I turned at Del Boy’s Way and strolled down the narrow pathway looking at the shops on either side. Customers examined rows of items hanging from the brick walls – handbags, toilet seats, fishing equipment and wigs. There was a sad, neglected sense to the place. I thought what it would have been like years ago, the market bustling and full of life, with opportunity to unearth something great amongst the chaotic rubble of ‘bits and bobs’. But on this Saturday morning, the half empty market seemed to be snoozing and excavating anything worthwhile seemed unlikely. I meandered around the stalls until a rush of shoppers caught my attention spilling out from a shop ahead. It was half pink, half blue and the title above the doorway spelled out ‘Maternity Unit.’ It was what I had been searching for.

The shop sells babies, not real babies obviously, but many people would be fooled by their likeness to actual children. They are christened ‘Reborns’ and are made with shocking almost macabre, realism. I edged into the shop on that Saturday morning suddenly full of hesitation, shuffling my feet, as if the ground beneath me was ready to crack and I would be sent plunging into icy despair. I made it across the danger zone and was greeted by a woman with a name badge reading ‘Elaine – Midwife on Duty.’

THE MIDWIFE

Elaine Austin, 55, is the shopkeeper of Baby Boom – Maternity Unit at The Forge Market in Glasgow. After a series of career changes, Elaine started working at the only shop in Scotland selling Reborn dolls. Also called the midwife, her job is to deliver these dolls to their new ‘parents.’

Elaine insisted on introducing me to the babies in the shop so I properly understood her line of work. I followed her to where the dolls were kept and she pointed towards a sign – ‘Shhh! Babies are sleeping’ – I cringed. The older dolls were perched on shelves lined along the walls. Their beady eyes stared out across the room and seemed to burn straight into the souls of the goggling customers who were squealing, ‘oh look at her, she is so cute!’ The younger babies lay on their backs in incubator-like-boxes wearing bibs and baby-grows. They had wispy hair and fluffy eyelashes and teeny scrunched up hands with perfect nails. Their veins showed through their transparent skin and some of the babies were red, suffering from teething rashes, apparently. The babies looked alive but were so still. I found it all quite unsettling.

A naturally excitable person, Elaine immediately put me more at ease after my initial encounter with the babies. Her face beamed, as she looked around the shop – evidently proud of what she does. She picked up one of the children as we chatted – a newborn boy called Jonny dressed all in blue and wearing a hat – and rocked him in her arms. I was mystified by the attentiveness she showed the doll and by how gently she mothered it. I was unsure if she had forgotten it was not real. Elaine said, ‘I have been collecting dolls since I was a toddler. I bought my first Reborn doll 13 years ago and now I have 45 of them in my house. I keep them in my attic and display my favourite babies in glass cabinets. They’re beautiful. They make me happy.’ She smiled directly at me and I felt guilty. I do not know what I had expected from Elaine but she was a friendly, warm person. Having said that, I remained apprehensive in Baby Supermarket.

She explained her role as the midwife in the shop and the challenges she faces working there. Her duties include dressing and looking after the Reborns, guiding customers through the process of picking a baby and filling out adoption and birth certificates for new parents.

Elaine said, ‘I would say that 25 percent of our customers buy the dolls if they are unable to have kids of their own, or as replacements for children that have passed away or grown up. The stories I hear on a daily basis are deeply upsetting and it can be very hard. My role suddenly becomes social care.’

Elaine described a customer who had lost her son when he was 27. The woman wanted a doll to remind herself of her son and for company when she was lonely. This woman had a photograph of her son as a newborn and Elaine used the picture for a unique handmade doll. The birth certificate was completed with her son’s name and the date he died. She remains a support system for this woman who continuously returns to the shop to tell her how the baby is getting on.

As Elaine recalled the story, I could sense that she felt satisfaction in the way she ‘helped’ this woman. However, after the story I could not share in the same satisfaction. She continued, ‘I help people deal with the grieving process as well as loneliness. I protect them and change their lives for the better.’

A keen volunteer, Elaine visits dementia units and finds that the work she does has a positive impact on the patients she spends time with. ‘I have a cuppa with them and let them hold the babies. One woman silent for years now sings to the Reborns.’

I was about to leave the shop when I noticed an elderly couple looking at the babies. I wanted to see Elaine in action so I held back and watched. The couple said: ‘We have never had kids. We just wanted a chance to see what it is like to be parents.’ Elaine smiled and whisked them away. Sadly, despite Elaine’s suitability for the job, I concluded that someone in a high place had spotted a niche in the market for selling babies to the vulnerable at £500 each – thank you for that capitalism. I headed back down Dell Boy’s Way, dazed.