POP CULTURE

Book review: The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette - an unlikely boom goes bust

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2015, 10:39pm
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The Great Beanie Baby Bubble
by Zac Bissonnette
Portfolio

This book shares some of the strengths and weaknesses of Ty Warner, the man behind Beanie Babies, who was astonishingly attentive to detail yet emotionally opaque. The book is long on detail but doesn't offer a good explanation for the delusion.

Beanie Babies were an inexplicable fad in the US for a couple of years just before the turn of the century: they were perfectly nice little stuffed animals selling for less than US$10 - yet far too many adults scrambled to collect and preserve every new variety of Beanie in the sure knowledge they would only get more valuable.

Except, of course, they didn't.

There are the bones for a pretty good tale, even before getting to the guy behind the craze. A salesman with a gift for charming customers yet hacking off co-workers, Warner falls into "plush" at a time when the industry is tanking. He comes up with a way of stuffing his creations that allows them to be posed, makes them small enough for a kid to carry, and pays obsessive attention to the look of each toy.

In fact, it's that obsession rather than any intent that turns Beanie Babies into collectibles: Warner started changing his designs. He decided his bears needed a better face; enter bear 2.0, aka New Face Teddy. Humphrey the Camel didn't pose well enough to satisfy Warner. So no more Humphrey. And so on.

As Zac Bissonnette explains, a few parents who got obsessed with the toys hooked up with the larger community of collectors. What possessed otherwise sane adults to view these toys as an investment? Give the author credit: he tracked down some of the first and some of the most fervent of the collectors.

"Their lack of insight into what became their obsession was fascinating," Bissonnette writes. "Beanie Babies … seemed to have people doing things they didn't even really want to do - and more than 15 years later, they struggled to explain their thinking."

So instead of the beating heart of the matter, we get a notebook dump. Do you want to know exactly which other Beanies got "retired" early? Slither the Snake, Web the Spider, Peking the Panda and Trap the Mouse. Interested in how much money people were willing to pay? One collector sold 36 Peking the Pandas for about US$2,000 each.

We do learn a bit about Warner. From his former employees', business partners' and ex-girlfriends' accounts, Warner is a selfish, calculating and generally unpleasant fellow with the potential for an occasional act of generosity. And he has an unmatched focus on the quality of his products. They still sell today, absent the collectible gloss.

Tribune News Service