I Had an Existential Crisis at the Build-A-Bear Store

I Had an Existential Crisis at the Build-A-Bear Store

We’re not really mall people, my family and I. At first, it was because the kids were too young and squirrelly to harness in the crowds. Then because they had a grisly case of the galloping greedy gimmies, to quote the Berenstain Bears (I do things like that now, quote the Bears, because I’m waterboarded into reading them so many nights). And then because we were worried I’d lose my job, and so were trying to be frugal. And now because I have lost my job. And places like Toys R Us are Not Fr Us.

But the other day, I took mallish pity on my smallish daughter. All Tess’s friends were out of town on vacation, and there was no one, no one, to play with, and her dear face and big dark eyes were turning mournful as a velvet painting, and she spied an ad on TV for Build-A-Bear, and she’d saved up her allowance, and now the only thing she wanted in the whole wide world was to go to one of the stores at the mall and lovingly construct a cub of her own, thereby enacting classic transitional object feelings of empathy and identification, thus assuaging the insecurity of the latency period she, at age 7, is about to enter, and so reach that state Jung called Apocatastasis, which means a resurrection or restoration of an original wholeness.

Or, in her words, she was trying to decide between Peace & Hugs Bear or Li’l Coconut Cub.

So I caved. We drove to the mall. My, oh my, it had been so long since I’d felt that kind of retail overload. What to call this mall mood destabilizer? Mall de Mer? Mallschmerz? At any rate, there were the sunlit uplands of The Christmas Tree Shops. Big old J.C. Penney and Sears. The Gap. Silver chrome mannequins decked in on-sale bathing suits. Acres of mid-aisle booths of men’s cologne, zircon earrings, cell phone covers. Iphone 4 slogans everywhere (“Hold Different.” Huh?) The Cinnabon aroma. The spangle and neon of the food court.

Eventually we bivouacked our way to Build-a-Bear: Where Best Friends Are Made. (The company was founded in 1996 in St. Louis, has sold some 50 million bears from some 400 outlets, and posted total revenue of 394.4 million in fiscal 2009. In case you were wondering.) I’d never been to one of these stores before. It is such an alarmingly well-calibrated case study in children’s marketing. Few kids could resist this kind of retail riptide. First of all, the place is tricked up in beckoning primary colors, yolk yellow mostly, with blue-colored puns written all over the walls (CeleBEARate Your Birthday With Us, Pawfectly Huggy, Be Beariffic, You’re Pawsome, Beary Best Regards, Satisfaction Bearanteed.) Then there are these bright red stools on Dr. Seuss-ish-whimsical coiled springs where kids can sit to dress their bears (you buy outfits here too) or enter their bear’s particulars on screens in order to print out its birth certificate. Seriously.

I Had an Existential Crisis at the Build-A-Bear Store

The shopping kids all look excited, feverish almost, and intent, though also cross-eyed by the possibilities. There’s an ursine for every mood and occasion (“a bear fur all seasons,” as yet another store pun puts it). You can choose a Hanukkah Hugs Li’l Chocolate Cub with a blue Star of David t-shirt, a Holy Communion Bear, an Irish Dancing Curly Teddy, bears garbed in Philadelphia Phillies or Tampa Bay Rays shirts, seemingly every sports team, a Hello Kitty Bear, an IHeart ICarly Bear, a Jedi Knight Bear, bears in business suits, fairy wings, chef’s toques. Others in the mammalian kingdom are for sale too. Dogs, ponies, bunnies, kitties. I see they’ve capitalized on the Bo phenomenon, and now offer an American Pride Portuguese Water Dog.

So what about the Build-a part? Well, I don’t think Jacob Riis would find gritty tableaux here for his portfolio. Child labor is minimal; this “building” is to sweatshop manufacturing as cake mix is to scratch baking. Which is to say the kid does a perfunctory, near-symbolic amount, the rest is done for them. At home later, Tess would tell me she felt like the experience didn’t live up to the way the company describes it. To wit: “You can choose, stuff, stitch, fluff and dress your new furry friend.” Yeah, not really.

How it actually works is the kid goes to these bins full of the unstuffed outside part—what to call it? skin, husk, furry exterior enclosure? Then she carries this limp suit to a smiling teenager (Seventeen Magazine says Build-a-Bear is one of the 10 best places to work for teens. I can see why; sure beats swabbing behind the fryolator at Arby’s).

Anyway, Tess weighed her anthropomorphic options for a long time, and finally settled on Brown Sugar Puppy, price point $12. Smart girl; it was one of the cheaper ones, and with the $25 budget I’d given her, she could still afford two outfits. She brought the still-hollow pup over to one appointed teen, who clearly had been given talking points and asked her if she was ready to meet her beary best friend, or something like that, and Tess nodded solemnly. Then Miss Teen asks her to pick out a little red cloth heart from a bin (this was the creepiest part for me, bar none), and make a wish before she implants the heart inside the animal. The teen then intones this litany in which the child is asked to press the cloth heart to her own heart, and her own head, there’s something vaguely Eucharistic about it, and make a wish for the soul and future of Brown Sugar Puppy.

Tess obeyed, and the bear’s heart safely stented within, she was then instructed to kind of gently impale the creature-to-be’s abdomen on a big dowel. Next, the stuffing was jetted into its insides from this giant glass-windowed machine that looks like a cotton candy maker, supersized. The stuffie now stuffed, Miss Teen took the almost-finished creature, flipped it face down as if to burp it, and pulled the stitching together to seal its back. And hello, Brown Sugar Puppy.

I Had an Existential Crisis at the Build-A-Bear Store

I feel sort of bad, sort of callow, saying how all this affected me—meaning not well. Because it was clear Tess was happy, her sadness temporarily stayed by whatever she’d projected onto Emma, as Brown Sugar Puppy came to be named. Writing this in the days that followed, I found myself getting all Seymour Hersh-y, googling the company and trying to dig up dirt. It’s there but it’s minor; in 1999, the owners of the Brown Bear Factory in San Francisco sued Build-A-Bear for misappropriating trade secrets, copyright infringement, etc. It was settled out of court. In 2003, a product named Founding Bear had to be recalled since it posed a choking hazard, when it became clear a child could twist off its nose. A toy chair was recently recalled too. Fairly standard corporate misbehavior, nothing too serious.

I tried tracking down conditions in the Chinese factories where the bear materials are made. Couldn’t find much, but even if they’re stellar, there’s the obvious and even painful discrepancy, as I’d later say to Tess (she’s used to my fight-the-power world view) between the poor people in China who make the materials for rich people like us in America. (Even if I’m jobless, I’m still rich compared to most of the world). And that makes me uncomfortable. Then again, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything egregious going on here. This is from Build-A-Bear’s corporate web site: “Our supplier factories are compliant with the International Council of Toy Industries (ICTI) CARE (Caring, Awareness, Responsible, Ethical) certification, a program to promote ethical manufacturing, in the form of fair labor treatment, as well as employee health and safety, in the toy industry supply chain worldwide.” Okay. I decided to also tell Tess that it was probably true that Chinese moms and dads making the bear materials could support their family on their wages. Yet, I said, I still didn’t feel good. “But I think the Chinese people are really nice to make the bears,” Tess said, in reaction to her downer mom. “And they must like us because they want to make us happy. Because Emma makes me happy.”

Okay, point taken. And really I’m kind of blowing smoke here. Because if I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit to now having a real PTSD relationship with any corporation, any large retail outfit, that sells products to children. This is because I worked for the magazine group of the Walt Disney company for eight years, at the excellent parenting magazines FamilyFun and Wondertime, and have had way more than my fair share of labored puns and forced corporate cheer. I love both magazines and am proud to have worked for them. And since we were based in Massachusetts, we were always an outer colony to Orlando or Burbank, and so weren’t as enmeshed in the Disney corporate culture. I will also add that there were a number of people I admired in the company at large. On top of that, I totally acknowledge that Disney shines at things it doesn’t get enough credit for; judiciously welcoming gay employees, for instance, and helping every single sick child who has a dream of coming to the parks through their Make-a-Wish foundation.

That said, the Build-A-Bear visit was a big fat trigger for me. As became apparent when Tess printed out her bear’s birth certificate: July 17, 2010. It was July 17, 2000 when I signed on to The Mouse. The similarities seemed all too much. At Disney, it wasn’t Satisfaction Bearanteed, but it was the Big Idears program (a play on Mickey Mouse’s ears). It wasn’t Be Pawsitive, but it was “Have a Magical Day,” which is said without irony when you talk to someone at the parks or even HR. You didn’t work in corbearate sales, but you were called a “cast member” instead of an employee.

So what’s my problem? Well, I’m not naïve. All corporations have to make money, all reinforce morale in their own way, with their own biz school patois. But there’s something really distressing and unseemly when that rah-rah culture, with the childlike overlay, slaps up against cold economic reality. Believe me, when I was laid off in 2009 along with all of my colleagues at Wondertime magazine, which Disney owned and folded, there were no magical days or big idears. No circle of life, no colors in the wind, no spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Suddenly, the reigning euphemism was anything but chirpy. “Our separation,” they kept calling it. There was a lot of talk about our separation, how it would go, how we’d separate. Hey, you can’t break up with me, I wanted to holler,  I’m breaking up with you!

What I’m trying to say is that, once you’ve looked behind the scenes at the creation of a children’s product, lived the corporate culture that produces such a product, assessed the mark-up on the profit, felt the deep disconnect between image and reality, gotten dizzy from the marketing spin—but also noted happiness on your kid’s face, and then realized it wasn’t enough to keep you from falling, falling, like the silhouetted man in the Mad Men credits—it’s hard to claw your way back up to any remote state of innocence.

So that’s the story of my existential crisis at the Build-A-Bear workshop. Tess, Emma, and I would like to thank you fur bearing with us.

Photo from popham elementary school

Photo from the bentall shopping centre

Photo from Build-a-Bear

Katharine Whittemore was the features editor at Wondertime magazine, the parenting magazine that didn’t read like a parenting magazine. It won two National Magazine Award nominations in its first two ...read more


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