For those of you who don't know, American Girl is a brand of doll that has insidiously worked its way into
the hearts and minds of little girls across the nation. Neither as ugly as Cabbage Patch dolls, or as curvaceous as Barbie, these seemingly harmless, All-American childlike dolls thrive as parents recognize that someday they'll be able to enter into the preserved rooms of their children's past and pretend for a moment that everything is as they wish it to be. There, the dolls and their accessories (and, boy, are there accessories; they could open another store next door just to sell the accessories) will provide a Norman Rockwell twinge of nostalgia for happier (ie. younger, less medicated) days.
When I first signed up to join the tour, I kept thinking how great it would be to walk into the store and begin acting nervously, start to sweat, shake and, after a half hour or so of build-up, fall to the ground screaming that all the dolls want to kill me. My wife, however, did not think this was a good idea reminding me that the nieces already think I am strange. (This was confirmed during our visit to the store when my 11 year old niece looked at me in disgust and said "Is everything a joke to you?")
Despite this small chink in my plan, I went anyway. Why? you might ask. Now the story gets a little more convoluted. Several years ago I took the Myers-Briggs test, a personality test to help you work out your personality type. My results indicated that I would be most successful as a leader of a cult. On the day that my nieces were going to American Girl, my nephew and brother-in-law were attending a NASCAR event in the Poconos. Suddenly, I was given the chance to visit two of the leading, gender-biased consumer cults of America on the same day. However, I have to be honest here, NASCAR held zero interest for me for several reasons:
1) It is a bunch of cars going around in a circle for several hours.
2) Each car is an advertisement for something you don't need.
3) I grew up in West Jersey. During my late teens, I frequented a bar where a man came in with a shotgun and blew a stuffed moose head off the wall and left. It was the kind of place where strange men would sidle up to you and tell you how they had killed Bambi, where drunk doctors would walk in with women too young to know how to properly put on their make-up, where you could purchase a beer pitcher of kamikazes at the age of 17 from a bartender who was 16. So when I see a NASCAR event, I see my past, only with a bunch of cars going around in circles for several hours.
4) The people who watch these events are the same people who complain about driving Monday through Friday. And who complain about too much advertising on TV.
5) Auto racing is not a sport. Unless you consider poker to be a sport. Then the hierarchy shifts, because in comparison to poker, auto racing is a sport.
6) Even J.G. Ballard couldn't convince me that cars are sexy.
7) It is a bunch of cars going around in a circle for several hours.
So, it was an easy decision. American Girl was beckoning. I was going to have high tea with my wife, mother, sister, two nieces and their dolls. Because, that's right, the dolls are treated as if they are real. It's all about maintaining the illusion. And, if I ever get up off my lazy ass and attract my followers, worshippers, butterers of my bread, it's got to be about maintaining the illusion. That's the only kind of cult I can imagine lording it over.
Now a few points about American Girl:
1) It's for the 3-9 year old set, so it's like a beginner's cult. The 7 year old niece was having a great time: spending money, thinking about coming back to spend more money, probably dreaming that evening about spending even more money. The 11 year old had that I'm almost a teenager/I'm too old for this/I'm bored look on her face. (Both the wife and I are looking forward to giving her "Rocket To Russia" for her birthday in a few weeks; she requested it.)
2) The store is a strange, sterile environment with some toys out for the children to touch and others on display as if they are a rare jewel. They're obviously trying to appeal to the white glove contingent along Fifth Avenue, but understand that the cult only succeeds when you don't require the gloves.
3) It was surprisingly quiet for a store filled with kids.
4) My wife's doll (the nieces brought along a doll for her) had an overbite that made her look goofy. The girls did not bring a doll for me knowing full well I would have embarassed them in some way.
5) From the perspective of someone who has worked in retail, I am unsure whether it would be worse to work a the Disney Store, where people act as if they are cheerleaders, or a server in American Girl's dining area, where you have to smile while serving dolls (though the tips aren't bad). Give me an independent record store where I can play good music all day and act surly to my heart's content.
Tea is served for one hour at the prix fixe of $19 per person regardless of age. They also serve breakfast, lunch and two dinners. We could not go to lunch because they were booked three months in advance (yeah, I laughed too). We could not go to breakfast because there's no way in hell you could get me up to eat with the dolls at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. You sit at your reserved table and they have these chairs for the dolls that hook onto the table so the doll can be served tea also. Keep the illusion real (repeat after me: "Inanimate objects are my friends"). Then, for the $19 you get an assortment of finger food, mainly sweet stuff, that you eat because you're hungry by this time but you realize (and even the kids realize) that a pretzel and a soda from the cart on the corner would be better and $16.50 cheaper.
After the meal, you come down from the high of conspicuous consumption and head over to Rockefeller Center where the 11 year old, when she was 4, got on your shoulders to see the Christmas tree and promptly began screaming at the top of her lungs, digging her hands into your eyes because she was up too high. Then you load the family onto the bus that takes them to the ferry, so they can get back to their car and get lost in Fort Lee, "Town Without Signs".
And that was my trip to American Girl. An educational trip. A trip that has influenced me to get up off my lazy ass because I realized who the butterers of my bread will be. It hit me the other day: "American Woman. Inflatable Dolls with accessories." I think I can sell them to the NASCAR fans.