December 06, 2008


Who Would Buy This?
by Mark Pahlow w/ Gibson Holub and David Wahl

If you're like me then you currently exist. Coincidentally, there's a great new book called Who Would Buy This? that recently started existing too. It chronicles the illustrious 25 year history of Archie McPhee, the Seattle based novelty retailer who also originates their own wonderful products under the well known Accoutrements moniker.

Owner and founder Mark Pahlow kicks off the book with his story, revealing how a period of extensive soul searching finally landed him in the novelty industry. I instantly related to Mark's childhood pastimes, his affinity for comic book ads, his natural inclination to accumulate oddities, and his eventual desire to merge his childhood passions with his career.

The book goes on to showcase a quarter-centuries worth of McPhee's wacky wares which are presented according to category, i.e. classics, action figures, surplus, weird, and so on.

Archie McPhee takes an effective three-pronged approach to the novelty biz. First, they offer all the enduring classics: the Martian Popping Thing, Groucho glasses, Rubber Chickens (actually, their own exclusive design)...

Second, they discover incredible existing surplus (some that is actually vintage) and they include it among their assortment of goods. Bringing the Bibo clock to America is one of their greatest achievements...

But what makes McPhee the reigning kings of the industry is that they continue to develop an extensive line of new product. Their offerings are a perfect blend of quaint oddities that are practically indistinguishable from the dime store fodder of fifty years ago like the Mighty Monkey...

...and products that have dragged the reluctant novelty biz into the current millennium; like The Cubes, an assortment of playsets that reflect the modern workplace...

The history of the mass produced novelty is full of unknowns largely due to the ephemeral nature of the items and their often foreign origins; that's why I so appreciate the trivia this book serves up. Who knew that the original Rubber Chicken is a product of Spain? And I had no idea that the Martian Popping thing was intended as a baby toy. (Questions about this particular item have plagued me since my childhood sessions with the Lillian Vernon mail-order catalogs.)

The edition also shares some incredibly entertaining stories behind some of their unlikely endeavors. I don't want to spoil anything, but their unorthodox products have caused them to buck heads with lawyers, customs, the Catholic church, and even government agencies. You'll be astonished when you learn what happened when they attempted to sell genuine dummy torpedoes.

I discovered Archie McPhee during my earliest days on the web. I couldn't get a catalog quick enough. I encountered their product on store shelves for the first time at Austin's Toy Joy and I swiftly spent three figures. Over the years their work has infiltrated my collection and I finally made the pilgrimage to their unbelievable Seattle location a few years ago.

Naturally, I'm thrilled that this book finally shares existence with us (along with all the wonders within its pages). I'd love to give it a blanket recommendation, but I realize that my interest in outlandish plastic stuff vastly exceeds that of the general public. (I've literally had to replace rubber chickens due to wear and tear.) So I'll just say that if you have a "glow-in-the-dark" section in your home, if you've ever put a white elephant gift on permanent display, or if you recognize the name SeƱor Misterioso, you'll probably really, really dig this book.

Available on or on Amazon...

For more fun, check out their blog, and their flickr site.


Anthony said...

i used to want a martian poppin thing SO bad.

Brian said...

Wow another place to buy junk that I love!

I never heard of them before so I had only shopped at

So thanks for the new place to shop.

Anonymous said...

I do indeed know senor Misterioso. I also enjoy the boardwalk freaks I picked up from their Accoutrements branch. good things from these folks. Good things that people don't even know that they need.

Chris S.