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Originally published Monday, December 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Archie McPhee Story," from the king of quirk himself

Archie McPhee impresario Mark Pahlow's book, "Who Would Buy This? The Archie McPhee Story" is the story of the Ballard store that brought the shushing library action figure, the boxing nun and other classics of kitschy Americana to the masses — at least the masses in need of some giddy fun.

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Who Would Buy This? The Archie McPhee Story"

by Mark Pahlow with Gibson Holub and David Wahl

Accoutrements Publishing Co., 184 pp., $19.95

BOOK REVIEW

First, full disclosure: Mark Pahlow's book, "Who Would Buy This?" is about to make me famous.

There I am, mentioned on Page 72, where Pahlow — the genius behind the quirky Archie McPhee store and product line — tells about the great librarian-action-figure controversy.

Intrepid reporter that I am, I broke the story in 2003 of how legions of librarians around the world rose up in outrage when Pahlow created a librarian action figure that, as its signature action, lifts a finger to its lips, shushing-style.

Well, maybe "legions" is a little strong. But some, anyway.

Despite the outcry, the doll, modeled after Seattle's own Nancy Pearl, became a best-seller, and was even reissued in a deluxe set with a book cart, reference desk and computer.

The plastic librarian is one of thousands of strange ideas that have sprung from the mind of Pahlow, 56, who, in the infancy of his entrepreneurial career, hooked up his electric-train transformer to a metal lawn chair and charged other kids in the neighborhood a nickel to get zapped.

"I made a nice profit and, thankfully, no one died," Pahlow writes.

In case you haven't been to his Ballard store or seen its catalog, Pahlow makes a living selling a delightful conglomeration of rubber chickens, plastic ants, punching-nun puppets and the like.

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This hardcover, lavishly illustrated book is itself one more oddity Pahlow has thrust upon the marketplace, published by his company, Accoutrements, and crafted with two of his lieutenants.

In it, we learn that a smattering of librarians aren't the only folks Pahlow has irritated over the years. Add to the list the Defense Department, the Secret Service, even the Beatles.

Seems the feds get all prickly about people selling used weaponry or shredded money, and the Beatles — their lawyers at least — pointed out that Pahlow had no right to sell rock-band figures resembling the Fab Four. "It was not enough for us to simply stop selling them," says Pahlow. "We had to take pictures of them being crushed at the dump."

Some conservative Christians objected to Pahlow's original action figure, a plastic Jesus, but it, too, found a receptive market, and now comes with fish, loaves and an urn for turning water into wine.

The book, which tells the stories behind some of his signature products, opens with an eight-page introduction on Pahlow's own past, from his post-high-school hitchhiking trip across Europe and Africa to his return to the U.S. as a census enumerator to his stint in Los Angeles bookstore, where he sold Bob Dylan the complete works of Albert Camus.

At heart, Pahlow — who named his store after a great uncle — has always been a peddler.

"I came to realize shopping existed to help make people less depressed," he writes, "... a symbiotic relationship where buyer and seller both danced and each came away the better for it."

In the early days, he sought out cool, kitschy and offbeat souvenirs: official morgue toe tags, World War II propaganda posters and genuine KGB liquor flasks.

As the supply of treasures he could find dwindled, Pahlow shifted his focus to items he and his creative staffers could conceive, design and have manufactured in Asia.

Sometimes a man's failures are as telling as his successes, and Pahlow details a few of his under the label, "What were we thinking?" The buying public somehow never warmed to his glow-in-the-dark spaghetti and meatballs. Or to plastic noses with long, braided nose hair.

The question posed in the book's title is apt: No one needs this volume, any more than they've needed any of the items described inside it in. But the human appetite for fun, amusement — or simple diversion — shouldn't be underestimated.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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