Maria Balser showcases a breathtaking collection of bears in her My Friends & Me shop.
Maria Balser, owner of My Friends & Me in Leesburg, Va., developed a high regard for art early in life. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a strong appreciation for artists who create beautiful and intricate works out of raw materials with their bare hands,” she says.
Growing up in Taipei, Taiwan, Balser spent many hours playing with handcrafted dolls. Her Chinese background exposed her to elaborate calligraphy and fine embroidery, and she often visited museums to see other Chinese art forms. “As an adult, I also took lessons in Chinese brush painting. So I’ve developed an enduring love of art in its various forms,” she notes.
With such a passion for all things artistic, it is no surprise that Balser eventually opened her own art gallery of sorts. Visitors to My Friends & Me won’t find paintings or marble sculptures on display, but the artwork is equally impressive and desirable. For 22 years, Balser has been showcasing an exquisite collection of one-of-a-kind and limited-edition teddy bears and dolls, all waiting for collectors to take them home.
“Adopting a bear from Maria is more like acquiring a precious work of art, albeit one you can hug and tell your most important secrets to,” notes collector Sylvia Doucette of Chicago.
Balser came to the United States to attend college. She studied, worked for law firms, married her husband, Milton, and raised two sons. “As I shopped for my young boys, I gradually learned about the teddy bear, its origins and its tradition, and I also observed the interesting and wide variety being offered. I was hooked!” she says.
Having taken business courses in school, she knew she wanted to have her own company. When her boys were grown, she made it happen. “My Friends & Me began out of my personal love for dolls and teddy bears,” the savvy shop owner shares. “This concept became reality 22 years ago when I stumbled upon the perfect site for a collectibles shop—namely an authentic log cabin in Market Station in historic Leesburg, Va. Even back then I could close my eyes and picture the business that today is a reality. I could picture collectors shopping for teddy bears and dolls in a cozy log cabin, with a fire blazing and snow on the roof. I could picture the smiles of children and the expressions of awe of the grown-ups, marveling at the magical assortment on display.”
And marvel they do. “My Friends & Me is a wonderland for anyone who loves bears. That’s the best way I can describe it,” says collector Sue Frank of Charles Town, W.Va. She and her husband, Tony, visit the shop several times each year to add to their hug and attend various events. “The first floor of the shop is full almost to bursting with bears and animals, including manufactured and some artist bears, and a few dolls. For me, as soon as I walk in the first floor I feel pleasantly enveloped in the atmosphere of bears, the coziness of the log cabin and the warmth of the greeting from Maria or her employee, Sue. But the second floor is even better—it’s absolute heaven! The second floor contains entirely artist bears, plus a few from Steiff and Deb Canham. They’re beautifully arranged in a homey, living room-type setting, complete with a couch, fireplace, coffee table and desk, along with the tables around the edge of the room. There’s so much to look at and so many wonderful things to discover.
“The rustic, homey feeling of the log cabin contributes a lot to the shop’s charm, although that collection of bears would be outstanding in any setting,” Frank concludes.
Exhibiting the Best
Balser’s aptitude for amassing a remarkable collection of bears by renowned artists from around the world contributes greatly to the appeal of the shop. While the shop carries manufactured bears, dolls and accessories, Balser says she has purposely focused her energies on identifying the very best artist teddy bears. “The bears that I select for My Friends & Me are chosen for their quality, workmanship and the appealing appearance of the bear,” she says. “These are the key factors, but ultimately it comes down to a very personal choice and perspective developed from 22 years of working with a multitude of clients and artists.”
Collectors and artists alike recognize her talent for selecting the best of the best in bears. “Maria has an outstanding eye for wonderful bears,” Frank says. “She seems to have a knack for finding bear artists and working with them, often persuading them to do special editions for My Friends & Me. She really cares about both the artists and the collectors, and brings out the best in both.”
Artist Gregory Gyllenship of Walton-on-Thames, England, attributes much of his success as a bear artist to Balser. Every year for the past 12 years he has been a guest artist at My Friends & Me’s annual December anniversary event. “Maria has supported me from pretty early on in my bear making and my affection for her seems to always urge me on to make each new bear just that bit better to justify her faith in me,” he says. “I am already planning next December’s bears and hoping as ever that I can make them just that little bit better.”
MaryAnn Wills, a bear artist from Aldie, Va., also appreciates Balser’s respect for soft-sculpture artists. “I think the most important thing Maria does for me is to understand my need to create from my heart, to fashion something as it emerges from my thoughts, to allow the freedom to work outside any box, to trust my creativity.”
Because of the close relationships Balser has developed with internationally acclaimed bear artists, she is able to give collectors access to an amazing assortment of bears. Many of the pieces offered by My Friends & Me are created exclusively for the shop. She is constantly traveling to look for bears from topnotch U.S. artists, as well as artists from as far away as the Netherlands, Singapore and several other foreign countries. As she searches for teddy treasures she always keeps in mind the tastes of her collectors.
“Maria is very good about letting us know about the latest bears that have arrived, especially those she feels we may be interested in,” Frank says. “Of course, in our case living so close helps, but I suspect we would deal with them even if we lived farther away.”
Distance also couldn’t keep Sylvia Doucette from acquiring bears from My Friends & Me. In fact, while she has adopted several bears from Balser, she has never actually been to the shop in Leesburg, which is many miles from her home in Chicago. Fellow collectors referred Doucette to My Friends & Me and she chooses bears from magazine advertisements and suggestions from Balser with whom she became acquainted over the phone. Balser maintains a personal connection with her customers not only through phone calls but also through e-mails, often sending photos of new bears to collectors.
“What sets Maria apart, in my opinion, from so many other shops is her extensive knowledge of bear art, her relationships with the artists and her innate ability to match the perfect bear for a particular collector,” Doucette says. “Maria takes the time to know her collectors, to truly understand what they are looking for in their collections and which artists they prefer. This truly is a labor of love and not just a business for Maria, in my opinion, and it is reflected in her consistently outstanding collections and the varied artists she represents in her shop.”
Sharing these wonderful works of art with the world has also become easier since My Friends & Me developed its website in 1996. While the Internet has made the shop—and its cuddly creations—more accessible to collectors worldwide, visiting My Friends & Me in person adds to the joy of collecting, particularly when attending one of the shop’s annual events.
Each year, the shop hosts three special events: a Steiff trunk show in the spring and two artist signings (in June and December) that typically feature three or more highly acclaimed artists. These annual events are a treat not only for collectors who get to meet their favorite artists and purchase bears made exclusively for the occasion, but also for the artists themselves.
MaryAnn Wills remarks that she is “always thrilled to meet collectors and to hear about their special bears and how they display them. Being at a signing is always being with friends. The teddy bear community is truly a loving and friendly community filled with creative spirit.”
Gyllenship says the December event is also a highlight of his working year. “I have been very privileged to share the signings on each occasion with some of the world’s top artists,” he notes. “I always felt honored to be included alongside some of the most distinguished established artists.
“I am always touched by the enthusiasm and affection collectors have for my bears,” he adds. “It is quite a humbling experience to realize how far people will travel and how excited they are wondering what I will bring each year. There is always a line waiting eagerly for the doors to open, and in December the weather has often been very cold. One year some of the keenest spent the night outside in snowfall to be the first to see the new bears in the morning.”
These dedicated collectors also enjoy chatting with others who share their fervor for furry friends. The collectors love exchanging stories of their favorite bear-collecting experiences. “These are special people who are blessed by having a passion in life—they share the passion for teddy bear collecting,” Balser notes.
Like the collectors who eagerly await their next bear buy or meeting with their favorite artist, Balser adores the chance to make new friends. “Without a doubt my favorite part of being in the teddy bear world is the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people—bear makers and bear lovers alike,” she says. “Over the past 22 years, I have made many new and lasting friendships out of the common bond forged by teddy bear collecting.”
Throughout her two decades in the bear business, Balser has witnessed numerous changes. She observes that more men are openly collecting—and hugging!—teddy bears than when she first opened the shop in 1985. She also says the number of artists who create handmade collectibles and sell directly to shops like My Friends & Me has dwindled, often working with larger manufacturers to stay afloat financially or to gain more exposure.
Balser has also noticed that the cost of collectible teddy bears has increased dramatically over the past 22 years. “Today, bears are handmade with elaborate materials, clothes and accessories, and the cost of bears can often approach and exceed a thousand dollars,” she explains. “As a result of this trend I’ve made it a point to exclude no one from the joy of bear collecting. At My Friends & Me we provide for a diverse range of budgets and tastes.”
In addition, Balser notes that collectors have grown more sophisticated and better educated due to the numerous books and workshops offered and the wealth of information now available on the Internet. “Collectors are interested in not only making a purchase but also hearing the story behind the teddy bear and the history of the artist,” she observes. “Although tastes vary—between dressed and undressed teddy bears, country and Victorian styles, life-size and miniature—the one remaining constant is the passion for teddy bears and the demand for uncompromised quality.”
And in a continually changing world, bear lovers agree one other thing remains constant: Balser’s commitment to the collectible teddy bear as a cherished artform and her respect for collectors and artists alike.
“It is comforting to know that in the 21st century there are still places like My Friends & Me where collectors are treated like friends and bear art at its finest is represented in such a lovely fashion,” Doucette says.
Wills couldn’t agree more. “The teddy bear world is very fortunate to have Maria Balser and My Friends & Me as part of that world,” she says. “My personal favorite saying is, ‘Be good, do good things, smile—make a positive difference in the world.’ I truly believe that Maria, through her involvement in the teddy bear world, does just that.”