Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The dark side of cute

Sigh... time.  I don't seem to have much of it lately.  I just noticed that I've only posted once here since last October, and yet I've read quite a few books – some of them really good, too.  But I'm going to get caught up and I'll start with one of those recent books – The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette.

Market bubbles are nothing new.  A few people make a ton of money and everyone else loses.  Karl Marx identified the boom and bust cycle as one of the great weaknesses of capitalism (and although he got a lot of things right, his end predictions were wrong – more on this in a another post).  At the time of the Internet Bubble in the 1990s there was another bubble, a rather embarrassing bubble in hindsight: the Beanie Baby Bubble.  People lost all reason speculating on small stuffed animals, thinking they would become rich.  Ty Inc., the toy company of Ty Warner, became familiar to all of America as normally rational adults lost all sense trying to collect their line of under-stuffed toys with PVC beads in them.  (And even though we're talking about toys, this story has little to do with children.)

The story of Beanie Babies has to be one of the finest examples of fact being stranger than fiction, and this is the most bizarre story I can remember reading.  Warner had a knack for creating toys – he was obsessive about things like quality and materials and display.  He frequently sought opinions from those around him on fabric color, eyes, or names.  He preferred to sell his creations through small 'mom and pop' gift stores instead of big-box retailers, and many of his employees liked him.  In fact, he did many things right and ended up a billionaire!  But there was just as much luck involved in his rise to riches, especially since he was also an obsessive micro-manager who felt threatened by not being able to control the markets his toys created.  He once screamed at his sales staff, "I didn't start my own business to make other people rich!", and boasted he could put his trademark Ty heart on manure and sell it.  He alienated pretty much everyone in his life and is known more for his selfishness and stinginess than anything. 

This is a darkly absorbing read.  I laughed out loud, I scoffed in disbelief, and I shook my head too many times to count – but I really had a hard time putting this short book down.  I remember hearing about the craze, which began in Chicago with 'soccer-moms,' but even at the time it just sounded too ridiculous.  And yet... if I remember correctly, this was around the time a PBS show called "Antiques Roadshow" began and vintage toys were often seen selling for high prices.  And who hasn't heard about their old collections of baseball cards or comic books surprisingly being worth something?  (The baseball cards I collected as a kid have long since been lost, but I still have my comic books – although they're not likely to be worth much since I read them so many times!)  The only Beanie Babies we ever owned (that I know of) were the "teeny" ones my kids got with McDonald's Happy Meals near the time the bubble burst – and those didn't stay in their plastic bags, unlike the ones most collectors stored in Lucite bins with custom tag protectors.  The book covers as much history of Ty Warner and Beanie Babies as the author could dig up, as well as a number of brief but interesting tidbits about other toy fads (I only wish it had more information the seventeenth-century "Tulip Mania" that is mentioned on the back).  But this is a very interesting and easy read about a most embarrassing market bubble – although if you still have a Beanie Baby collection in the basement, it might make you feel more embarrassed than amused!  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)

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