- What inspired you to tackle Beanie Babies and Ty? What was it about these adorable little plushes you just couldn’t resist?
I was in elementary and middle school when they were popular. I only had a couple but my mother and I were big into antiques and flea markets and, overnight, it went from no one knowing what Beanie Babies were to Dick & Ellie’s, a popular Cape Cod flea market at the time, being like 20% Beanie Baby dealers. I have these really vivid memories of these Beanie dealers just being really busy and really excited—talking about how much their inventory was going up in value. We were both totally perplexed by it.
And then, all of a sudden, it was gone. No one talked about Beanie Babies anymore. I hadn’t thought about them in forever until I was in college and saw, at a little country auction house in Amherst, MA, several big Rubbermaid containers full of Beanie Babies—perfectly preserved and almost perfectly worthless. I Googled them when I got home and realized how big they’d been—10% of eBay’s sales at one time—and that the guy who’d created them had become a billionaire, and the richest man in the history of toys. The story of how this thing had gone from a $5 stuffed animal with no advertising produced by a small company into this speculative craze that really did take over the lives of a lot of people was really intriguing to me.
- In the course of doing research for the book, what did you learn that surprised you? What challenges did you face writing the book?
So when I started making very preliminary calls to see whether it might be a topic worth further exploration, the first thing that struck me was the sort of strength of emotion people felt about the toys and also about Ty Warner. I’ve never reported on anyone who stirred such universally strong feelings in people. One of the first people I reached out to was someone who used to work at the company. I messaged her on Facebook and she said to call. I called and her husband picked up the phone and the first thing he told me was, “Ty Warner ruined out life.”
The biggest challenge was that Ty declined to talk to me for the book—which was sad, in a way, but I think it also forced me to really leave no stone unturned in my search for the story. I also think that—and Malcom Gladwell wrote a spectacular essay on this—access in terms of telling someone’s story tends to be overrated. If you wanted to know the truth about who I am and what I’m like, spending a day with me and asking lots of questions would probably be one of the worst approaches to that. Not that I have anything spectacular to hide or anything, it’s just that I would, as anyone would, tend to show you a side that would be different from what other people see when I’m not being shadowed by a reporter with a digital recorder.
If you really want to know about someone, I think talking to as many people as you can who’ve known and liked/not liked that person at every stage of their life is a better approach. That’s how I pieced together the story of Ty’s life and career.
- You cover some pretty extreme manifestations of the Beanie Baby craze- including a murder, debt, and more. How was the craze a manifestation of American culture in the 1990s?
It’s a fantastic question. I think much of what drove the craze was more universal than American: our willingness to suspend disbelief and engage in magical thinking, the allure of the get rich quick scheme, and our overreliance on past performance as a predictor of future outcomes are things that have shown up in every culture since as long as there’s been recorded history.
But the Beanie Baby craze really did rise in a special era of unreality in America: the internet bubble. In terms of how that ethos found a manifestation in a plush toy, a lot of that ties in with the unique way in which the mother-daughter relationship of the 1990s tended to be centered around materialism in a way that it hadn’t been before. That bond wasn’t about religion or sewing or cooking the way that it had been in previous generations; it really was, more than at any time in history, a relationship defined by shopping and spending and brands. And that’s a big part of how these animals that started out as a popular kids’ toy became this obsession of adults.
- Do you own any Beanie Babies yourself? Do you have a favorite?
Haha. I think it’s impossible to spend a lot of time researching and reporting on other people’s obsession without that obsession rubbing off on you. It’s not something I wrote about in the book at all because others have explored that way better than I ever could—go order Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin right now!—but yes: I did, for “research purposes,” buy many, many Ty animals, including Beanie Babies. I still can’t walk by a display of plush toys without stopping to examine them. I also buy them as gifts for people who probably don’t want them but at the same time, they need to stop worrying and learn to love them.
My favorite Beanie Baby is definitely Kaleidoscope—a spectacularly designed cat who came out after the craze had ended. I think my all-time favorite Ty piece though, would have to be Sugar, who is a Ty Classic cat. The cats are my favorite Ty animals because, as you’ll see in the book, they’re what started the company and they’re at the center of some of my favorite stories in the book. I also like Whisper the Deer, Seaweed the Otter, and, among the new Beanie Boos line, I think Rocco the Raccoon is pretty perfect. Have you blocked my email address yet?
- So much of the book is about Ty Warner and the way the personal and the corporate intermingle. What can someone developing a brand learn from his example- good or bad?
I think the thing that struck me about Ty was how his obsession with the product transcended the business element of it; it wasn’t just about trying to create a toy that would sell. It was this quest to create the most perfect plush animals. Even his competitors would always give him credit for that: He has an incredible eye and he doesn’t stop until a piece is perfect.
Ty really built that company on his own perfectionism, love of the product, force of personality, and intuitive grasp of consumer psychology. He did it all without consultants or focus groups, and he had no education beyond a year of college (studying drama).
- You talk about how fan culture- the magazines and books devoted to Beanie Babies- helped grow the market for them as collectibles, then Ty tried to use scarcity to manipulate the secondary market and grow retail sales, successfully for a while. Is there a Beanie Baby fan culture now that the collectible market has all but dried up? Have we all moved on, or are there still hard-core Beanie collectors out there?
One of my favorite things about the internet is that, it seems, nothing ever really moves on completely. At the risk of outing myself as a total weirdo, I need to disclose here that I am an obsessive Perry Como fan and collector; I buy something Perry Como related at least once a month, and I know probably all the other diehard Perry Como fans just from being on the internet. Weird obsessions and interests in esoterica are, I think, really encouraged by the internet where you can find a community for almost anything, which provides the social element that keeps hobbies alive long after what would otherwise be their expiration date.
So the craze for Beanie Babies is entirely over, 99%+ are worth much less than the $5 price they retailed for in the 1990s, but there is still a world of enthusiasts living on. Leon and Sondra Schlossberg have a wonderful site called TyCollector.com, and there’s also BeanieSource.com, which has great updates on new releases from Ty. And, as a kid’s toy, Ty’s line of plush animals remains the most popular in the world—which they deserve to be because, in terms of value, they really are the best.
Thank you so much, Zac! This is one the funnest interviews I've done and I really appreciate your time!