Unbearable Cuteness

By Marjorie Ingall

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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Fortunately, Maxine is still young enough for her favorite toy to be the kitchen spatula. (Chew it! Bang it on the floor! Hurl it like a spinning ninja star in a Hong Kong action movie!) Josie, on the other hand, is becoming more discerning in her toy selection. We’re fortunate that she’s still pretty sheltered — she doesn’t know from Barbie, Bratz or Polly Pocket, which haven’t yet made inroads into her social circle. And we have TiVo, which means she’s never seen the commercials that would nudge her to nudge us to buy long-lashed pink horse heads with magical color-changing manes that little girls can braid and crimp to look like their own hair. (I swear I saw this vile product advertised somewhere, but now I can’t figure out what it is no matter how much I Google. Perhaps it was all a terrible fever dream.)

Mostly I can be all self-congratulatorily hippie about the toys in our house. We have a lot of those wooden Melissa & Doug toys: lacing kits, blocks, puzzles, maracas. We have Colorforms, Play-Doh, crayons, a dress-up box full of slightly ratty costumes. We have tea sets, a doctor’s kit, and a wee consumptive and/or rabid stuffed puppy nestled in a plastic carrier.

But now we have Fluffy. Fluffy laughs at my parenting naiveté. Fluffy is a huge, gaping maw of commercialism, canny marketing and cuddly stuffed need. Fluffy must be fed.

Fluffy is Josie’s Build-a-Bear. Build-a-Bear Workshop, Inc. (NYSE: BBW) is a massive conglomerate of fuzzy adorability, with fiscal 2004 total cuddly revenue of more than $302 million. It is, its marketing materials tell us, an “interactive make-your-own-stuffed-animal retail-entertainment experience.” The first store opened fuzzy-wuzzily in St. Louis in 1997; there are now more than 190 locations, including snuggly outposts in Japan, Denmark, Australia, South Korea and France, all of which makes Build-a-Bear Workshop the global leader in polyester-stuffed ursine lovability. Josie visited it this past Thanksgiving, and looked much the way I imagine John Smith looked when he first laid eyes on Pocahontas.

Here’s how it works. The child enters the sacred sanctuary (generally in the mall) and is greeted by a master Bear Builder associate, who guides her through the bear-making festivities. The child first selects a deflated, floppy teddy carcass. (There are frogs, “Sassy Kitties” and monkeys as well as bears, but Josie went with the tried-and-true bear concept, in orange.) A machine blows stuffing into the flaccid body of choice. At the Hear Me station, the child can record a personalized message on a voice chip to insert in her creature, or she can use prerecorded sounds that chirp, “I love you!” or sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or say, “Hey, girlfriend! Let’s go shopping!” (In a miracle akin to the light from one tiny jar of oil lasting for eight days, Josie skipped the voice chip.) Then there’s the elaborate ritual in which the child selects a heart from a giant vat of hearts, warms it in her palms, waves it around, makes a wish, and is assisted by the master Bear Builder associate in inserting the heart inside the creature. It’s sort of like a Mayan ritual sacrifice, but in reverse. “This magical moment brings your furry friend to life and creates an unforgettable memory,” gushes the Build-a-Bear Web site. (When I think of a magical moment that brings an inanimate being to life, I think “golem!” and nothing says “fun” like a rampaging mindless brought-to-life creature!)

Anyway, then the child helps stitch up her bear with the company’s “patented pre-laced system.” Josie is clearly not destined for sweatshop life, because within a few days her bear started coming apart. You could reach in and fondle the heart. But I get ahead of myself. At the next station, the child brushes and

fluffs her creation at the bear spa. Then she names the bear on a computer and registers it in the Find-a-Bear ID tracking system, which helps lost bears find their way back to their owners. (The Department of Homeland Security is planning to adopt this technology for humans.) Finally, the store’s Pawsonal Shoppers help the child get to know her new friend by encouraging her to trick out Fluffy in any of hundreds of fashions and accessories. “Look for the Seal of Pawthenticity”! You bet! The finished bear is boxed in an exclusive Cub Condo carrying case (essentially a cardboard box with a handle), which Daddy foolishly had tried to fold up to put in Josie’s suitcase, causing screams of anguish — and you know they were not from Fluffy’s voice chip.

The evil brilliance of Build-a-Bear is that Josie now understands that Fluffy is all about acquisition. She still doesn’t quite comprehend that everything in a toy store and book store is for sale. She treats these pleasure palaces as if they were museums or libraries. There is no unseemly whining or begging. (Rest assured, she kvetches about plenty else.) But she gets that Build-a-Bear is all about more stuff. First Fluffy was built. (Oops, excuse me, Build-a-Bear Workshop, Inc. requests that journalists not say the bears are “built,” but rather “made.” Then why the heck is it not called Make-a-Bear, I ask you?) First birth, then couture. When Fluffy’s back seam gave way like a knish being split open for mustard, necessitating a return trip to Build-a-Bear in Milwaukee, Josie realized this was an opportunity to get Fluffy a new dress. (You know, to ease the pain of surgery.) When my mother-in-law and I politely jousted in the car about which of us would spring for said dress, Josie piped up, “Actually, she needs two dresses.” Then she ran around the store like a maniac, admiring teeny Green Bay Packer uniforms, fairy-princess wings, leopard-print and black-lace blouses, sherbet-toned terry sweat suits, Chanel-style suits and Spider-Man costumes. She ended up talking me into three new outfits. Josie hasn’t figured out yet that a person could buy more stuffed animals in addition to more clothing… but it’s only a matter of time.

The founder and CEO of Build-a-Bear Workshop, Inc., Maxine Clark, has no children. She must be a terrifying genius.

I never can put the genie back in the bottle. The Garden of Eden has opened a Chuck E. Cheese franchise. The apple of marketing has been chomped. Build-a-Bear opened a 21,500-foot flagship store on Fifth Avenue this past summer. The Mets have a Build-a-Bear Day at the ballpark. The New York store is selling FDNY- and NYPD-themed bear clothes. It’s over. Fluffy has won.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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