NEW YORK — After one visit, she returned with her hair in dreadlocks. Another time, her long blond locks were primly fashioned into a traditional bun.
One day, she came back wearing a uniform of the exclusive all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
These have been the many phases of Kirsten Larson, an American Girl doll who was sitting on a shelf in the Ottendorfer Library, in the East Village, until a resourceful children’s librarian began lending her to girls — many of whose parents, because of financial or feminist reasons, resist buying the dolls.
Kirsten — who retails for $110 and is marketed as a “pioneer girl of strength and spirit” leading an adventurous life in the mid-1800s — was dropped off a decade ago in the Gothic building on Second Avenue.
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She could not have been more out of her element in the New York City neighborhood once known for punk rock, left-wing activism and on-the-edge art and fashion, and now for its rapid gentrification.
But Kirsten has adapted to her urban frontier, traveling from one girl’s home to another’s for two weeks at a time, spending nights inside cramped apartments in public-housing projects and inside luxury high-rises with sweeping city views.
She also has taken trips out of the neighborhood with her temporary guardians: boat rides on Oyster Bay, and to house parties held by Mexican immigrants living in Harlem.
For some girls, Kirsten was the only way they could afford such a luxury item in their home.
For others, it was the only way their liberal-minded parents would allow any doll into their home, refusing to indulge in gender stereotypes or what they considered to be an elitist hobby.
Suzette Seepersad had been avoiding buying her daughter Caelyn Osborn, 5, any toys geared toward girls.
But Caelyn fell in love with Kirsten, taking her to the family’s apartment, bathing her, reading stories to her and putting her to bed.
After keeping the doll for two weeks or so, she had to be reminded by a librarian to return it.
Now, Seepersad said, “I’m trying to get my sister to buy her” an American Girl doll.
With its limited budget, the East Village branch library could hardly be mistaken for the upscale American Girl Place, the company’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, where reservations are often required for $20-a-head tea parties.
But the excitement level was comparable in the library — and of course, there it was free to take Kirsten home.
The children began adopting Kirsten the way they would borrow a book.
The library system does not typically lend out dolls, so Thea Taube, the branch’s children’s librarian, kept it unofficial. She did not require names or library cards but rather relied on the honor system.
Now after so many trips, Kirsten is worn out and headed to the company’s doll hospital in Middleton, Wis., to have her loosened arm and leg joints fixed and her hair, which has become matted from being styled countless times, replaced.
She will also receive a new wardrobe and accessories, since Kirsten’s boots, apron, knit stockings and bonnet — everything but her dress — have all been long lost, something that Taube said was a result of “a lot of love over the years.”
New York library officials said they knew of no other doll-lending in their system.
Flora, a sixth-grader at Brearley who dressed Kirsten in her school’s uniform, began borrowing Kirsten five years ago, taking her home to her apartment on St. Marks Place, and began writing homemade books with adventure stories featuring Kirsten.
She took Kirsten to playgrounds and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with her parents, who deemed Kirsten too extravagant.
At one point, Flora misplaced the doll’s apron, but later found it and returned it along with a pair of underwear she bought for Kirsten with her own money.
“When Flora was 6 we told her, ‘It’s a very expensive doll,’ ” her mother, Andrea Sobrino, said. “We weren’t considering buying her a $100 doll.”
“We were hoping that borrowing Kirsten might quench her desire for her own doll, but actually I think it may have turned out to be a gateway doll,” she said.