Ten Questions with Archie McPhee founder, Mark Pahlow
with William Pennington
A motto for Archie McPhee is "Confusing Seattle since 1983", which really isn't scratching the surface of just how different a place Archie McPhee is. The founder and still owner, Mark Pahlow, runs the fun store (and also a fun tumblr account). I gotta admit it was both terrifying and thrilling for him to follow some of my tumblr's (I have many). It's not every day that you get to officially talk to a Seattle institution, and I thought that by interviewing Archie McPhee, it would help get these weird thoughts out of my system, but now I just want more! I wonder if they accept volunteers...
How can you explain the success of the rubber chicken? Might it be the most popular gag gift ever?
When a good rubber chicken is held up by the neck it makes you feel good. As you grip the throat, life feels amusing and you have an illusion that you are in control. It will always get a quick laugh because it's so silly and unexpected. No doubt there is a connection to some pleasure part of our primitive brain.
What do you do for fun, outside of Archie McPhee? I mean, you can't play with these toys all day, can you?
I tend to brood and ruminate, which means I'm rather boring. I live on a houseboat on Lake Union, which I love. I grow flowers & plants in containers. For years I tried growing tomatoes, but this being Seattle, it was unending failure. I figure my cost in time and materials to get one good tomato was about $724. Now I just buy them at the farmer's market.
Every spring a Mallard duck nests in a planter a few inches from my front window. I watch her nesting and love when the ducklings hatch, then jump 6 feet into the lake and swim away. That is pretty much the main event each year in my private life.
I read a lot. I keep up with many periodicals and magazines. I spend tons of time on Reddit, Tumblr (with 27,000 posts since 2007) and Instagram. My Twitter activity, as @mcpheeceo, is the heaviest. I post and comment on popular culture and odd retro things. I engage a lively exchange of what I am sure are witty & wise remarks with various people I've never met. For me, Twitter is amazing and marries up well with my quirky mindset. And I love the brevity aspect. 140 characters? Yes, get to the point!
My social media focus contributes to understanding where the culture is going and what new words and themes are evolving. This all relates to what emotional touchpoints are developing. We want to offer products that reach people emotionally, so they will part with their hard-earned money in exchange for what we offer and be pleased about it.
As much as I love art, if the the warehouse becomes full of art (great ideas that are product failures) and our things don't move, it means McPheeWorld ends and I'll have to live in a broken down van, down by the river. And then I won't get to see the next batch of ducklings hatch.
I really like the back part of the store, with the new/used hardware. Where do you find this stuff? The old miners hats are real?
That's the Science & Surplus section, which is made up of other company's mistakes---overruns, production mistakes and product failures. We work tirelessly to stock it. We have been doing this so long, since the 1980s, that people around the country know we are one of the few places that will actually pay good money for what most people consider junk. We sometimes call it the Land of Broken Dreams, as it contains products or parts from inventors and entrepreneurs that didn't sell and likely resulted in bankruptcy for them.
When I visited my brother in Iowa, he took me to a place called the Amana Colonies. It used to be an actual Amish village, but now it's kind of a tourist spot. In their gift shop they were selling your goods, and we were all blown away! How does a place like that come to sell bacon flavored gum? Can any store in the country sell your items?
We are a supplier of weird things to stores all over the world. Not every store is interesting enough to carry our products, but we offer them to all.
I like to think about what's next for a place I love. Might you have a web series planned, or has any network approached you about a reality series? I feel like it would be as good as any of the other shows out there.
We have been approached to do reality shows. When we examine the proposals, they are so stupid, invasive and unreasonable that we decline. We'd be open to something provided it met our high standards of quality and taste and gave us some creative input.
Meanwhile, we have fun producing our own pieces..
If you really want to keep up with our latest products and what we’re thinking about, we have multiple methods. You can follow our very popular Tumblr Geyser of Awesome, our Twitter account, Facebook page, or Vine account.
I know you have a book or two for sale in the store, and as a writer/reader I'm always looking for books wherever I go. Might this section expand? There are so many interesting books that might nicely in your store.
We love to stock books but unless they are vintage or in some way exclusive to us, selling most print books in a real store is not viable in our digital age. We do produce our own line of coloring books, such as Cat Cat Lady and Existential Coloring Books, which do well and we have more coming out this fall.
Can you walk the readers thru (briefly) how an idea for an item becomes an actual product?
I spend most of my life pondering human absurdity and examining popular culture to come up with ideas that might be possible produce given our a finite energy and budget. Sometimes they come to me in dreams. Really. And there is my Development Team of 5 people thinking this as well. Every day we sit down at a round table, which has a taxidermy squirrel wearing a top hat as a centerpiece, and pitch specific products and themes.
The few that we feel are worthy go onto a whiteboard for immediate action, some go to a parking lot section to come back to, but most are dismissed. Ideas are the easy part and we have far more good ones that could ever be produced in a lifetime. The really hard part is properly producing them and then selling them.
In your mind, how do you separate the good ideas for a product from the ones that would sell? Surely you've had some pretty interesting products that weren't good sellers, no? Perhaps the best ideas aren't very marketable, but rather works of art.
I do like your thinking there, William, that our failures are the true works of art. We do wish we'd could produce less art and more sellable products.
Some items that surely must be true artistic masterpieces because the sales were so dismal were: His & Her Tongue Scrapers, Vinderpants (underpants for wine bottles) and our Modest Urns (cremation urns that look like coffee cans).
How many of your customers are of the elderly persuasion? I think we all generally think of gag gifts and novelties for kids or adult kids, but it seems like one key to a long and good life or marriage can be the simple fun things found at your store. Or having that mindset that "fun" is allowed at any age.
By "elderly," I assume you mean boomers, those born from late 1940s through the early 1960s. That group as always been our core audience. But now that there are more millennials than boomers (and every day there are fewer boomers), this presents a challenge. If we can't move the younger generation from looking at and buying from their phones, we will join the dodo in extinction. It's why we work hard to reach a younger audience via our social media efforts.
IMHO the Archie McPhee store has more coolness than any other place in America. We are the nerds that make the products that nudge the culture towards freedom, fun and inclusion. Our measured sarcasm and style mocks corporate consumer behavior and the boring conformity of an unexamined life. Buy a tiny finger hand & high five your friends and you strike a tiny, peaceful, blow against The Man. We are joy makers and that will always threaten the status quo.
Bonus question: Wallingford Beast vs Jake the Alligator Man. Who would win in a cage fight?
Jake has an advantage with all those alligator teeth, but The Beast comes from ancient times, from a place George Martin/Game of Thrones has not yet written about. Our Beast
has certain magic powers yet to be revealed. In short, Jake is toast, Wallingford Beast reigns supreme!
Mark Pahlow, 7-11-201