It happens almost every day at Bill Muller's toy factory on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Vacationing families, numbed by the schlock sold in the beach trade, go into shock when exposed to Muller's plain, simple, sturdy, unpainted wooden toys.
"We do only nonviolent toys here," he said, the "we" embracing Ann, his partner and wife. "By that I mean not just that we don't do guns and so forth; what I'm talking about is not doing violence to a child's imagination. All we are trying to do is produce toys that are safe and suggestive and won't come apart on them; the children's minds supply the colors and the details."
He raised his voice above the whine of the band saws in the back of the shop and the clatter of the toys in the front of the shop that three children were failing to destroy.
"We use wood here, soft Western sugar pine because it's light and strong and easy to work, and beech or maple for the wheels. No metal, no plastic, no paint, no little parts or doodads to jab you or break off, no sharp corners because we bevel all the edges."
He bent down to attend to Mark, six, who wanted to know which end of a car was the front. "Whichever end you like," Muller told him. "It goes sideways, too." That puzzled the boy, but Muller offered no more. Mark started sliding the car along upside down, which seemed to please its maker.
"One of the things I remember from when I was a kid was that the wheels always came off toys, so we lock every wheel to every axle with a peg. I don't even like to use glue; when we do it's a totally nontoxic and waterproof kind made from soybeans."
Ann Muller runs the front of the shop, after a fashion. The signs say "Please Touch," which includes the new toys on the shelves as well as the ones put out for the children -- and their parents -- to play with. The only admonition in her repertoire seems to be "Take your time," and she seems to have no end of it herself so far as children are concerned.
"If the toys get banged up too bad to sell, we clean them up and give them to schools and churches and daycare centers," she said. "I don't suppose that's very good business, but I never have figured out how to tell a child to put down a toy, or why I should."
Much of their business is done by mail order, which is just as well, because the drop-in customers play hell with the work schedule, if any. "I do what I like," Muller said. "If I don't like it, I don't do it. If I stop liking it, I stop doing it. I like making toys, but better yet I like to watch children play with them. That's the way I learn how to make them. I don't really understand what I've made until I see what a kid makes of it.
"The longer I do this the simpler the stuff gets. We used to put our name on the toys with a woodburning brander, but then one day a kid asked me, 'Bill Muller, how come you put your name on my truck? I thought about that for a while. Then I said, 'Ann, lets put away the brander. ' "
The Mullers also invite children to design their own toys. If the idea is simple and sturdy and engaging, he'll make one for free, and perhaps add it to his line, although one of Muller's problems is that "We make too damn many different things already." His own designs are made without sketches. "I see them in the wood or I don't," he said. "I make a lot of sawdust that way, but every once in a while one comes out that we add to our line. All our work is down with power tools, but freehand, so no two are quite alike. Every piece of wood is different, and, anyway, who wants to do the same thing all the time?"
Ann Muller doesn't do the same thing any of the time: her patternless jigsaw puzzles, in which the only clues are the grain of the wood, are equally suitable for hanging on, or driving you up, the wall.
The Mullers came to be toymakers by a circuitous path that started with being burned out of their Baltimore trucking firm in the 1968 riots. "Ann was ready to get out of the hauling business anyway," Muller said. "I had just dropped a piano on her foot for the second time." The couple made toys and other things in Vermont and Pennsylvania before drifting to the Eastern Shore, where the pace and climate are more suitable to the sort of people in whose shop, "When the sawdust gets too thick, we just knock off and sit around telling lies."
The business is backed by a couple of Richmond advertising men, whose cutesypoo brochure about it must be difficult to live with. But if the Mullers are putting on an act it is a gentle and harmless one.
While the Mullers are generous with their time and attention to customers, they do not give the toys away. If the designs are laid-back and down-home, the prices are up-front and uptown, ranging from $3.50 for "Three Men in a Tub" to $30 for knockout four-car train. All are so simple it may occur to Daddy that he could do just as well in his basement, which would suit the Mullers fine. "Fathers used to do things like that," he said. "Fathers used to do a lot of things."
Bill Muller says he will repair or replace any toy broken in normal play, and Ann Muller has a trade-in policy that sometimes gets out of hand. Mark, for instance, decided he wanted a different car from the one he had bought the day before, and she said okay, waving aside the $2 difference in price and the fact that he had been giving it hard use for 24 hours, including a dunking in the motel pool (the Mullers say water won't hurt the toys, and in fact that soap and water is the way to clean them, although they themselves prefer the rich tones the wood takes on after long handling).
An hour later Mark decided he wanted the original car instead. This went on for a while and at length the boy stood frozen in indecision, a car in each hand.
"Tell you what, Mark," she said. "You better take them both." She silenced the parents' protests by saying, "He can learn about the real world later."
BILL MULLER THE TOYMAKER-Oak Hall, Virginia 23416 (on U.S. near the Chincoteage turnoff).