UNITY — Rocy Pillsbury's showroom is little more than a patch of meadow beside a Unity pottery shop.
He has no store, no salesmen, not even a driveway. Yet, his creations cause curious drivers to pull off the busy road outside Waterville to gawk.
Some folks take photos and explore. A few shadier characters have spent the night, curled up behind the handmade round doors and windows of Pillsbury's playhouses, sheds and chicken coops.
All look familiar to anyone who has read the stories or seen the movies of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic quests and his diminutive heroes, hobbits.
In the whole world, Pillsbury — through his company "Wooden Wonders" — is the only licensed builder of hobbit holes.
"There's something warm and cozy about them," said Pillsbury, a veteran carpenter. "People seemed to respond to them."
The 38-year-old carpenter never planned to specialize in hobbit holes, which, to those few who are not familiar with the books and movies, are snug structures built with round doors and windows, and sized perfectly for a hobbit.
Rather, Pillsbury had grown tired of building homes, garages, porches and decks.
"I was doing traditional carpentry," Pillsbury said. "I was really bored with it. I knew I was never going to really get ahead that way and provide a better life for my family."
He was spending too much time from his wife, Melissa. And their first son, Richard, was only a year old.
"My entire career I've worked from sunup till sundown," he said. "It kind of dawned on me that I really wanted to be around for his childhood. I didn't want to miss a beat."
So he hit on the idea of building playhouses in his shop at home in nearby Thorndike. He was inspired by the fantasy literature he began reading as a kid. "I'm a big 'Lord of the Rings' fan. I played 'Dungeons and Dragons,'" he said.
He created Wooden Wonders with Melissa, who serves as the head of marketing. "In our original literature, we built castles, towers, catapults, trebuchets, other siege engines, woodland cottages, mushroom houses and hobbit holes."
Although, up to that point, he had built none of it.
"It was just stuff I had in my head," he said. "I know wood. I know what I can do with wood."
Beginning a few weeks before the company's unveiling at the 2009 Common Ground Fair, he built a hobbit hole and a castle.The kids who went to the fair liked both the hobbit hole and the castle
"The castle was really cool," he said. "It had trap doors. You could climb up into the tower."
The parents — who ultimately write the checks — swooned over the hobbit holes.
"We knew we had something there," Melissa said. "It was a playhouse business concept that turned into a hobbit hole business."
In writer J.R.R. Tolkien's work, a hobbit hole is a shelter, a home and a symbol of snug safety. Usually built into hillsides, they are everything a hobbit risks losing when they begin an adventure, which is why they seldom go on adventures.
Wooden Wonders' hobbit holes are not built into hillsides or underground — something that might annoy Tolkien purists — but they are comfortable and suggest an almost subterranean feeling with their arched roofs.
The company's hobbit hole chicken coops force all but the shortest adults to crouch, playhouses are bigger, and the cottage is large enough for a 6-foot-tall man to stand at the center. Most of the hobbit holes Pillsbury has built lack electricity and plumbing, but he has electrified a few, and the cottage was constructed with space for plumbing to be installed later.
The broad, round doors of all the hobbit holes are handmade, simply constructed and close with a thumb latch. Once inside, the hole and its latticework of arches feels at once snug and protecting.
"They're comfortable," said Pillsbury. "I know."
When the couple takes the holes to fairs and home shows, they often sleep inside with their boys rather than pay for a motel or pitch a tent.
"To me, it's just like camping, only we don't have to set up a tent and it's a lot more waterproof," Pillsbury said.
Prices for the creations start at about $1,000 for a chicken coop and climb from there. The chicken coops have been a particularly good seller since they can be shipped across the country and even world wide, though delivery can be expensive. In the United States, delivery costs between $300 and $500. Some assembly is required.
From there, prices climb steeply as the size and the complexity increase. At the top end, a cottage costs about $15,000. One such cottage has sold so far, but more may be coming.
The worldwide interest in hobbits is climbing again.
The movie "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" opens in the U.S. on Friday. With it comes a pop culture juggernaut. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which built on and came after his book "The Hobbit," was made into three movies that became the highest grossing motion picture trilogy worldwide, grossing $2.91 billion, with the third film also receiving 11 Oscars.
As the new movie — the first in a planned trilogy based on "The Hobbit" — was entering production, the Pillsburys asked the Saul Zaentz Company, which owns the rights to the Tolkien works, to license the use of the word "hobbit" in their business. The same company licenses the story for the film production.
In part, the Pillsburys worried that they might have their little business scuttled by lawsuits or injunctions.
"We approached them," Melissa said. "We are a small mom-and-pop company and we would like to use the word."
They showed them pictures and plans for the holes. And they agreed to a fee, which is confidential.
"I think they worked with us," she said. "It's security for us. We really want to build our future around this company. It's not just some whim. We don't want to risk having someone take that from us."
They expect to get some interest due to the movies, but they don't plan on ramping up production or hiring lots more workers.
"We can only do so much," Pillsbury said. "If we have to tell people we have a six-month wait, we will."
He added, "We went into this to provide a better life for our family, not to have a heart attack."