If the wacky novelty store Archie McPhee were to make an action-figure based on its founder, you'd expect it might be offbeat. Perhaps a rumpled hippie...
IF THE WACKY novelty store Archie McPhee were to make an action-figure based on its founder, you’d expect it might be offbeat. Perhaps a rumpled hippie doll reeling off quirky ideas, spittle spraying like the sparks that shoot from the mouth of best-selling windup nun, Nunzilla. Maybe the figurine would have braidable nose hair (a revival of an earlier flop). Or a quivering cerebrum concocted in one of McPhee’s brain-shaped Jell-O molds.
Or maybe not. Truth is, as far as superheroes go, the man behind Archie McPhee and its 7,338 zany products looks remarkably nondescript.
At 52, Mark Pahlow is tall and pale with a large, squarish head and the demeanor of a tightly wound lawyer. He dresses several notches classier than Dockers. His Cole Haans are polished. His thinning hair, neatly trimmed.
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His fun-loving staff (which dreamed up the Smoking Baby, Angel Snot, Hopping Lederhosen) is stumped when asked to devise an “action” for a Pahlow action-figure. “I dunno, maybe have him ponder,” a manager suggests. His weapon of choice, they laughingly agree: “Silence.”
Pahlow has a surprisingly stern countenance for a guy who made a fortune off gag gifts. He stores his smile deep inside somewhere, and when it escapes, it bubbles over his face, first as a fizzy giggle, then a rolling laugh that shakes his belly like the plump Buddhas his company sells as bobbing Dashboard Monks. Quickly, though, the mirth scurries to its cave, back to business.
There’s more to Pahlow’s business than meets the eye, or rather, the bouncing glow-in-the-dark eyeball. In the 11,500-square-foot Archie McPhee store in Ballard, Pahlow sells skulls, sushi erasers, giant ice-cream-cone lamps, glass urinals, plastic pig catapults, bins of fake cockroaches, black-cat cocktail glasses, Rosie-the-Riveter lunch boxes, and the best-selling Nancy Pearl librarian doll complete with controversial Push-Button “Shushing Action.”
But wait, there’s more! Sixty employees! More than 83,000 store customers a year! An Everett warehouse! A wholesale company, Accoutrements, headquartered in a leafy Mukilteo office park!
Each year, Accoutrements designs about 100 to 150 new items, which are manufactured in Asia, creating millions of dollars in trade. (Pahlow won’t reveal financial figures on the private corporation, though he does admit to selling more than 1.5 million Devil Duckies since their introduction four years ago.) Independent pop-culture retailers such as Wacko (on Hollywood Boulevard) carry the products, as well as national chains including Mervyns, Disneyland, Urban Outfitters, Office Playground, Tower Records, Restoration Hardware. You can buy the company’s pirate flags and Jesus action figures in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe, Scandinavia and soon, the Baltic Republics.
Over three decades, Pahlow has built an empire based on things we don’t need and don’t know we want. Yet the tin trinkets and plastic doodads resonate, get tucked into Christmas stockings, displayed in office cubicles, stuck on dashboards and windowsills, their popular impact so significant that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History recently requested all 22 years of McPhee catalogs and 19 religious-themed novelties for their cultural-history collection.
So much fuss over rubber chickens?
“These things are rooted in silliness, but really, they aren’t,” says Maria Kwong, founder and director of the Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusements Museum. “Archie McPhee brings back those objects of childhood that gave us our first appreciation of art. ”
IF MANSFIELD, OHIO, hadn’t been so incredibly boring in the early 1960s, the world might not have giant hand chairs and Martian Popping Things.
“Growing up in Ohio, I was starved for quality humor,” Pahlow says. The middle of three boys, Mark was smart but bored. He read the family’s World Book Encyclopedia from A to Z, subscribed to MAD magazine, raised iguanas, snakes and an alligator in the basement, ordered X-ray specs and buzz rings from the backs of comic books, was an ardent fan of Ghoulardi , a late-night television horror-show host.
Early on, he had a taste for edgy entrepreneurship, recalls younger brother Scott Pahlow. When Mark was about 10, the family drove to visit relatives in Missouri, where firecrackers were legal. Mark bought a load of 100-packs, sneaked them home in his pillowcase, then sold them singly for a dime, (a 9,900 percent profit) to kids in a neighborhood park until a policeman intervened. Another youthful business involved an aluminum lawn chair, a train transformer, wires and children paying a nickel to sit in the chair and get shocked.
Pahlow’s father was a middle manager for an adding-machine company. After 29 years, just months before becoming eligible for his pension, he was laid off. Pahlow vowed to be self-employed.
After graduating from high school at 17, Pahlow left Ohio to hitchhike and work menial jobs around Europe. He stayed longest in Copenhagen, dressing as a Viking in horned helmet and chain mail to lure tourists into a sweater shop.
After four years, Pahlow returned, rented a cheap bungalow in a rundown part of Los Angeles and started a mail-order business specializing in collectible stamps and labels from fruit crates and cigar boxes.
Periodically, Pahlow drove people’s cars cross-country on contract driveaways. In small Midwestern towns en route, he scavenged in five-and-dimes for vintage toys, such as the Hot Dog Eating Man, made in post-war Japan.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t know these things had value. There was a lot of money to be made,” Pahlow says. “Right after World War II, there was this beautiful innocence of Japanese products: The toys, the consumer goods, the colors, the simplicity of them. People are always attracted to other eras. I hate the word nostalgia, but I think there’s always this looking back to a point where you have probably deluded yourself that life was better, though it never really was.”
In Los Angeles, Pahlow bought up plastic Close Encounters aliens on sale at the Pic ‘n Save and resold them, at markup, to chic Beverly Hills retailers, profiting because “people didn’t move between these worlds of sleazy discount stores and upscale Hollywood.”
Billy Shire, owner and mastermind of Wacko, recalls Pahlow peddling pressed tin-lithography alligator clickers from Japan in the late ’70s. “He seemed rather intelligent for the line he was in. Most of the people I ran into were kind of fly-by-night. He had an eye. He was actually into the esoteric arcaneness of old stuff, where it came from and what was neat about it.” To clinch the sale, Shire recalls, Pahlow told him: These are old-style clickers, but you can also use them to smoke your roaches.
One day, Pahlow drove his stripped-down Volvo to a North Hollywood liquidation sale at a warehouse owned by S.R. Bob Benton, whose company, Star Merchandise, imported rubber lizards, Bozo watches and the toy prizes stuffed in cereal boxes. Benton agreed to let Pahlow graze the warehouse, packing whatever he could cram into the Volvo for $500: kiddy beauty sets, Korean acupuncture dolls, tin cars, cap guns. “Uh-oh,” Benton thought. “He’s bitten off more than he can chew.”
Two weeks later, Pahlow was back for more. “That was when I knew this guy is going to go out and hustle.”
Benton taught Pahlow the trade, accompanying him to Hong Kong where he introduced him to suppliers Pahlow still works with. In Hong Kong, they started calling Pahlow Gum Sing Tsai, Son of Gold Star. “I regarded him like a son,” says Benton, whose own sons didn’t stick with the business. “What I liked about Mark, he wanted to learn everything about everything. When we went to the factories, he’d stick his nose into the machines.” Pahlow created new markets for novelties that had before been relegated to Halloween. “He brought it in for a daily thing, that people would have an eyeball in their living rooms,” Benton says.
“That older generation of importers who first went to Asia brought in stuff that was pretty low end,” says colleague and competitor Fred Roses, owner and founder of Club Earth. “These old guys thought of it as a commodity. He knew it was a cultural statement.”
In 1982, Pahlow moved to Seattle to start a family and escape rising rents and crime in L.A. He set barrels of miniature golfers, chirping cicada key rings and porcelain teeth in a cramped Fremont storefront. He named the retail store after his wife’s great uncle Archie McPhee, an adventurer from Bismarck, N.D., who toured Asia with a jazz band in the 1920s. “Archie did some wild things for his times,” says Sarah Doni Swenson, Pahlow’s former wife. “He had a wonderfully dry wit, but his humor was never at anyone’s expense; it was always insightful and funny . . . That was always Mark’s intention with the store, too. Good-natured fun.”
Pahlow’s business and ambition grew. He yearned to import a large shipment of plastic ants, “the best ants in the world, their legs were perfect,” so turned to Rainier Bank on Greenwood Avenue.
Dianne Howell, then a junior loan officer: “He had a wonderfully sly grin, wondering how I was going to take what he was going to ask me. Hi, I’m Mark Pahlow, and I’m here to talk with you about a business loan to buy plastic ants. I sort of sat back in my chair and thought: Well, this is going to be a fun conversation!”
She granted the $10,000 loan, securing it with a collateral of potato guns, rubber chickens and 800,000 plastic ants.
HOW DO YOU assign a value to plastic dinosaur skeletons?
Jim Cecil, owner of Nurture Marketing, took a chance in 1990 when he bought 500 Tyrannosaurus Rex ($10.80 a dozen on closeout) from Archie McPhee and sent them to CEOs of banks, credit unions and mortgage lending companies as part of a software sales campaign. What lays eggs, is slow-moving and ends up stuck in the mud? Answer inside the box. The goal: To get the CEOs to take phone calls from his Bellevue client, Interlinq Software, so the company could pitch and demo its banking software.
Typically, the response rate to direct mail is less than 2 percent. In this case, a whopping 48 percent of the CEOs took Interlinq’s calls. “This was a hit,” said Wesley Clark, then an inside sales manager. “I had one president who said, Hey, could you send a couple more for my kids?”
It’s all about childhood, says Cecil, who has researched the phenomenon on his own and with psychologists. Flat envelope = report card. Lumpy mail = presents. Plus, most of the CEOs were 45- to 60-year-old men who led high-pressure lives. When they pulled the dinosaur out of the box, they became, for a moment, carefree boys playing with prehistoric toys.
“These iconic images that people knew from their childhood can trigger things that aren’t easy to recall,” Pahlow says.” A flood of memories . . .”
Standing by a rack of windup Parking Space Goddesses in the McPhee store, working mom Jan Lewis gazes at yellow smiley-face affirmation balls. The round yellow icons transport Lewis back to the ’60s, she says, one of the happiest times in her life. “Tie-dye, pop-art dresses, Beatles, Stones. A lot of us were going off to college. Sometimes we’d send each other care packages and put on smiley-face buttons. Life was a little serious because of Vietnam and all, so sometimes if you could get a laugh . . .”
Of course, smiley faces and dinosaurs don’t push everyone’s buttons.
According to a Seattle Times ZIP-code analysis of the store’s customer database, most McPhee customers are white, between 25 and 55 years old, earn more than $50,000 annually and have a college degree or higher. In the Seattle area, they’re more likely than average to use eBay, belong to a gym, live in a condo/apartment, shop at bookstores, contribute to NPR, read a daily paper and drive a European import. They’re less likely than average to have a video-game system or pet, buy a lottery ticket or own stocks.
McPhee rarely advertises. “Most customers like to find us through other customers,” says McPhee catalog manager David Wahl. “They like to think they’re unique; shopping at McPhee distinguishes their personality.”
Royalty and rich folk have long defined themselves by the tchotchkes and talismans they commission and collect. Common folk took up the habit in the mid-1800s, when industrialization made mass-produced doodads affordable, writes Celeste Olalquiaga in “The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience.”
Contemporary critics say the practice has gotten out of control, especially when it comes to the zany products found in McPhee and a couple other catalogs. “The modern landscape is littered with vast stockpiles of ludicrous paraphernalia, which we arrange like shrines in our kitchens, bedrooms and offices,” Daniel Harris writes in “Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism.”
“In a society intolerant of unconventional behavior . . . a service economy, which places a high value on maintaining cordial customer relations . . . we have devised a symbolic method of achieving the illusion of rebelliousness by practicing controlled nonconformity. Zaniness allows us to misbehave and yet minimizes our risk of being ostracized as eccentric. . . . ”
To which Pahlow says, “Wow. If that guy had a dog, the dog wouldn’t like him! He’s taking everything waaay too seriously.”
YOU CAN NEVER TELL what will materialize.
Someone suggested, “wind-up hopping lederhosen!” (As a joke!) Next day, Pahlow said, “Let’s do it.” The empty Bavarian folk pants took off, so to speak, all the way to Urban Outfitters. The librarian action figure was conceived at a dinner party where Nancy Pearl and Pahlow were both guests. Pahlow, an avid reader, wanted to celebrate the unglamorous profession simply because he knew no other corporation would. Big surprise, the Librarian has edged Jesus and Freud action figures to become Accoutrements’ most popular item, more than 100,000 sold, and counting.
Pahlow loves creating whatever weird item Mattel, Wal-Mart or Hasbro wouldn’t touch. No focus groups.
“Generally, we take something and we want it to have contrariness, edge,” Pahlow says. “Something profoundly innocent like a bathroom rubber ducky. We put on horns. It’s not so gruesome that it frightens people, but we’re constantly looking for the juxtaposition, to flip it. . . . I like really good design. If we’re going to use fossil fuels to make something, burn energy, I don’t think we should be making junky stuff. With some effort, you can make inexpensive items that look good and function well and sell them and make people happy. It gives meaning to my life. It’s profoundly fulfilling, truly creation. An idea comes out of nothingness.”
The product-development people (mostly white male Gen-X and Gen-Y graphic artists) have been with the company for years. One guy was a Metro bus driver in his former life; another worked his way up from the stockroom. Pahlow also solicits ideas from the entire staff. “I want them to brainstorm, nothing off-limits,” he tells longtime store manager Shana Iverson. (Except no fake poop, fake vomit, politics or sex. “As edgy as we are,” Iverson says, “we do like to be family-oriented. For the edgy family.”)
Once a week or so, backed by a life-size Yoda and a cheesy portrait of Pahlow (chin in hand, pondering), the team meets around a long conference table piled with Edgar Allen Poe figures, female monster finger puppets, a miniature cubicle office world that comes with water cooler, balding comb-over co-worker and pink slips.
They discuss whether to rename the Love Gun (a contraption that flings cupids) so it can be sold in malls and Europe, where guns are verboten. Another celebrity spotting of the cigarette-dispensing donkey (popular since Jennifer Aniston gave one to Brad Pitt after seeing it on the Ellen DeGeneres Show). Whether to make glowing and stuffed versions of various products. More figurines like the Crazy Cat Lady?
“Well, what about other disorders?” Pahlow asks, warning, “You have to be careful with these things so it’s not too sad or clinical.”
Iverson: “Neat freak; that’s not so offensive.” “Backseat driver.” “Nosy neighbor.” “Bad-smelling guy on the bus.” “Kid with crayon in his nose.” “Drunken Step-Dad.” “We don’t want to do things that are too real!”
Pahlow: “Unsung heroes?”
“Hairdresser.” “Weatherman! He can have two types of hair: windswept and plastic.” “Gym teacher.” (Pahlow: “I hate them too much.”) “Lunch lady! The blue hair nets, pink polyester uniform, fat ankles . . . Do you have issues with the lunch lady, too?” “You can’t get mean with it.” “Would the consumer think we just hadn’t molded the ankles right?” “How ’bout, hairdresser?”
Is this more fun than you have at work? On top of decent dental, health and a pension plan, the company also has an annual budget of several thousand dollars and an interdepartmental committee, “Fun Squid,” whose mission is to plan events like a Haiku pajama party or a store raid when they dress as Julius Caesar, stab co-workers with fake knives and serve Caesar salad.
Like a banker amongst aliens, Pahlow seems out of place in his own store. One afternoon, he reviews inventory with Iverson. He’s in a tasteful gray ensemble, gold pen peeking out of shirt pocket. She’s a Mad Waitress in ghoulish white makeup, pink uniform and tawdry copper barfly wig in honor of Diner From Hell Dress-up Day. During the meeting, Iverson shows her boss photos of the staff costumed as Eraserhead, Olive Oyl, Bride of Frankenstein, and on and on for almost 10 minutes. Pahlow nods. You can’t tell whether he’s amused, bored, thinking about an incoming shipment of skulls, or considering Popeye’s historical ramifications.
History is Pahlow’s passion, along with art and design, red wine, the restaurant scene, fly-fishing and reading. He divorced four years ago and considers the new Capitol Hill home he shares with retired psychotherapist and unpublished poet Kerry Rye “a fortress of solitude” for reading and thinking. How the couple met is “our secret,” Rye says, “but I will tell you that we wrote to each other for a while before deciding to meet.” Both are excellent writers who sprinkle allusions to T.S. Eliot, Confucius and Maslow’s Hierarchy in witty e-mails.
According to Rye, when Pahlow isn’t playing zucchini-zapper games with her 6-year-old son, he reads. He subscribes to the Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Times and 23 magazines including the New Yorker, London Review of Books, Artforum, Gastronomica, the Far East Economic Review, Budget Living, The Sun (a brooding black-and-white periodical), Bark (a hip dog magazine) and Juxtapoz (an art and culture magazine).
“Nobody’s asking him to read a book on some emperor or some insect,” says college junior Lily Pahlow, of her father, who never went to college. “He’s always reading stuff just because he wants to.”
This fall, Pahlow was inspired to create an Alexander-the-Great action figure after reading “Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy” by Partha Bose. (Accoutrements rushed the figure into production after hearing about the upcoming movie.) Pahlow’s copy of the biography flutters with yellow Post-Its and pencil underlinings, stuff to maybe include on the doll’s packaging.
Alexander’s notion of power particularly struck Pahlow. “Now people think of power and greatness as money and conquering, but in ancient times, glory wasn’t as low brow. It was connected with the process of becoming immortal, like the gods.”
The businessman frequently ruminates about death. “I’m always struck by the fact we go all through our day without talking about it or acknowledging what the point is. Why are we living? What is the definition of a good life? What does it mean? When you’re gone, do you remember the world? Does the world remember you?”
Does Pahlow want to achieve immortality as the guy who brought the world hopping lederhosen?
“All over Seattle, people have our stuff,” he says. ” I look in cars all the time. There’s the Devil Duckie air freshener, our statues on the dashboard, on kitchen windowsills. We’ve been around a long time and sold millions of things, everyday 50-cent things people have chosen to keep in their lives.”
Plastic and tin last almost forever.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ZIP-code analysis by Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk.