At Barbie Confab, Sometimes the Box Open Only to Debate

By Kate Kilpatrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Barbie collectors share much in common: They believe Barbie pink is the perfect color for lipstick, toenails, handbags and jewelry. They fantasize about vacations where they hop from hotel room to hotel room in search of Barbie's cousin Smashin' Satin Francie or a mint-condition I Love Lucy Santa Claus Barbie. They define "holy grail" as that final doll or dress required to complete -- at last! -- a collection.

But on one issue the Barbie masses can't be reconciled: To debox or not to debox.

The answers are passionate and partisan.

"Debox! Debox! Debox!" shouted a pin worn by Molly Cruse, a Baltimore nurse and one of more than 1,100 visitors to the 2009 National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention being held here this week at the Marriott Wardman Park. The convention, which this year coincides with Barbie's 50th anniversary, runs through tomorrow.

Cruse -- sporting on her shoulder a tattoo of a pink heart with Barbie's name in cursive in the center -- says she loves tearing into boxes to get her hands on her new toys.

"I collect them because I love them and I don't plan on reselling them," she says. "You can't appreciate the full gown or the detail of the cloth [when it's] in the box."

But not all Barbie girls, she acknowledges, are of like mind.

Adamantly opposing the Deboxers are the NRFBists, for whom the 11th Commandment is: Thou shalt Never Remove From Box!

"People have a fit, they have a cow, if the box gets messed up," Cruse says.

Her friend Sherri Schuck, a prosecutor from Kansas, is a proud NRFBist.

Schuck's Barbie collection boasts more than 600 dolls. Her husband built a showroom in their home where Schuck can periodically rotate the display.

"I collect a lot of dolls from the '80s and '90s -- the pink boxes," Schuck says. "And a lot of the time the boxes themselves were actually part of the doll's scenery, the allure. You could cut them up, you could take things off the box and use them as props for the doll. They just remind me of when I was a kid."

But these days she wouldn't dare take a Barbie out of the box, let alone bring scissors to the scene.

"For me the box makes the doll, too. It's just part of what she is," Schuck says. "I love to see them in their natural state, and to me it's in a box."

Tickets to the convention cost as much as $400. In addition to hours of shopping each day, conventioneers can attend Barbie workshops, competitions, evening parties and a fashion show. The events culminate with tomorrow night's gala dinner, at which each guest receives a 50th-anniversary limited-edition commemorative doll placed under her chair.

For the first few days of this year's convention, before the official sales room was set up yesterday morning, collectors and dealers displayed their offerings from their hotel rooms. Buyers wandered the halls of the Marriott, entering any room with an open door (extra points if a pink boa or balloons decorated the doorknob). Within, boxed dolls, bagged dresses and disembodied heads covered bedspreads and were stacked high on bureaus and end tables.

And sifting through them: the box inspectors.

"I won't buy a damaged box with a corner smashed in. Unless I really want it that bad," says Kathryn Knack, an NRFBist from Vinton, Iowa. Knack, a retired telephone operator, has been attending the annual convention since 1993.

To cater to finicky NRFBists, dealers take all sorts of precautions to protect their merchandise, inside and out.

Amanda Eagan, owner of Diamonds and Dolls in Odessa, Mo., wraps each box in cellophane to prevent scuffs to the original cellophane. She says she spent nearly three days carefully packing the boxes into a 20-foot trailer for the drive to D.C.

Alice Spackman, who sold the multimillion-dollar Diamonds and Dolls business to Eagan two years ago and is assisting her at the convention, says putting that much stock in a box is "silly."

"I had one lady years ago and she would spend hours looking at the box. And I often thought she probably didn't even notice that there was even a doll in that box," Eagan says.

"And the sad thing about that is you can pay top dollar for an older product still never removed from box, in good box, and it falls off the shelf. And it's not that perfect box anymore."

But there's no convincing Erma Huntley-Rhodes, a die-hard NRFBist from Asheville, N.C.

"You look at the box corners. You make sure there's no marks, no tears, no wear," says Huntley-Rhodes, wearing a bedazzled acid-wash denim jacket and frosty pink nail polish. Her motivations are partly practical: A doll that fetches $15,000 in a mint-condition box could drop in value to $5,000 to $7,000 in a battered box.

Of her personal collection at home, Huntley-Rhodes says she keeps the dolls in cabinets and doesn't allow admirers too near.

"If you can touch them," she says, "then you're too close."

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