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Archie McPhee and Me
By Mark Pahlow
I created Archie McPhee because reality just wasn't living up to my expectations.
Let me explain.
Having been born and raised in Ohio, I understand boredom in a profound way. In 1963, the two most exciting things in my life were my $3.98 “Made In Japan” transistor radio with a fake leather case and Whitey, my albino hamster. I did my best to liven things up. For instance, my brother Herb and I hooked an aluminum lawn chair up to a train transformer one summer’s evening and charged the other kids in the neighborhood a nickel to get electrocuted. Thankfully, I made a nice profit, and no one died.
For summer vacations, my family would drive our 1957 Ford Fairlane to Sedalia, Missouri to visit relatives. Fireworks were legal in Missouri, so I’d buy as many as I could and smuggle them back to Ohio where they were illegal. A single “lady finger” firecracker that cost me 1/100th of a cent could quickly be resold for ten cents – A markup of 10,000%. I made a mint until the local police put a stop to my thriving business, which turned out to be a forewarning of my clashes to come with “The Man” while trying to engage in honest commerce.
Growing up, I entertained myself with a steady diet of Mad Magazine, late night horror movies hosted by Cleveland celebrity, Ghoulardi, and comic books. Even at a young age, I found myself more attracted to the ads for x-ray specs and sea monkeys than the latest exploits of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
After high school, I hitchhiked through 25 countries in Europe and Africa in search of meaning, taking work where I could get it. During that time I quit or was fired from a variety of strange jobs. Jobs like dressing up in a full Viking outfit to sell sweaters from the Faeroe Islands, filling cans of shellac and affixing their lids in a factory, separating egg yolks as they passed on a fast conveyer belt (good ones into the chute for baby food; bad ones into the chute for shampoo). Upon returning to America and working for the U.S. Department of Commerce as a census enumerator, I had to admit I was unemployable in modern society. Yet, despite all this, I knew there was a place for me somewhere.
All I needed was a way to make enough money to buy brown rice, alfalfa sprouts, and cat food with enough left over to keep my decrepit, 1965 VW microbus running. I was living in a society of bewildering conformity gilded with profound superficiality, and it was rough. Reality was closing in on me, and I wanted to scream.
I moved to LA and worked as a night clerk at Lose The Blues Bookstore in Los Angeles. While there, I sold Bob Dylan the complete works of Albert Camus and books by I.B. Singer to people with wrists marked with numbers from concentration camps. I used the time to ruminate on life and brainstorm business ideas while watching for shoplifters. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d have to set out on my own so I decided to return to the free market business successes of my youth.
I started by selling collectible stamps, ephemera such as antique cigar box and citrus labels, old toys and odd things I had made, like t-shirts that said, “Shazam!” in Hebrew. I bought thousands of detailed rubber acupuncture figures from Korea, sold them to head shops and used the profits from that to buy a treasure trove of Shirley Temple photographs. Most of my ventures were successes, like the load of anti-siphon gas caps I bought just before the energy crisis started, but a few were outright failures. One of the worst was a truckload of Spanish language comic book that I thought I could turn around and sell in Mexico, not realizing that the Spanish they used was not in the proper Mexican style.
When I discovered that I could pick up some extra money driving cars from Los Angeles to New York for driveaway companies I saw an opportunity. Along the way, I bought old toys off the shelves of forgotten stores throughout the Midwest. It was on one of these trips that I discovered the fantastic wind-up hot dog eating man. Once I arrived in Manhattan, I’d deliver the car and then sell my treasures to stores like Mythology on the Upper West Side.
It wasn't until I moved to Seattle in 1982 that I figured out how all these disparate things fit together. I would open my own retail store and sell everything I liked, no matter how ridiculous.
I named it Archie McPhee, after a great uncle from Bismarck, North Dakota. Archie McPhee was famous for taking the first jazz band, “The North Star Merrymakers,” to China as its manager in the 1920s. In addition to admiring his spirit of fun, practical jokes and adventure, I loved the crisp cadence of his name.
The next step was starting a catalog. I did the primitive layout for those first few myself. I’d take lousy black and white photos using my Pentax 35mm Spotmatic. Then the photos, developed by the first Costco in the nation, were taken to Bozotronics in the funky Fremont neighborhood to be made into halftones. I’d cut these and paste them onto paper using somewhat toxic rubber cement. With an IBM Selectric typewriter, I’d type out copy to go with the images.
The strength in those early catalogs was not in the presentation but in the writing. Since the pictures were often dark and printed in muddy black and white on cheap newsprint, it was difficult to make out details. My descriptions of the products were often honest statements detailing how terrible the product was or rambling humorous screeds that mentioned the product only in passing. This suited my character and seemed to connect with certain eccentric members of the public. You know who you are.
I came to realize shopping existed to help make people less depressed. And I was determined to assist them in this noble undertaking. It was transcendence through commerce, a symbiotic relationship where buyer and seller both danced and each came away the better for it.
When I opened for business, there was no shortage of weird, unexplainable items and delightful oddities in the world. I collected and accumulated the discards of corporate America like there was no tomorrow, as protesters rioted in the streets, President Nixon resigned and everyone wore bell bottom jeans. Archie McPhee was not in the junk business, but in the artifact business, in the dream business.
As time wore on in the Reagan era, it became harder and harder to find the good stuff. Where were the boxes full of Japanese fuzzy, mechanical bartenders pouring drinks? Where were the government surplus items like the original WWII propaganda posters I found in a barn in Kansas (“When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler”)
What could take the place of the lovely, porcelain hands that once served as latex glove molds in England, that David Gray (AKA Ax Man, fantastic finder of odd things) once shipped to me? The antique wooden shoe lasts? The genuine and official morgue toe ID tags? The buckets of porcelain teeth and glass taxidermy eyes that came in twenty-eight assorted sizes and colors? The charming wooden bog shoes from Minnesota? The real bowling pins? Alas, once those fascinating products were gone, they were gone forever.
When Communism fell, we turned a profit as we bought and sold East German flags, Soviet submarines clocks, USSR anti-drinking and anti-Uncle Sam propaganda posters, tapestries of Marx, Lenin, and Mao from Red China, Stalin playing cards and my personal favorite, genuine KGB liquor flasks. We also commercialized the detritus of democracy, such as the “Keep Max Paulovich for Justice,” emery boards, and original Nixon-Watergate Whiskey Brand labels. Now it is all but a memory, and it is an important memory. As Santayana said, a country without a memory is a country of madmen.
Most dear to my heart was the hillbilly line, which included crooked wooden golf clubs and, “hillbilly bug killers,” (a hammer and a block of wood). I loved all our hillbilly items, but they were one of the few treasures that never sold through, a real commercial failure but still, an extraordinary intellectual success. After all, you’re basically just selling the customer a bundle of sticks. I still have a box of the bug killers in my closet.
Oh, how I ache for those old treasures! They looked so good in the store and filled me with satisfaction. This was indeed our dharma.
As these precious products sold out and fewer new ones came in to replace them, Reality was, once again, becoming disappointing. To fight against this deficiency, I decided it was time to change the focus of the business from selling other people’s ideas to creating my own toys and novelties. Now my dreams would make the world, or at least my world, more meaningful and fun.
Enter Robert Benton. Not only an authorized “Bozo The Clown” performer and Lieutenant in the San Fernando Police Department, but also the owner of Star Merchandise Company, my source for vast amounts of Bozo collectibles, “see behind you” mirrored glasses and plastic ants. In the early 1980s, he took me to Asia and taught me how to import and work directly with Chinese suppliers. I took to this with exuberance as it gave me the means to create original products. Robert Benton was my sensei, and I owe him a great deal for his help over the years.
With these contacts and my new expertise, I started creating products and having them made in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and later in China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India. These wonderful relationships continue to this day and now I often deal with the sons and daughters of those first Chinese makers I met nearly three decades ago.
To imagine a product, sketch it on a piece of paper and send it overseas, and then to have it arrive three months later tightly packed in cartons on a big ship from China, was truly thrilling. Reality was once again exciting!
That's right, as the world became more practical, I decided to fight that tendency with the impractical, the useless and the just plain strange. It was a futile and absurd strategy. However, it turned out very, very well for the world and for me.
Who knows what will triumph and what will eventually disappear into dust? All I know is the choices I made many years ago were without much regard to what others predicted or advised, in direct opposition to mainstream cultural trends and most certainly in violation of everything taught in business school.
With the support of all my employees who also had a yearning for something extraordinary and were willing to gamble their time, energy and livelihoods on my crotchety and unorthodox business, we created something amazingly interesting.
For some people, the McPhee Catalog is the product that our company produces. They don't buy anything from us; they just want to stay on our mailing list so they can see what kind of crazy thing we'll do next. Of course, we furthered this by putting a dollar value on the cover of each catalog as if it were a magazine. Still, we wonder if there isn't a group of people out there that feel we aren't a real catalog, just a parody of one. Let me be clear about this — we actually sell this stuff.
If you have any doubts as to the value of Archie McPhee, you need to look no further than the archives of the Smithsonian. They decided our catalogs are an essential indicator of popular culture in the United States and requested, on official government stationery, we provide them all of our catalogs ever published so that they can be preserved for future generations.
Never have your tax dollars been better spent.
(Written in 2008)