from around the world, but repeat customers, who come once a year or more to buy exclusively from his shop. “It’s really neat. I’ve watched a lot of kids grow up from toddlers to teenagers over the years,” he says.
He encourages all visitors who come to his toy shop to just “come and play.” And if you have the pleasure of meeting the toymaker in person, he might also give you a souvenir bottom with the fun catchphrase “I know Tim.”
Whether you experience the shop in person or you do your shopping online, giving, receiving and experiencing Tim’s Wooden Toys will be sure to bring you child-like joy, no matter your age. As Bramlett often says, “I grew older, but I didn’t grow up.”
Bramlett is not the only craftsman getting in on the fun. Mother and daughter duo, Karen and Courtney Duke, make handcrafted plush dolls and gifts for their business, Heartstrings and Stitches.
“I just love to sew, and I started making the dolls for my kids and grandkids,” says Karen. Even though she has been selling her creations for years, she decided to take her business fulltime in 2012. Courtney, who Karen taught to sew as a child, has joined her mom professionally for two years now.
To make their dolls, the Dukes start by choosing a piece of muslin and drawing the doll they imagine. Then, they cut the pattern out. Next, they sew the doll and stuff it. After they embroider or paint the face on, depending on the type of doll, they add yarn for the doll’s hair.
The process of creating a doll can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on how much detail is required.
Karen said her favorite part of making her dolls is giving them faces that determine their personalities. Courtney agreed that the best part of the process is making each doll unique. As a lover of Halloween, those themed dollars are her favorite to make. “I get a lot of inspiration from Tim Burton,” she said.
In addition to seasonally themed dolls, the Dukes created animals and even cross stitched pillows. The Dukes then travel to arts festivals, including this year’s Chiaha Harvest Fest in Rome, sharing and selling their creations.
If you would like to give your good little girl or boy something that is as close as a toy straight from Santa’s Workshop as you can get without a trip to the North Pole, look no further than right here in Northwest Georgia.
Visit Tim at his shop in Helen or order Tim’s Wooden Toys and Gifts online at www.timswoodentoyshop.com or through Etsy and Amazon. You can purchase a doll via their Etsy website, Heartstrings and Stitches. Custom orders are also available.