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Buys and Dolls

Part store, part theater, New York's American Girl Place makes for an itty bitty day in the city.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page C02

It's okay, because we're not buying anything.

We're just going to dash in, see the show, have some tea, fondle-but-not-purchase the goods and get out.

This is not a shopping trip.

American Girl Place in New York features a doll-friendly restaurant. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

After all, this isn't really a store. It's a happening, an event, a trip. It's a place. American Girl Place, the toy line that has become a destination. Sure, it looks like a store, a tony Fifth Avenue shop, just blocks from the Plaza even, with fancy animatronic holiday window displays and spinning doors that suck shoppers off the sidewalks like retail-industrial turbines.

But in a way that Old Man Macy and Mr. Gimbel could only dream of, American Girl Place has become, since opening in late 2003, a New York must-see for tens of thousands of families. They spend long hours -- and big money -- eating brunch or dinner in the cafe, watching the Broadway-style "American Girls Revue" in the theater, pampering their little plastic wards in a veritable spa for dolls and trying on look-alike clothes for both toy girls and real girls at eight in-store boutiques.

"It was literally at the top of our list," says Teri Tabb, a tall blond mom from Los Angeles who last week was herding her two girls around a second-floor showroom. This is where American Girl's core line of nine period-specific dolls are posed in Smithsonian-worthy dioramas filled with outfits and accessories. Tabb pulls out a notebook to show a spreadsheet of her family's New York itinerary. Sure enough, American Girl Place tops the chart, outranking such Gotham to-do's as seeing "Wicked" and visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We've been here for hours," she says.

I've been here for hours, too. I brought my daughter Tyrie, 5, and she brought Kit, the Depression-era American Girl she unwrapped two Decembers ago. Previously purchased dolls are welcome, so there are lots of Kits being clutched by wide-eyed pre-adolescent girls. There are also plenty of Josafinas (from 1824 New Mexico), Addys (the escaped slave community of Civil War Philadelphia), Felicitys (1774 Williamsburg) and the others.

"Somebody's Molly is on the floor over here," a clerk shouts, never breaking her brisk stride through the milling crowd. She's not the only one on a mission. With Christmas just days away, the place is buzzing like a bazaar. A banker type scuttles around like a truffle pig in a cashmere overcoat, bent over and rummaging through the shelves and taking cell-phone directions from some domestic HQ. "Here it is. Kit's table and chairs. Jesus, it's $70. Okay, okay. I'm just telling you."

It is a heavily Fifth Avenue scene -- there's probably half a million dollars' worth of handbags on the escalators at any given moment. But there are plenty of sub-platinum-card tourists as well, and everyone seems to share an enthusiasm for the dolls and books that make up this world of spunky girl power and friendship across races, classes and centuries. Sure, there is a woman sailing out of the cafe in flowing black furs and with facial features so sharp she looks like an origami version of Cruella DeVil. Her daughter is more of the same, except she cuddles a Kaya, an 18-inch Nez Perce doll in leather fringe that makes her owner seem less like a 12-year-old Bianca Jagger and more like a little girl.

The nicest-looking dolls being dragged around are the ones that have already been to the wee eight-chair Doll Hair Salon on the first floor. We wait our turn and soon Tyrie's Kit takes a chair next to two other Kits and a Kirsten (1854 Minnesota frontier).

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