Pickles that yodel. Foot-tall punching nuns. Inflatable unicorn horns for cats. A rubber chicken museum. And, of course, a wide variety of rubber chickens to go with it, from pocket-sized to deluxe.
Now put them all under one very geeky roof in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. What you have is Archie McPhee, purveyor of novel and sometimes practical pop culture items and gifts, marking its 35th anniversary this year.
“We make the stuff that people don’t know that they want, but once they see it, they have to have it,” said David Wahl, Archie McPhee’s director of awesome and head of the company’s marketing and creative services. “None of it’s necessary, but it’s intrinsic to the life experience. It’s art.”
Wahl joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on popular culture, science fiction, and the arts. We took a rambling walking tour of Archie McPhee’s flagship — and only — retail location (now gearing up for the holiday shopping season). In the process, we discovered three weird things about the pop culture phenomenon that lives its slogan, “We make weird.”
Listen to the episode below or subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast to listen in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading below.
1. Archie McPhee makes originals. Lots of them.
Looking around packed store, Wahl — who’s been with Archie McPhee for 23 years, starting by packing boxes for mail order — figures there are more than 10,000 items, in categories ranging from face masks to finger puppets. He estimates the prices range pennies to about $250 for the most expensive item in the store.
But tucked in among those thousands are hundreds of things you won’t find anywhere else.
“Probably about 650 to 700 of the items in this store are something we’ve created and designed for ourselves,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve done over 3,500 products. Right now in our current line we have about 550 items that we’re currently producing,” which doesn’t include products that are still being sold but are no longer being made.
Wahl said among the most popular products under the McPhee brand are masks. “You can see we have, for example, our banana slug mask, which was a real innovation for us because it has posable antennae,” Wahl said, adjusting one antenna with his fingers.
The brains, as it were, behind these originals?
“We have a creative team of six people that it has to pass through. We sit around a table, we bring in ideas and thoughts, and a lot of times we’ll hear an idea and be like, that is it, that is what we’re going to do,” Wahl said. “And other times it has to steep for a period of time.”
Wahl recalls the first original product was the punching nun puppet, which he said has been “incredibly, incredibly successful.” Wahl himself has had a couple of successes he proposed: the Yodelling Pickle, and Handerpants. Which are exactly what you might imagine — underpants for your hands.
2. Archie McPhee items are sold by others, everywhere.
While the Archie McPhee world retail headquarters is a somewhat quirky one-story building on the busy corner of North 45th Street and Stone Way North in Seattle, it has a thriving direct catalog and internet sales business. But it reaches even more fans through a wholesale operation that engages “distributors around the world” to provide its products to other retailers.
“There’s an ‘Archie McPhee’ in other cities, where you can go to a certain shop, and if you’re a weirdo in that town, you know what shop that is,” Wahl said. In the Seattle area, for example, that shop — in addition to the flagship McPhee’s — is Bartell Drugs.
“Seattle is probably strange enough that we could have an Archie McPhee in every neighborhood,” he said. “And Bartell’s capitalizes on that idea by putting a little bit of Archie McPhee in every neighborhood in Seattle.”
3. Archie McPhee has created its share of flops.
Not every odd idea is a good idea. There is a dark side to all of the bacon-, cat-, and unicorn-themed hits — the creative ideas that didn’t quite work.
“Hand soap shaped like a hand, did not work. It just fell flat,” Wahl said. “Although John Waters did take it on David Letterman, which I will take as a compliment even though it was a massive failure.” Completists can still find the soap on hand in the store, however.
Other not-quite-successes include unusual air freshener varieties that didn’t smell so fresh. “We have switched over mostly to more pleasant odors. It turns out people don’t want unpleasant odors in their car,” Wahl said, noting that McPhee’s still has a lemon-scented Rosie the Riveter Air Freshener and a Bacon Air Freshener that smells like … well, you know.
On the whole, Wahl is philosophical about the also-rans. “Most of the time when we have a failure, we’re still proud of it,” he said. “We understand the idea behind it. and sometimes it takes the world a while to catch up with us.”
Previously in this series: Behind the scenes at Cinerama: Landmark movie house becomes an international pop culture draw