All dolled up

Picture a high-end retail store; a facade of brightly-colored, gleaming fire engines; glittering, silver letterhead shining above precisely-staged storefront windows; the interior with plush cushions for waiting customers while others shop for hats, party dresses and shoes. There is a bistro on the second floor that provides scenic overlook and delectable desserts on polka-dotted plates. The catch? While itâÄôs not quite the size of a dollhouse, its pint-sized premises were created with smaller-sized customers in mind. The new American Girl Store opened in the Mall of America on Saturday. Though I am certainly aware that most reading here are past the point in which weâÄôll spend $90 on a doll with historical context and nice hair, the store implies much more than a place for pre-teens to run around with their mothers for a couple hours at the mall. Unlike the average retail chain that can be found in any American mall, the American Girl Store has been reserved to locations only in some of the largest cities in the United States: New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and now Minneapolis. Of course, with a grand opening strategically placed before the chaotic rushes of Black Friday and extended holiday hours at the mall, it is doubtful the store will merely become a site of tourism at the mall. Especially considering the Pioneer Press last week reported that the company garnered $431 million for Mattel last year. The trouble is that the chain hasnâÄôt always been part of the marketed giant it is today. In 1986, entrepreneur Pleasant Rowland found herself frustrated when shopping for gifts for her nieces. Her frustrations resulted in the creation of three characters that changed the face of American Girls in History: Samantha Parkington from 1904, Kirsten Larson from 1854 and Molly McIntire from 1944. But what can a doll really mean? The 18-inch, cloth-bodied characters were originally sold by catalogue and mail order. They were paired with a book series for young readers that provided the historical context to supplement KirstenâÄôs pioneer clothing from Sweden, and SamanthaâÄôs Victorian locket and carefully curled hair. Growing up, these characters, and others added to the series, were my first encounter with the historical, but heavy ideas such as slavery and emancipation, child labor, the cholera of 19th century settlers and the bomb shelters of World War II. Told in light of my 10-year-old mind, I began to grapple with the realities of our countryâÄôs history and relate to these American girls who were my age. While the historical characters still exist, and new ones have been added over the last number of years, they seem to have appeared out of obligation to the original nature of the line. The new characters, like Julie Albright from 1974, are hipster and provide outlets for a trendier doll clothing line. In 1998, Mattel took over the line, and historical context has been largely placed on the back burner. Promoting a new line originally known as the âÄúAmerican Girls of Today,âÄù shoppers were able to choose their dollâÄôs skin, hair and eye color. Also, instead of promoting historically crafted doll beds for $100, trendy accessories and ballet costumes became the latest fad. Simply, the company exploded from a meaningful line of dolls to just another craze of toys, accessories, DVDs and music CDs that reinforce our perpetual battle with consumerism and became a pre-teen lesson in capitalism. The presence of the new superstore is indicative of this idea. While spending $90 on a collector doll no longer seems remarkably outrageous, consumers in the 22,000 square-foot retail space are privy expenditures spending much more: endless displays of doll clothes for $27, lunch at the bistro for $15, birthday craft parties at $55 per person, doll ear piercing for $14, a trip to the salon for your doll for $20, clothes for your own American Girl $25-$90. The companyâÄôs website claims it to be a store unlike any other: âÄúCome spend a day sheâÄôll never forget. From exploring the worlds of her favorite characters to dining with her doll to celebrating her birthday, your American girlâÄôs dreams can come true.âÄù As young girls waited in line as early at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning to be among the first let through the storeâÄôs new doors, girls toting dolls giggled with anticipation. A video from the Star Tribune shows excited girls in glasses and backpacks, cutting at a red ribbon with matching scissors in their hands. One girl mentioned, âÄúItâÄôs sooo exciting!âÄù Another, spoke clearly about her doll clothes: âÄúItâÄôs nice to be able to see the clothes youâÄôre buying before you do,âÄù she said. After waiting in line for hours to enter the store, it was infiltrated with girls pulling their parents along with energized cantor. They made beeline for the salon: an odd scene in which grown women are trained to style the hair of inanimate 18-inch customers. I donâÄôt mean to crush the dreams of young girls who, like I once was, are absorbed in glitter and the idea of afternoon tea and crumpets. But the idea of spending $20 on a dollâÄôs new up-do, and $5 on a facial for her molded skin is a few steps too far. Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]