American Girl, both the book series and doll company, has had its fair share of controversy, but at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, no one seems to care. Or at least, no one seems to care about that. Little girls run squealing from one display case to the next, while their parents trail after them, double-checking the price tags with shell-shocked eyes. The most well-known fact about AG Dolls is that they're expensive; a starter doll will set you back $110. Then there's the endless blitzkrieg of outfits, accessories, pets, books, and the annual hair appointment.
It's easy (and true) to write the store off as a testament to brand-name consumerism, but after visiting the store, I can see the appeal, especially if you're a six year old. As a kid, I was into Melanie's Mall, a sprawling toy set that made the suburban mall a place where dreams come true. Like the AG dolls, it exuded a collect-them-all mentality. It's a common occurrence, as anyone whose ever spent thousands of dollars on Pokémon cards or Beanie Babies can attest to, but the way American Girl does it is on a completely different level.
The outfits are the easiest way to get sucked into the AG mindset. Most outfits come with kid-sized counterparts, so the owners and dolls can dress alike. Name any PG-rated event you can think of, and AG has an outfit for it. Ski trips, quiñcineras, cello lessons: nothing is left without the perfect accessory. The company seems hellbent on capitalizing on every minute of a little girl's life, and their attention to detail is creepy yet oddly impressive.
Spelunking? You got it.
Allergies? They've got you covered. (This "allergy free lunch kit" includes, among other things, a smoothie, an allergy bracelet, and an emergency EpiPen shot).
The importance of personalization is big at the AG store. The customer is barraged with pink wallpaper that reads, How long is her hair? Is she brave? What color are her eyes? What are her hobbies? The customer, whose age typically ranges from 5-8 years old, is constantly reminded that these are one of the many crucial characteristics that shape a person --er, doll.
Things got intense on the second floor, where the hair salon, day spa, doll hospital, and ear piercing station was located. I listened to a mother and daughter argue over whether her doll could get a perm. I asked one of the salon workers if the dolls' pets (which can range from puppies to kittens to horses) could also get pampered, and she laughed, saying that was ridiculous.
And just when I didn't think they had covered everything, I went into the bathroom:
The metal claw-like device is a doll holder. You know, so your doll doesn't fall into the commode. I wanted to know if they had them in the men's bathroom, too but failed to find out. But it was small touches like that and the one below that gave the otherwise corporate store a bit of individual charm.
All in all, I could forgive AG for exploiting a little girl's desire for a plastic doppelganger. After all, Barbie had long held the charge on that front. At least these dolls were somewhat more inclusive, once you got past the exorbitant price tag. One could also concede that the customer had a say in how the doll turned out, even if it just meant she picked out the texture of her doll's hair cape. That seemed slightly more promising.
But then I reached the third and final floor.
Welcome to Bitty Baby Village, a land where baby dolls are sold to babies. Again, the attention to detail was flawless, as they covered everything from diapers to diaper rash cream. This line of dolls hadn't caught on as fast as the other AG dolls, so the section of store was somewhat more secluded. There was a section where you could select a pair of twins, right down to their eye colors and number of freckles. The dolls here gave off an eerie vibe, perhaps because infants weren't meant to be this still and impeccably dressed. The moment I locked eyes with a vacant infant in a crisp sailor outfit, I knew it was time to leave.
While I bolted down the three flights of escalators, I noticed again the number of heated arguments I was hearing between parents and children. This was hardly unheard of at a toy store, but at American Girl, these tiffs were much more specific. A little girl stubbornly refused to let her doll get stitched up at the hospital, while another was wailing at being forced to choose between a mini vinyl rain poncho and fringe jacket. There are a lot of personality-defining decisions to be made at the American Girl store, and obviously, they are not all easy ones.