Somewhere between 1997 and 2000, the $5 bean-bag animals called “Beanie Babies” exploded into a national phenomenon. While there were dozens of animal styles the most coveted were the bears. They were coveted because of their perceived value, with certain bears selling for as much as $500 on the secondary (re: black) market. While not everyone who bought Beanie Babies were buying them as an investment to be sure, but most of them were. It was the first time I got a good look at the darkness inside of average people too. Let me tell you about it.
Working at Thinker Toys usually insulated us from the many fads that came and went in the toy world. Transformers, Go-Bots, and the various other mass-market trends passed us by because as a small toy store we couldn’t afford to carry such items. Not that we wanted to because Thinker Toys specialized in games, high-end plush, European wooden toys, educational toys, and various hobby items (model trains, die-cast cars, and models). We also didn’t carry toys that glorified violence, no guns, swords, or even plastic army men. So while we sold a lot of toys, we most sold the good stuff. So imagine our surprise when we found ourselves in the eye of the storm of Beanie Baby loons.
The first warning that we had was one summer day when a nine year old girl from Illinois discovered our basket of Ty Beanie Babies on the real plush table. She called her parents over to the table and excitedly pointed out all the Beanies we had. Her parents bought all eleven of them, and told us that they were the next hot thing. So my boss, Mark, called up Ty and ordered a bunch more. They showed up about ten days later, and we priced them and put them on the plush table again.
While they continued to sell, people were freaking out because we put a price-tag on the Ty heart-shaped tag. “It lowers the value” one lady hissed at me. Soon we had to move the Beanie Babies behind the counter because they were getting stolen. Soon people began calling us to ask if we carried the Beanie Babies. This is where the nightmare began. They’d ask if they could be notified when the Beanie Baby shipments came in, and stupid us, we said “Sure”. The thing is that they’d call us before the boxes had been opened. In the early days of the Beanie Baby craze the Ty boxes were proudly marked with their logo, and people would follow the UPS trucks around noting where they’d stop. Some would even quiz the UPS drivers as to where the boxes were going, and this would result in people calling us up before the boxes had even arrived. Eventually TY stopped marking its boxes to prevent theft.
As the craze grew, we found that the Beanie Babies would end up on back-order. This pissed off our customers to no end, and many accused us of hording them for the re-sale market. The problem was that as the Beanie Babies grew into a phenomenon everyone started to sell them: butcher shops, tobacco shops, beauty salons, hardware store, and so on. So we never knew when we’d actually get them and when we did they would be in quantities of six to twelve. The bears almost never showed up.
The day I realized that the Beanie Baby thing was out of control was the day of a powerful storm. Trees were coming down, and the power was out in Carmel as the rain and wind hit us like a story from the Bible. In the middle of all of this came the UPS truck, and low and behold there was a single Ty box onboard. We popped it open and to our surprise we found twenty-four “Peace” bears inside. The Peace Bear was a tie-dye fellow with the peace symbol on his chest; he was made to commemorate the passing of Jerry Garcia. Anyway, we put them up on the shelf and while we did have a small list of people we needed to call we couldn’t because the power was out and the phones were down. As it was, all but a few of those people came in anyway because they knew the phones were down and they didn’t want to miss out. San Carlos Street was blocked off while this was going on because a large pine tree in front of Wells Fargo was showing signs of coming down, and a tree cutter was out there cutting it down. The wind blew and the rain came down in sheets. I went downstairs for lunch because there was nothing else to do, and Mark and Nancy ran the front counter. The power came back as I returned from lunch. I sent Nancy on her way, and I noted that all of the Peace Bears were now gone. We had a two-Beanie limit so the word must have gotten out somehow. Now that most all of the Beanies from this shipment were gone I had a pretty quiet hour or so until the phone rang. “Did you get Peace bears today?” to which I stupidly answered “Yes, but we’re sold out.” The woman on the other end of the phone; calling me from Pennsylvania, flipped out and just went ape-shit. She actually threatened to scratch my eyes out, to which I told her that threatening people across state lines was a federal crime. She huffed and hung up the phone. Wow, just freakin’ wow.
From there we developed a system and because I was smart I made sure that I had nothing to do with it. I made it clear to Mark that I had no sense of humor about the Beanie Baby craze, and if a customer threatened me again I was going to tear their arm out of the socket and beat their skull in. So I was just never around when the new Beanies went out onto the floor. Nancy handled the Beanies and the customers, she had a list of names, and she would go through the shipment and pull the desired Beanies for each customer. Were these customers happy? No, they gave Nancy grief anyway, and Mark eventually had to ask some to never return to the store. I often asked Mark if it was worth it because most of the Beanie Baby customers were not buying anything else in the store, and he’d just shrug saying that it was hard to say what the long-term effect would be.
Although I had managed to stay clear of most of the Beanie Baby crap, I was still amazed at the things that I did learn. First there was Cancer Lady, she told us that she was dying from cancer and that the Beanies made her feel better. So Mark made a point of getting her the hot Bears first, to which she was grateful. Come to find out the bitch didn’t have cancer, and she was using the same BS line on a dozen other gift shops to get the valuable bears, and then she was selling them for $50 a pop at the Flea Market in Santa Cruz.
Then there were the two adorable nine year old twin girls who came into the store on Christmas break. We happened to have a Peace Bear or two that day, and they marveled that it was only $5. As their mother bought them each a bear at what they thought was a bargain price she told us that they had spent their Christmas money on a pair of Princess Bears. I asked how much they paid, and the mother told me that they paid $200 each. Unfucking believable. I told her that while we only got 24 Princess Bears we only sold them for $5 too. The mother just shook her head. The Princes Bear was Ty’s first attempt to cash in on the hype. Venders were only allotted 24 bears each, and only 2000 would be produced. Some people paid up to $1000 for a Princess bear, and this made me realize that some people were too stupid to have $1000 in the first place.
Beanie Babies cost .35 cents to make. Their wholesale price was $2.49 and they sold for $4.95. Anybody who paid more than $5 for a Beanie Baby is a moron, and if you are offended by this because you bought one for some ridiculous amount well tough shit. What’s that Beanie worth now? .50 cents? Less? Shrewd investment there, Forbes. I have no problem with those folks who bought the Beanie Babies because they thought they were cute; they were pretty neat, and they were a valid stuffed animal. Just like baseball cards, die-cast cars (Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning, etc), comic books, and baseball cards that all got the “Collectable” treatment Beanies are pretty much worthless today. There is a reason for this fact. Things become valuable because they are rare and hard to find in “mint” condition. The first Superman comic book and Mickey Mantle’s rookie card are worth a ton of cash because there are not that many of them floating around out there. When that first Superman came out in the 1930s kids didn’t keep them around too long because they usually got traded with friends or got destroyed from the usual wear and tear of childhood. When Mantle was a rookie kids bought the cards to get the bubble gum, and those cards often ended up in the spokes of bicycles. The kids who actually took care of their comics or baseball cards often came home from college, WWII, or Vietnam to find that mom had tossed their collection out or gave it to the kid down the street. This is why baseball card and comic book collectors celebrate Mother’s Day as a religious holiday.
The fact that Beanie Babies were produced and sold to people who were collecting them as an investment made them worthless before we had even taken them out of the box. The Beanie Babies were a symbol of everything that was wrong with the economy of the mid-1990s through 2008. Beanie Babies were seen as an investment, and some people did make money off of them. The problem is that they were making money off of speculation; speculation that was not supported by any reasonable facts whatsoever. The demand for the Beanie Babies was fueled by media hype of people getting rich quick from the sales of the rare bears. Soon the secondary market grew with the help of the growing internet population, and by 1998 there was a national black market network of Beanie Baby collectors nationwide. Soon people who had no prior knowledge of the collectable toy market were sucked into the Beanie Baby frenzy, and they were throwing away money on them right and left.
I knew that Beanie Babies would mostly be worthless, and I tried to tell every customer who told me otherwise. I never once sold a Beanie Baby to anyone with the promise of future riches, and neither did anyone else at Thinker Toys. We had so many people tell us that we were stupid because our Beanie Babies sold for $5 when so many other places were selling them for more. The rival gift shop in town actually never put their Beanies on the shelves and instead sold them online for outrageous prices. To my boss’s credit, Mark would respond by saying that we were a respectable business, and we were a proud seller of toys. He said that eventually the Beanie craze would end, and the reputation that we were over-charging for them (essentially ripping off people) would kill off our long term business. He was right too, Thinker Toys is still around in a world where independents are being crushed by the giant corporate trash stores.
A few months ago I was on Cannery Row and I walked into one of the gift shops. They had shelves full of Beanie Baby bears. I guess Ty had reissued the classics. They were selling for $5, as they always should have been. I asked the lady behind the counter if they were still hot sellers and she told me that there were a few die-hards who still came in, but for the most part they were no big deal. There is a number of morals to this story. There is no such thing as easy money. The only smart investment is in the bond market – not toys fresh off of the truck. Just because everyone thinks that something is going to be worth money doesn’t make it so. Always do your homework and never pay more for an item than it is worth in the present, the future price is always unknown. Buy something because you like it. Nobody ever got rich by buying retail. If this didn’t involve children it would be funny, but kids got ripped off. Some people would say that they learned a valuable economic lesson. I think people that say that should die in a fire because ripping off children leads to children not trusting adults, or thinking that ripping off people is okay. I can walk away from the Beanie Baby wars knowing that neither I nor my employer stole money from children or those sad people who lined up in our store. I can smile today knowing that I was right about the long term worth of the Beanie Babies as well.