A scene of carnage awaits on the first floor of a shop on Manhattan's busy Lexington Avenue, in New York. Discarded limbs litter the floor, heads spill out of a large wall cabinet and, in a shadowy back room, torsos hang from the ceiling on pieces of string. Look closer and there's a tiny fingerless hand and - perhaps spookiest of all - a mound of staring eyes. Thankfully, though, this repository of body parts contains no flesh, bone or cartilage. Everything is formed from papier mache, porcelain and polyester. For this is the New York Doll Hospital, a veritable kingdom of inanimate creatures ruled over by doll doctor extraordinaire Irving Chais. The doll hospital has achieved legendary status in Manhattan. In some ways, it's a brilliant anachronism, a relic of pre-gentrified New York. Like most big cities, New York is becoming homogenised, with Starbucks, Gap stores and major chains forcing out smaller retailers. The hospital, which was founded in 1900, is reminiscent of a time when the city consisted of unusual people doing - and this being New York, selling - unusual things. But despite its nostalgic qualities, the hospital is no museum, even though Chais is happy for people to come and look around. It is, as he likes to point out, a fully functioning business, and a highly specialised one at that. As its name suggests, the hospital is a place where people bring their broken dolls. But Chais, who started working here in 1947, is more than a mechanic. Watching him work with razor blades, scissors and, most impressively, his fingers, he's both a craftsman and an artisan. He prefers to describe himself as a surgeon. 'I've never lost a patient,' is a frequent refrain of his. Aside from mending, Chais buys and sells dolls on the collectors market and gives valuations for insurance purposes. Dolls can fetch up to US$150,000, he says, so it's best to be on the safe side. Chais sits squashed up in a corner of his cluttered two-room workshop, which measures no more than 1,000 sq ft - an apartment, really, albeit one with some unusual residents. He concentrates on attaching some limbs to a torso, occasionally lifting his eyes questioningly. He's 82 but looks much younger, especially considering he's spent the past 60 years in a sedentary occupation. 'I still work out a lot and I like to swim,' he explains. The New York Doll Hospital was founded by Chais' German-born grandparents but the business had actually begun about 18 years earlier. 'They had a beauty parlour in Germany. They had a shop where people would have their hair cut, dyed and sometimes coiffed. Long hair was in fashion then, so there was a lot of work. They came to America in 1882 or 1883 and did the same thing. People used to come in to have their hair dyed or curled. They would kiss it, hug it, caress it, set it - whatever it needed - and do it all for about 35 or 40 US cents.' The doll hospital came about when the immigrant couple discovered a faster way to make money. 'Women used to bring in their children - teenagers and younger - to get their hair done,' says Chais. 'You could spend a whole day working on three people and only earn 85 or 90 US cents. That was a decent fee back then. Then the children started bringing in their dolls and asking to get their hair done too. My grandfather complained and said that wasn't the business they were in. But my grandmother got interested and said, 'Let's try something with it.' 'A lot of customers wanted the doll's hair washed and cut but that was a difficult thing to do. They were painted dolls in those days and if you got water on them, the paint would peel. So they wrote to a friend back in Germany - a lot of dolls were made there in those days - and he found a company that manufactured doll wigs. They ordered some and started doing something new. Instead of cutting the doll hair, they ripped off the old doll wig and put a new one on. They could charge 95 US cents for this procedure. It was a five-minute job for 95 US cents and that was good money. So they started getting other things for dolls, like dresses and shoes. It took off and, in 1900, they named themselves the New York Doll Hospital.' It was a great time for the hospital, Chais explains. Nowadays, there is a wide range of toys for children and dolls are made of durable polyester. But in the early 20th century, dolls were virtually the only toys available for girls - and they were made of delicate materials. 'Most of the dolls were breakable,' Chais explains. 'And a lot of children received only one doll in their entire lives. So they had to take care of it. They were made of porcelain, papier mache and fabrics such as stuffed quilting. There was a lot to break or tear, so the hospital always had a lot of work.' Chais, who speaks in a deep Brooklyn brogue, has spent more than half his life repairing dolls. What kind of man would spend 60 years surrounded by these lifeless creatures? One who 'defeated Hitler', says Chais seriously. Having marched across Germany and into Berlin with the US Army, Chais considers himself lucky to have survived the second world war; he estimates there was an 85 to 95 per cent fatality rate among his colleagues. Upon demobilisation, the last thing Chais wanted to do was work in a doll shop; he wanted adventure. By the late 1940s, ownership of the doll hospital had passed to his parents and his mother persuaded him to join the business. 'I got involved in the shop in the late 40s, after the army, after I had defeated Hitler and Mussolini. My mother said, 'Darling, your father doesn't feel well so come and help us.' 'I came in to help in 1947, around Christmas time. I decided I liked it after all. I was good with my hands - we owned our own home in Brooklyn and I could do plumbing, carpentry, all those jobs that need to be done around the house. That all came in useful. You have to have a good pair of hands for the doll business. You have to have a sense of colour and be a good artist, and you have to think about how to solve problems you've never encountered before. You just never know what a customer is going to bring in. I've never had anyone bring me a problem I couldn't solve.' Chais takes a break from what, to the untrained eye, looks like the fiddly job of re-attaching a doll's limbs with string. 'The body on this had deteriorated, so I had to find another torso,' he explains, putting it down carefully. He suggests a tour of the workshop. First stop is a display cabinet containing some collectors dolls that are for sale. There's a Shirley Temple doll dating from 1935 and a freaky pair of Sonny and Cher lookalikes, wearing groovy 60s costumes. Strangest are the Kewpie Dolls. They look like science-fiction aliens from the 50s, but these examples were actually made in Germany in the 20s. Kewpie dolls, which were modelled on American comic-strip characters, are hardly lovable looking creatures - but 'the collectors love them', explains Chais, 'and they go for hundreds of dollars'. There's also a fearsome looking Howdy Doody doll - modelled on a marionette TV star from the 50s - and a pallid-looking German blonde, which dates back to 1900. Behind a pile of discarded toys is the cabinet of heads. There must be hundreds of them crammed in here - too many for the cabinet to hold, in fact, as they spill out over the floor. 'If someone needs a head, we just scrounge around in here and find what's suitable,' says Chais. 'I buy and sell heads. The heads come and go.' Pinned to the cabinet is a black-and-white photo of Chais standing in front of the dolls' heads almost 40 years ago. 'That's me at half my age.' The dimly lit back room is where it gets spooky. Here lie the many dolls Chais has no use for, as well as those papier mache torsos hanging from the ceiling. I spot a pile of eyes and pick up one. 'You can keep that as a souvenir,' says Chais. 'We have all kind of parts - arms, legs, eyes. The torsos are over 100 years old. These hands are old too,' he says, pointing to a disembodied pair hanging on a hook. 'They go for US$150.' Over the years, Chais has seen thousands of wounded dolls but the memory of one continues to touch him. 'A woman came into the shop with just half a doll's head,' he remembers. 'She said, 'Can you fix this doll?' I rebuilt the head by copying the contours of the half I had. I had a body that would fit in stock - it was cellulite, I think. 'It took me about two or three months,' he continues. '[When] she came to pick it up she looked at it and started crying. I said, 'Why are you crying, did I do a bad job?' She said, 'No I love it, you're a magician. You did a wonderful job. It's just that this doll went through three concentration camps with me. All I had left was half a head and you restored it to its original state. You're a genius.' 'What a story! She carried that doll through the concentration camps and an arm got lost, then another one, then a leg - and finally all she had left was the head, then half of that went too. But she managed to hold on to what was left and I fixed it for her.' The hospital also came to the rescue after a more recent tragedy; one that was a lot closer to home. 'I got a lot of dolls brought in for a clean after the World Trade Centre collapsed,' says Chais. 'I had to be very careful with those. There was a lot of dust on them from the towers. We didn't want to inhale that dust, so we had to wear gloves and masks. [The Environmental Protection Agency] said the dust in that area was safe but I thought it couldn't be. Some of them were expensive collectors' pieces and their owners were worried about them. We had to immerse the dolls completely in water to clean them. It was a big job.' (Chais was later proved right about the dust - it was harmful.) Dolls used to top the list for collectors and some still fetch a small fortune. 'I once sold a doll from the Napoleonic era for US$500,' says Chais. 'I bought it from an old lady for just US$35, so I thought I got a good price. But today, it [would go] for US$25,000. It was a man dressed in a court costume and the detail was unbelievable.' He encountered this item in the 50s. 'They were great years for the hospital,' he adds. 'You could sell anything back then.' Barbie and Ken dolls are currently out of fashion, he says. 'Barbie's on the way out. I know a collector who spent US$150,000 on his Barbie-doll collection and he can't sell them at all.' The market for the Cabbage Patch doll, that one-time scourge of parents at Christmas, has also bitten the dust, he adds. But the Lily doll, a German creation from the 70s that looks like Barbie, is apparently selling well. Chais doesn't think much of modern dolls, he admits, but he'll repair anything. 'Sometimes I've been brought voodoo dolls with all kinds of hieroglyphics on them,' he says. 'I don't care. It's all about what the customer wants. They bring them in and I give them a price and do the work.' A business is only as good as its customers. Chais says most of his work is one-offs, although he has built up a loyal band of collectors who come to him for repairs. His fee starts at US$25 but it can run into the hundreds, depending on work and materials. He likes to give his favourite customers something extra for their money: the benefit of his avuncular Brooklyn wit. 'I entertain my customers if I like them,' he says. 'If not, they get nothing.' Emilia Honig has been coming to the New York Doll Hospital for 30 years. She's been collecting dolls for about 40 years and currently has 45 prize specimens she has amassed from 'London, Hungary and all over the world during my travels'. Today, she's carrying three dolls in a big cardboard box. '[Chais] has fixed everything on them,' she says, perched on a small folding chair beside a pile of body parts. 'He's excellent, really excellent.' Later, I meet another satisfied customer, Crystel Niedle, who has entrusted Chais with the repair of her childhood dog doll. She shows me a black and white photo. 'That's me holding the dog when I was three months old,' she says. 'That photo was taken 50 years ago. 'I moved to New York with the dog 17 years ago, when I wasn't very well off. It had already survived a flood. Well, 17 years later and I'm a lot better off. I thought the dog finally deserved to get fixed and here I am.' 'Dolls started with the cavemen,' says Chais, offering an impromptu history lesson. 'When they went out hunting, they caught animals for food. They couldn't eat the bones, so they gave them to the children. They made dolls with them. That's how it all started.' (Chais claims to have repaired dolls made of bone, but that could just be an example of his deadpan Brooklyn humour.) It's the anthropomorphic qualities of dolls that have made them a perennial favourite, he adds. 'We like them because they are like miniature people. They look like us but they're tiny. They're small but they look real.' Still, dolls aren't as popular as they used to be and, what's more, they're less breakable. Chais is aware of that and has reoriented the business to the collectors' market, where there's a constant need for his skills. He also owns a 'factory' in New Jersey, which employs four people, including Chais' two daughters, Alison and Dana. 'We make clothes there, we wash and set wigs, and we ship from there,' he says. The business is doing well but Chais is not planning for the future. 'I'm not training anybody. The secrets are going to go [to the grave] with me,' he says. 'In New Jersey, they can repair the clothes and clean them up. But when it comes to the difficult repairs, you need my brain. My brain is very mechanical.' That brain, he says, is what has made him such a success - and a New York legend to boot. Hallmark Television, a lifestyle channel aimed at suburban women, recently interviewed him and seminal 70s rock band the New York Dolls named themselves after his hospital. But, when it comes down to it, fame is less satisfying than a good day's work. 'I can solve problems that are not solvable,' he sums up. 'That's what my reputation is based on. I'm unique - I'm the only one who knows how to do this job.' To those who haven't watched Chais working his brain - and his nimble fingers - on a broken doll, that statement might sound immodest. But Chais couldn't care less. He knows that hundreds of satisfied doll owners around the world would agree with him.