The Golden Cockerel has been a part of the Boone community since 1993 when Walton Conway moved to Boone for a teaching position at Appalachian State University from a trip to the Soviet Union.
“I grew up during the Cold War and felt drawn to learning more about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain,” said Conway, recalling where his interest in the foreign country came from. “Not politically, but just who the people were there and if they were friendly. I wanted to learn more about Russian folk, and I wanted them to know a little bit more about regular Americans and maybe us becoming friends would help diffuse the Cold War.”
As a college student, Conway took the opportunity to study abroad in West Germany and began studying the Russian language. From there, Conway’s interest in traveling to Russia grew, but he returned to America instead to finish his schooling and become more fluent in the language, which took about three years.
“I finally got the opportunity to go once I got done with schooling, and during that time the Berlin Wall fell, the communist bloc countries had their revolutions, Czechoslovakia, Poland, all became democratic, and so I decided that this was such an interesting time, that I would cycle across former East Germany and then through Poland on my way to Russia,” Conway said.
He arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the fall of 1991, and “by the time I got there, things had sort of won out on the side of the reformers.”
“There was a very positive, hopeful atmosphere” from the young people that Conway met when he first arrived in the city, where he lived for about 2 years, teaching English, thankful for the friends he had made who helped him survive the Russian winters.
“They went through really turbulent economic times as the Soviet Union collapsed and their whole system of government changed, and their currency became devalued, and everybody became unemployed, (so it) was sort of an economic revolution, and it was hard to find food. Stores were empty,” said Conway.
Many staples were rationed at this time in history, meaning that to buy things such as “sugar or butter,” Russian citizens had to turn in a coupon. As a visitor of the country, Conway didn’t receive ration coupons, but his friends helped to keep him fed.
With his reentry into America, Conway realized that he had stumbled upon a niche and unique market in the High Country that he had the means to fulfill.
“The way we started the business was just me bringing home some nesting dolls that we bought at a cottage industry bazaar in the street, and they were popular, so we would sell them to gift shops, and they would resell them,” Conway said, noting that one of the first shops he sold to was The Curiosity Shop bookstore on King Street, which is no longer in business. “Then I began to realize that customers wanted to reorder the exact same thing.”
This realization led to the Golden Cockerel’s own production line in St. Petersburg, which employs about 20 people. The shipping warehouse and gallery store in Boone has two or three full-time employees, which means that The Golden Cockerel’s international operation is comprised of less than 25 people.
“We’ve become a pioneer of nesting doll production using high-tech abilities: the ability to print on a nesting doll and the ability to take an image of say, an actor, and print them on the nesting doll in such a way that they would approve it, and then to make a large quantity of them,” said Conway.
The Golden Cockerel fulfills several orders each day online, in addition to the in-store purchases that are made at the Boone gallery. While some orders are gifts or for personal enjoyment, the company also fills large corporate orders, such as those that have come from John Deere, Pepsi Co., TV shows and networks such as Fox and movie productions such as “The Death of Stalin,” which was released in 2018.
“It’s been fun to serve customers like this,” Conway said. “The Internet has really allowed us to blossom and move in this direction to serve the worldwide community, and not just the local community. It’s always interesting to see who’s going to call next. You never know.”
Currently, the international team at The Golden Cockerel is working to fulfill an order from Airbus and its OneWeb Satellite Division, which is launching satellites into space using Russian rockets. According to Conway, “they want a nesting doll to give to all of the team members at the launch to kind of celebrate this event.”
A shipment of consolidated freight from Russia arrives at the store and warehouse in Boone once every 6-8 weeks, which is the turn-around time period that customers can expect when they order custom nesting dolls.
One of the first corporate orders that The Golden Cockerel received was from the 1999 film, “Being John Malkovich,” in which different characters become the protagonist, John Malkovich. The film producers settled on a nesting doll to promote their movie, with the various characters printed on the nesting dolls.
“We won an unofficial Oscar in Premiere Magazine as the best promotional item in the movie industry that year,” said Conway. “I think they ordered 40,000 to sell together with the VHS.”
The store in Boone has an intimate gallery filled with nesting dolls, porcelain figurines and tea sets, jewelry, crystal eggs, and egg pendants. Some of the animal nesting dolls have even been adorned with ears and tails to reflect Conway’s love of nature, and there is a working demonstrative scene of how nesting dolls are made. To accent the gallery, photos from The Golden Cockerel’s production factory in St. Petersburg are captioned with details of the process that goes into crafting the unique traditional items.
The gallery is open to customers Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and it is closed on Saturday and Sunday. The store’s website is www.goldencockerel.com.
The Golden Cockerel store and gallery is located at 1651 NC Highway 194 in Boone, with a larger-than-life nesting doll keeping watch over the main entrance.