The Root of Archie McPhee
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this excerpt from his introduction to “Who Would Buy This? The Archie McPhee Story,” Mark Pahlow traces the influences that led him to create Archie McPhee.
Having been born and raised in Ohio, I understand boredom in a profound way. In 1963, the two most exciting things in my life were my $3.98 “Made In Japan” transistor radio with a fake leather case and Whitey, my albino hamster. I did my best to liven things up. For instance, my brother Herb and I hooked an aluminum lawn chair up to a train transformer one summer’s evening and charged the other kids in the neighborhood a nickel to get electrocuted. I made a nice profit and, thankfully, no one died.
For summer vacations, my family would drive our 1957 Ford Fairlane to Sedalia, Missouri to visit relatives. Fireworks were legal in Missouri, so I’d buy as many as I could and smuggle them back to Ohio where they were illegal. A single “lady finger” firecracker that cost me 1/100th of a cent could quickly be resold for ten cents — a markup of 10,000%. I made a mint until the local police put a stop to my thriving business, which turned out to be a forewarning of my clashes to come with “The Man” while trying to engage in honest commerce.
Growing up I entertained myself with a steady diet of Mad Magazine, late night horror movies hosted by Cleveland celebrity, Ghoulardi, and comic books. Even at a young age, I found myself more attracted to the ads for x-ray specs and Sea-Monkeys® than the latest exploits of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
After high school, I hitchhiked through 25 countries in Europe and Africa in search of meaning, taking work where I could get it. During that time I quit or was fired from a variety of strange jobs like dressing up in a full Viking outfit to sell sweaters from the Faeroe Islands, filling cans of shellac and affixing their lids in a factory and separating egg yolks as they passed on a fast conveyer belt (good ones into the chute for baby food; bad ones into the chute for shampoo). Upon returning to America and working for the U.S. Department of Commerce as a census enumerator, I had to admit I was unemployable in modern society. Yet, I knew there was a place for me somewhere.
All I needed was a way to make enough money to buy brown rice, alfalfa sprouts and cat food with enough left over to keep my decrepit, 1965 VW Microbus running. I was living in a society of bewildering conformity gilded with deep superficiality and it was rough. Reality was closing in on me and I wanted to scream.
I moved to California and worked as a night clerk at Lose The Blues Bookstore in Los Angeles. While there, I sold Bob Dylan the complete works of Albert Camus and books by I.B. Singer to people whose wrists were marked with numbers from concentration camps. I used the time to ruminate on life and brainstorm business ideas while watching for shoplifters. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’d have to set out on my own, so I decided to return to the free market business successes of my youth.
I started by selling collectible stamps, ephemera such as antique cigar box and citrus labels, old toys and odd things I had made, like t-shirts that said, “Shazam!” in Hebrew. I bought thousands of detailed rubber acupuncture figures from Korea, sold them to head shops and used the profits from that to buy a treasure trove of Shirley Temple photographs. Most of my ventures were successes, like the load of anti-siphon gas caps I bought just before the energy crisis started, but a few were outright failures. One of the worst was a truckload of Spanish language comic books that I thought I could turn around and sell in Mexico, not realizing that the Spanish they used was not in the proper Mexican style.
When I discovered that I could pick up some extra money driving cars from Los Angeles to New York for driveaway companies I saw an opportunity. Along the way I bought old toys off the shelves of forgotten stores throughout the Midwest. It was on one of these trips that I discovered the amazing windup hot dog eating man. Once I arrived in Manhattan, I’d deliver the car and then sell my treasures at a huge profit to stores like Mythology on the Upper West Side.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 1982 that I figured out how all these disparate things fit together. I would open my own retail store and sell everything I liked, no matter how ridiculous.