EVERETT, Wash. — One is a vibrant red store in Seattle’s funky Wallingford neighborhood. The other is a beige warehouse and office building in Mukilteo.
The retail store is emblazoned with a mural of a dancing bacon strip, a squirrel wearing underpants, a unicorn, rubber chickens and other members of the species-diverse McPhee universe.
The Mukilteo complex is hidden in plain sight on a side street in a business park, marked by a simple nameplate of letters spelling “Accoutrements.”
Inside is the think tank where a team of six McPhee masterminds dream up such things as yodeling pickles, bonnets for cats, smoking babies, bacon toothpaste and Bigfoot action figures. They spend hours debating the size of Bigfoot’s butt to make it anatomically correct.
At the helm is founder Mark Pahlow, reported The Herald (http://bit.ly/2c8MKDQ).
Pahlow started a business in the 1970s selling quirky and unusual items. He called it Accoutrements.
In July 1983, Accoutrements added a retail arm, a shop in Fremont. Pahlow named it Archie McPhee after a fun great-uncle who liked practical jokes. The catchy name stuck. Pahlow made primitive catalogs using rubber cement and clever write-ups.
Wacky stuff was hard to get back then. The Seattle emporium of oddities became a popular tourist attraction.
Pahlow had a talent for making wacky wackier.
The selection expanded: Mutant chicken puppet. Librarian action figure with push-button shushing action. Cold War unicorn two-piece playset. Hopping lederhosen with a knockwurst remote control. Fire-breathing Nunzilla. Mini guillotine to behead bad dolls.
“We’ve been around so long and so many people get us,” Pahlow said. “We have sold 12 million finger monsters. Bacon bandages have been very good to us.”
The store relocated to Ballard and in 2009 moved to its current site on a busy corner on North 45th Street in Wallingford. On Trip Advisor, it is ranked 17th in Shopping in Seattle.
Since 1996, the Accoutrements flagship has been tucked on 47th Avenue West in Mukilteo, a few blocks from the YMCA. Most residents have no idea it’s there or what’s inside. Or what that word accoutrements even means.
Some of the neighboring plants make parts for airplanes. This is the company to contact if you need a lot of rubber chickens — fast.
The king of kitsch
If you met Mark Pahlow at a party or in line at the QFC, you’d never peg the tall, soft-spoken man as the king of freakish finger monsters.
Or that his foot is the model for the tiny vinyl feet that go on fingers, another McPhee smash hit.
The introduction to his book “Who Would Buy This?” begins: “Archie McPhee was created because reality just wasn’t living up to my expectations.”
As a kid, he was fascinated more by the ads in comic books for X-ray specs and Sea-Monkeys than the cartoons. “Having been born and raised in Ohio, I understand boredom in a profound way,” he writes.
After high school, he hitchhiked through Europe and Africa, doing odd jobs to support his odyssey. He settled in California and started selling novelties.
“I figured out how things were bought and sold and what people wanted. It was my MBA in real life,” he said in an interview at his Mukilteo office that was so messy he wouldn’t allow photographs.
Love brought him to Seattle, and he opened the Archie McPhee retail store in 1983. On a drive he discovered Mukilteo, and moved his family and the Accoutrements headquarters there. His kids are grown and he has since moved back to Seattle.
The Mukilteo compound has stayed off the radar, with a few exceptions.
Such as when he bought bales of shredded money to sell by the bag. “The Secret Service showed up and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to do that.’ They showed up with guns. Those guys don’t mess around,” Pahlow said.
Then there was the time he got surplus wooden torpedoes to sell. “They sent up an Army truck and took them away,” he said.
Most products are more benign, such as Jane Austen toothpaste, existential coloring books and J.P. Patches socks.
No jerks allowed
A small sign on the door of the Mukilteo compound says “Absolutely no soliciting. No exceptions . unless you’re in a banana suit.”
The general public doesn’t get this close. You can’t just walk in here and buy a rubber chicken or 10. It’s for mail-order and wholesale supply only.
The heart of the business — “the hub of money” — is here, said David Wahl, the Director of Awesome, while giving The Herald a tour of the Mukilteo warehouse.
Workers pick their titles. Shana Iverson, who oversees the store and wholesale sales, is the High Priestess of Rubber Chickens.
The name Accoutrements remains an enigma. “We changed the name of Accoutrements to Archie McPhee,” Wahl said, “because the name recognition is better and people have trouble spelling accoutrements.”
Wahl, whose sideline is improv and sketch comedy, spells it flawlessly.
“A-c-c-o-u-t-r-e-m-e-n-t-s,” he said. “I’ve spelled it a lot.”
Wahl, 47, worked his way to the top.
He became an Archie McPhee fan after seeing a catalog in the 1980s as a kid growing up in the Midwest. “I said, ‘I am going to work for that company someday,'” he recalled.
Years later his wife’s job brought them to Seattle. While looking for work, he saw a help wanted ad in the paper for Archie McPhee.
“I got a job packing boxes,” he said, “and I’ve been here for 21 years.”
Now he helps create what goes inside those boxes, which are stacked floor-to-ceiling in the towering warehouse of this Costco for connoisseurs of the strange.
“They had to get special forklifts,” Wahl said. “Workers have to strap themselves in to get lifted up.”
Aisle after aisle, thousands of McPhee products are cloistered in cardboard. Guinea pig masks. Wasabi gumballs. Finger hands — those tiny hands that go on fingertips, not to be confused with finger feet or finger monsters or pickle finger puppets. Those are in separate boxes.
The Mukilteo complex has more than 60,000 square feet. About 25 people are employed here. A job requirement states: “No jerks.”
Melissa Manning works in mail-order operations in a corner of the warehouse.
Aside from a to-do list that includes dressing rubber chickens in Santa suits, it’s a typical job. “Shipping things, putting them in boxes, mailing them out, talking to customers,” she said.
Those calls often start out, “I’ve got a strange question for you.”
“One gal was very concerned for her infant grandson,” she said, “because he had blond hair so you couldn’t see his eyebrows, so she wanted to know if we had any eyebrow decals she could put on so he could express his emotions better.”
Manning knew just the thing. “I suggested we have mood mustaches that you could snip in half and use,” she said. “But use them very carefully because it’s for 3 and up and could be a choking hazard.”
The workplace has the usual business rooms with desks, tables and research materials, and a product photo studio. Some of Pahlow’s initial primitive catalogs hang on the wall; others are in the Smithsonian archives as an indicator of popular culture for future generations.
Maybe there is slightly more kitsch than you’d see in a typical office building. A garish blue sculpture of Ganesh, the Hindu god of luck, is in the lobby across from a statue of a monkey wearing a fez.
Overall, though, it is more subtle than outlandish.
The client meeting room table has fresh flowers juxtaposed with giant googly eyes, a mustache ice cube tray and zombie horse mask.
The staff conference room has a tasteful row of colorful skulls in the window overlooking the tree-lined parking lot.
If you walked in here in a banana suit, nobody would look twice at you.
The Wallingford store is like Party City meets “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” The shelves are festooned with things you don’t need but want and can’t really explain why: Unicorn-and-horse wedding cake toppers. Shakespeare punching puppets. Atheist holiday stockings. Underpants for hands, for fingers, for squirrels.
In July, to celebrate 33 years in business, the first 33 customers got a free zombie horse mask on the condition they wore it out the door. They did, proudly and loudly.
Few shoppers can walk out empty-handed.
Online shoppers might find it hard to log off with an empty cart.
Archie McPhee merchandise also is sold at Bartell Drugs, gift shops and party stores.
Why do people buy this stuff?
“The magic of what we do is to not do something that has a practical purpose,” Wahl said. “We’re filling a need for an abstract concept rather than an actual physical one. Someone who makes a hammer makes a hammer to build a house. You make an inflatable unicorn hat for cats because you open up that part of a person’s brain that goes, ‘Oh, my God, how does that exist? How did they know I would think it is funny?'”
Another appeal is that someone has an inside joke. You can’t give an inflatable unicorn cat hat to just anybody.
“If you don’t get it, you don’t get it,” Wahl said. “It doesn’t get funnier if you explain it. It gets more painful.”
Wahl came up with the idea for the yodeling pickle and underwear gloves, but gives equal credit to his teammates in the think tank.
“Often we come up with a name for a product or a concept before we even know what it’s going to look like,” Wahl said. “Like Handerpants, which are basically a pair of underpants for your hands — fingerless gloves. I said, ‘Oh, my God, a pair of underpants for your hand,’ and Curt said, ‘I know exactly what that looks like.’ He knew exactly what was in my head.”
Curt Hanks, a graphic designer for 17 years, has worked on hundreds of products. “Sometimes we find ourselves in very serious conversations about very ridiculous things,” he said.
The creative process is just the start.
“It opens up weird little challenges to make the abstract challenges work in reality,” said Scott King, another longtime graphic designer.
About 150 to 200 new products are made every year. Most are manufactured in China.
Some are a big pain in the butt.
“We debated about the size of Bigfoot’s butt for about 18 months,” Wahl said.
Even then, there’s always someone who’s going to call you out on it.
“We actually had a customer call and tell us that we got it wrong,” he said. “She knew because she saw Bigfoot on the side of the road and he jumped over a mud puddle and he fell backwards, and so she got a plaster cast of his butt.”
The dissension was also validating.
They weren’t the only ones out there thinking about Bigfoot’s butt.
The future of McPhee
These days, Archie McPhee isn’t the household name it used to be. “Old school Seattle” is how an online commenter put it.
Blame the internet.
“What we’re finding,” Pahlow said, “is that all these new people who move to Seattle who are working for Amazon and Google, they don’t know who we are and they don’t have cars and they shop online and it’s really disturbing. And they’re the people with the money.”
So he went to them. Facebook invited the company to their offices in Seattle to stage a “pop-up store.”
It’s “a one-day thing where they invite certain retailers to come in, and set tables up,” he said. “Facebook is amazing. People will come to your work station and cut your hair and trim your beard. They cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s a whole new way of life.”
And one where the future of his business isn’t assured.
“If you search for rubber chickens, Amazon has an ad over us,” Pahlow said. “Everybody goes to Amazon. I understand it. I shop on Amazon, but the repercussions are going to be enormous here.”
Another threat is 3-D printers. “Everybody will have a factory in their home. When they perfect those things . you can make a cheap little object,” he said. “It’s a matter of time.”
That doesn’t mean Pahlow is giving up on Archie McPhee.
“It is something eccentric and wonderful and cheers you up and distracts you,” he said. “How can you not like a screaming pickle?”
Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com