"This place is three floors? Oh my God," a wide-eyed dad let slip after taking a quick pic of his gleeful daughter. "Holy cow," he added a moment later, still unable to process what he'd gotten himself into. Clearly someone had not been properly prepared for the sublime majesty of the Fifth Avenue American Girl Place.
But of course, this place isn't designed for dads. Ditto brothers, millennials alarmed about the retiring of Samantha, Kirsten and Felicity, or even moms, for that matter. This is a store designed for girls, combining the can-do wholesomeness of the Girl Scouts with the unfettered commercial frenzy of the Barbie aisle. And when I visited on a recent December Sunday, it was completely fucking insane.
American Girl Dolls have grown steadily more popular since their introduction in 1986, and many millennial women seem to treat their childhood choice of historical doll as some sort of replacement for the Myers-Briggs. This year feels different, though, like the brand has finally become wholly unavoidable. Conan O'Brien just visited the company's L.A. post, and even the bro dads over at Deadspin are familiar.
The moment you cross the threshold, you're swept into a vortex of American Girl mania. You're greeted with the sight of Saige, the 2013 Girl of the Year. To the left and to the right are a pink-and-green swirl of My American Girl merchandise, and in both directions are girls. Girls dashing underfoot, girls carefully considering their options with wide, solemn eyes, girls begging their moms two outfits instead of one.
You'd think these dolls were the Beatles reimagined for 8-year-olds: "Lookit over here!" one would screech and point before dragging mom to investigate. "I can't believe I'm finally getting one," cries a girl, while another strokes the $72 "Merry & Bright Gown Set" (available only in stores), admitting, "I can't believe I got this dress."
Meanwhile, moms attempt to herd. "I'm trying to get her occupied while someone else is shopping," one tells an associate, while another announces: "We already have one bed but we need the other bed."
Forget the old catalogs; this mini Mall of America contains a doll hospital, a packed doll salon, and a cafe, which at 2:30 p.m. was already booked for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. The extra dedicated can pay for special access, like "A Day at American Girl Place" ($260 for one child and one adult) or "Late Night at American Girl Place" ($205 per person).
American Girl calls this "experience retail" and says 65 million people have visited its 16 stores. It seemed like half that many were packed into the Fifth Avenue store: I spotted middle American tourists toting yellow bags from the M&M store, and I chatted with a mom who'd brought her daughter from Cleveland. A father leaned in to talk to his daughter in Chinese, while another girl was dragging her fur-coat-clad mother around.
The historical dolls have been booted upstairs, and they share a floor with the "Bitty Babies" (in case you're in the market to overpay dramatically for a basic baby doll), but despite all the Internet eulogies they're still plenty available. All the originals but Molly are gone, and she goes into the vault December 31. (Signs warned that customers were limited to three Molly items each.) But late-90s additions Addy and Josefina remain in the lineup, and little girls now can pick from Native American Kaya, Lower East Side immigrant Rebecca and Marie-Grace and Cecile, white and black friends in antebellum New Orleans.
Each character gets her own glass case of filled with accessories, and their displays are broken up with child-sized period dioramas. It's like an American history museum as envisioned by Toys 'R Us. Smack in the center was 1812's Caroline, the latest addition to the historical lineup. At least one pint-sized shopper was very, very impressed with Caroline's cow.
But it's clearly the pink-and-green first floor, with its collection of "My American Girl" dolls, that is the showcase. Rows and rows of dolls sit behind glass, waiting for girls to pick the one they most resemble. Buying for a kid with light skin, light blond hair and blue eyes? Then it's PA-F1219 for you; take a sticker and see an associate. Dark skin, curly dark brown hair and brown eyes? You want PA-F1263.
But it's about so much more than dolls—those could just as easily be sold out of a pop-up store. Several visitors had tote bags slung on their little shoulders, shiny doll hair poking out the top. There are specially made, patent-pending doll holders in the bathroom stalls.
What really makes American Girl Place are the endless, expensive accessories. There are outfits for every occasion—hiking, skiing, appearing in a talent show, going to school, baking. Available hair accessories included clip-in rainbow extensions ($12) and a curly ponytail ($18). There is an entire section devoted to pets for dolls, including horses of several colors and numerous breeds of dogs. All that starts to look reasonable priced compared to the big-ticket items, like the $111 battery-operated spa chair—temporarily out of stock. The historical dolls are even worse: For Caroline, the new 1812 addition to the lineup, you can purchase a $175 skiff.
In the souvenir section, you'll find not just t-shirts with the store's logo, but also t-shirts with the store's logo for dolls, as well. Girls can also purchase outfits to match their dolls; I was washing my hands in the bathroom when I realized the girl next to me was decked out like 2013 Girl of the Year Saige.
This company—purchased by Mattel in 1998—has come a long way from its faintly educational origins. Once the go-to for girls precociously interested in chapter books, it's now a must-have on Christmas lists across the country. And so it's become popular to regard them not just with an eyeroll at the screeching of their fans, but also a great deal of hand-wringing about what it all means. Earlier this year, for instance, The Atlantic flipped its lid: "American Girls Aren't Radical Anymore."
But the new dolls don't warrant the angst they've inspired. They're wildly diverse, with 40 of the "My American Girl" dolls to pick from, and available accessories include glasses, hearing aids, and wheelchairs. Surely there's something powerful and positive about girls being able to assemble a doll in their own image. There are limits—they're all the same body size, for starters—but it's something.
It's also silly to romanticize the largely privileged, lily white original lineup too much, and the books (which did all the teaching, anyway, not the dolls) are still available.
Sure, these dolls and their mountain of accessories are crassly commercial and stupidly expensive. (The jokes about the $111 spa chair practically write themselves.) But it's not like American Girl is the worst offender in the toy business. And if you think you can strip consumerism entirely from childhood at this point, well, good luck and God bless. Girls always have and always will plead for something—and no matter the hand-wringing, there's still a world of difference between these dolls and Barbie.
Admittedly, walking into the store as an adult is a disorienting experience, like trying on a pair of eyeglasses in the wrong prescription or existing in a four-dimensional universe. I walked out exhausted and immediately fled to the soothing confines of Anthropologie, where I bought a $28 candle to calm my frazzled nerves.
But I'm not the target audience anymore. American Girl Place caters to girls too old for Dora the Explorer and too young for One Direction. Everything about the store, from the colors to the height of the displays, caters to them. And whatever its flaws, it's nice to know there's at least one place they aren't being hustled to boys and adulthood and makeup and high heels.