Inside Archie McPhee, Seattle’s Weird Kid Paradise
Archie McPhee sells funny trinkets. That doesn't mean it isn't important.
Since it was founded by a disaffected wanderer named Mark Pahlow in 1983 and named in honor of his uncle, Seattle’s Archie McPhee has been manufacturing and selling items that vibrate at a very specific wavelength of weird. It is the emporium nonpareil of librarian action figures, punching nun figurines, martian popping things, and many products made of faux bacon from wallets to air fresheners to band-aids. For many, it’s a great place to grab a gag. To some — myself included — it’s a cultural institution of incredibly import animated by a critically important mission.
When I was a kid living in suburban Philadelphia, Archie McPhee existed only as a catalog that arrived every month. In its pages, I found monster finger puppets, rabbi trading cards, and Godzilla wind-up toys. I also found my people. The message of the messy manual was clear: “You are not alone you little weirdo!” This was something I desperately needed to hear.
From the ages of, say, 8 to 14, I spent all my allowance money on Archie McPhee products. I sent for, and received, grosses of small brightly colored monkeys, meant for hanging off the edge of cocktails I would never make; candles in the form of small monkeys wearing Fez hats, I would never burn; and martian popping things, I would never forget.
Not entirely friendless nor properly popular, I had a lot of time to myself and these strange things kept me company. Some 25 years later, still neither friendless nor properly popular, I finally found myself in Seattle on the doorstep of Archie McPhee’s one retail location, a temple designed for odd kids to worship at the feet of their own burgeoning idiosyncrasies.
The store on a corner lot in quiet Wallingford. It is a little dingy and rundown. A yellow awning with the words Amazing! Mysterious! Alive! Runs the length of the one-story building. A large cut-out of a grinning beige martian with a fleshy antenna-like protuberance has been glued to the red tile wall. There’s a mannequin wearing a rubber polar bear mask in the window and a sign announcing the impending arrival of the Rubber Chicken Museum on the wall. I push open the door, with a jingle, and enter.
To walk into the headquarters for the first time as a grown-ass man is like entering the source code of child happiness. In this chock-a-block space every square inch is filled with an idea made concrete — or much more likely plastic — that captures that strain of silliness that sustained me: Tin foil hats for cats, tiny hands for your fingers, tinier hands for your finger hands. Buckets, like you’d find at a hardware store, are filled with googly eyes in various sizes. From the ceiling hang Thai anatomy posters and plastic Cinco de Mayo flags.
Standing in front of a mask of a horse wearing a suit and a crown with plastic figures, I find 48-year-old David Wahl. For the last 23 years — “most of my adult life,” he says —Wahl has worked at Archie McPhee. He moved from Ohio, where he studied English lit at THE Ohio State University and began his career at McPhee packing boxes. Today he is the Director of Awesome (and, more mundanely, the VP of Marketing and Creative Services). Along with a bob-haired, red-lipsticked woman named Shana Iverson, the High Priestess of Rubber Chickens, and McPhee’s own founder, Mark Pahlow, David is responsible for the over 10,000 items here that sell for between $.01 and $250. (The most expensive item is a 3-foot-tall pink plaster poodle.) “The way I explain it,” he tells me, jovially, “is that Archie McPhee is a private joke made public. Everything in the store is funny to somebody and everything in the store is completely repellent to someone else.”
The famous punching nun puppet, a perennial best-seller, provides a weird object lesson in how McPhee merchandise finds its way onto then off of the shelf. The figures were originally just left-over Margaret Thatcher punching dolls that Pahlow opted to dress up to make light of the Catholic school experience. The result? A best-selling product that made headlines in 1996, when it was included in a Catholic League Report on Anti-Catholicism that also mentioned a glow-in-the-dark Jesus action figure — another big seller — and the following admonition from a certain Rev. Alex Cunningham, clerk to Glasgow Presbytery: “This is distasteful in the extreme. I can’t see how rolling a plastic toy on the floor is going to induce religious understanding in anyone.”
Why is it funny? Meh, hard to say. But like so much of McPhee merchandise, it makes me laugh every time to see the nun’s little habit flop as she throws puny punches. The same way just thinking of a full-face banana slug mask makes me grin or the mustache made of plastic octopus tentacle makes me chortle. It is described on the website thusly: “We’ve combined our love for mustaches with our love for cephalopods to create the most disturbing and compelling upper lip accessory the world has ever seen!” Part of the appeal is that the thing itself is silly but the more profound pleasure is the realization that someone actually made something so silly real.
I don’t think Dylan was thinking of the Jesus action figure when he wrote “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” but he sums up the Archie McPhee ethos rather perfectly. “As human gods aim for their mark / Made everything from toy guns that spark / To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark / It’s easy to see without looking too far /That not much is really sacred.”
On a shelf between a pair of the world’s largest tweezers and strawberry-flavored bacon unicorn horns for cats is a hardback copy of Pahlow’s 2008 self-published pseudo-memoir, Who Would Buy This? The Archie McPhee Story. The story told in the pages is even more life- and self-affirming than the plastic products proffered on McPhee’s platforms, for it is a bildungsroman of a weirdo, just like me, who bounced around like a ping-pong ball before finally finding his place.
Before he started Archie McPhee in 1982, Mark Pahlow sold sweaters from the Faroe Islands dressed as a Viking, filled cans of shellac in a European factory, worked as an enumerator for the U.S. Census, worked in a bookstore (where he sold Bob Dylan the complete works of Albert Camus). “I was living in a society of bewildering conformity,” he wrote, “gilded with deep superficiality.” And so, improbably, in 1982, he started selling junk he collected while driving other people’s cars across country to antique stores on the coasts. Hey, if the whole world is superficial, why not — to paraphrase Kanye — make it super official, too?
Eventually he settled in Seattle and opened his own store, naming it after great uncle Archie McPhee, who was famous for taking the first jazz band to China in the 1920s. He traveled to China, where he raided factories for all their weird and leftover ephemera and later, began manufacturing his own weird and pre-leftover ephemera. It’s amazing to me that a company can sustain itself for 36 years on strangeness alone. And it gives me hope that perhaps I can sustain myself on strangeness too.
As Wahl leads me behind a curtain to preview the Rubber Chicken museum — now just a nearly empty display case with a few rubber chickens sprawled flaccid at the bottom — I see two tweens giggling from behind a cat and fawn mask, respectively. I wonder if and how other kids, kids just like I was, are still benefiting from Archie McPhee’s weirdness. Do they too run to their dented old mailbox, hoping to find a catalog inside?
Turns out, no. As business has moved more online, Archie McPhee has decreased the frequency of its catalog from monthly to only occasional. On the other hand, that means the McPhee worldview is more widely available on Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter. The unholy nexus of modern culture’s fascination with all things miniature and all things feline has turned McPhee products like the miniature finger cat paws, which can now be seen menacing tiny koalas and giving small fist bumps on Instagram, into memes. “Cat hats are also doing really well for us, too,” says Wahl, proudly holding up a tinfoil hat for cats he helped design.
This move online has had other consequences too. “A lot of what we make is focused on something you can present it to other people. Before it was mostly things you could do for yourself, alone.,” explains Wall. The weirdness, that is to say, has become externalized, for the delectation of others and to some extent performative. Whereas I remember being weird in my room alone for the delectation of precisely nobody but myself. To me, there is something sad about the knowing there won’t be kids like me out there, being weird for themselves only, and summoning the spirit of Archie McPhee in their bedrooms. On the other hand, standing in the store, surrounded by rubber chickens and bacon wallets, it’s hard to stay sad for long.
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