A journal of my (and my daughters’) tour of Houston’s new American Girl store in Memorial City Mall
By Sara G. Stephens
The moment I stepped through the American Girl Store, I became a little girl again. My eyes swept over the magical setting, with its pink-on-pink tiled carpet and islands of dolls, clothes, and books, and I instantly yearned for those innocent days when dolls were my world. This place would have been heaven to me, and as I glanced over to check the reactions of my two daughters, I could see they, too, now lived in this world, and were delighted to explore its wonders.
If you haven’t heard to the buzz, American Girl has found a new home in Houston. The new store is located in Memorial City Mall by the ice-skating rink, and celebrates its Grand Opening September 15-16. The store had a “soft opening” earlier in the week, and I decided to drop in with my 8-old-daughter, Anna, and her 3-year-old sister, Violet to see for myself what all the fuss was about. It didn’t take long for me to get it.
About American Girl
Parents of older girls are probably already well acquainted with the American Girl phenomenon. For those who, like me, are new to the idea, here’s the concept in a nutshell. American Girl Brands, a subsidiary of Mattel, has been around since 1986. The brand’s mission is “to encourage girls to dream, grow, to aspire, to create, and to imagine through a wide range of engaging and insightful books, age-appropriate and educational products, and unforgettable experiences.” The brand has a loyal following of millions of girls and the praise and trust of both parents and educators. Although you can request a free catalogue of the brand’s offerings (800-845-0005) or shop online (www.americangirl.com), you would be depriving you and your daughters of a very special experience by sidestepping a visit to the actual store.
Stepping into the store was a test of discipline. With 16,000 square feet of dolls spread before us, my girls (and I) wanted nothing more than to dive head-first into the whole experience. But I couldn’t move on without first checking out the book section. It makes sense that this section sits right next to the outside entrance—it’s the most logical place to start if you want to browse through the collections of books written for each American Girl character, and see which one speaks to you personally.
A comfortable settee beckoned us to sit and enjoy leafing through the various books, so we could better understand the American Girl world we were about to enter. Right off the bat, I was drawn to “Julie,” an American Girl from the ‘70s, who looked just about like I did at the time (now I’ve really dated myself, I know). My 8-year-old was still undecided as to which was her favorite. The characters are rich and complex, and their stories are compelling, each set in a particular American city or town during a specific point in American history—The Civil War, WWII, and the Great Depression, just to name a few. With such a dazzling variety, Anna insisted she must see the dolls to choose the one for her. And off we went.
Valley of the Dolls
Wandering the main section of the American Girl store was like taking a cruise ship with endless ports of call—each welcoming us to the personal world of a new friend. The displays for each 18-inch doll are thoughtful and meticulous—all at eye-level for a girl of 8 or so. And many of the dolls are placed in several places throughout the stores, donning different attire and placed amidst a distinct setting of accessories and story-appropriate furniture. “Kaya,” a native-American member of the Nez Perce, stands proudly before her Tepee, a crackling campfire warming its entrance, and honorable horse peacefully grazing nearby. On another island, a fabulous blue 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle car, awaits the plot to unfold in the story of “Julie’s” charity carwash to help save the eagles. And in a cabinet nook, “Marie-Grace” and “Cécile” sit dressed for the costume gala at an elaborate banquet table, complete with petit fours, fruit tarts, chocolate truffles, and a four-layer cake (this was Violet’s favorite, hands down!). In yet another cabinet nook, the newly launched “Caroline” stands, pretty as can be, in her family’s elegant circa 1812 parlor, featuring a built-in bookshelf, fireplace, and window overlooking the bay (At this point in the tour, a member of store security stopped to ask my daughter, Anna, if she were related to “Caroline,” as she “looked exactly like her.” That cinched it for Anna: “Caroline” was now her favorite American Girl.)
The displays go on and on, in a series of inviting and beautiful showcases, each one as breathtaking as the last. Once we explored all the historical characters, we moved on to the “My American Girl” section of the store. Here is where each girl and pick out a specific doll those physical traits match her own. A collection of “pull tags” guided us by skin tone, hair color, and eye color. Each combination has a doll with a specific number, as indicated on the “pull tag.” We found Anna’s “look-alike” (#21) and then located the doll in the glass case situated above the pull tags. Each doll can be further customized with pierced ears, glasses—even a hearing aid. We found a “look-alike” doll for Violet then quickly moved on to the adjacent section, more geared for girls her age.
Now we were in Bitty Baby world, where 15-inch baby dolls await their new mommies. Each is customizable by the same features as the American Girl dolls. And each can be pampered with a selection of clothes, accessories, and baby necessities that could give BabiesRUs a run for its money. Violet loves to play “babies” at home and was immediately drawn to a stroller. A nearby sales associate promptly placed a Bitty Baby in the stroller, and encouraged Violet to push it around the store. She made a friend for life with that gesture.
I noticed a few girls walk into the store with their own American Girl dolls from home. Some perused the clothes and accessories, contemplating the next piece to enhance their special collection. Others, however, walked further into the store, right to the hair salon, where trained stylists brush, braid, and twist to create a fabulous new look for each doll customer. Dolls can even get their ears pierced and a Pampering Plus package to complete a memorable visit. The core of the salon is a pink counter with red, doll-sized salon chairs. Here we found stylist Alondra carefully combing the hair of a doll, while her owner perused the hairstyle catalogue to decide on a style for her American Girl. This was Alondra’s first day on the job, and first American Girl customer. She was glittering with excitement. She confided to us that although she never had an American Girl doll growing up, her cousin did, until the dog chewed her up. “We didn’t know about the American Girl doll hospital at the time,” she said, with clear regret.
All this window shopping can really make a girl hungry. Anna pulled my arm excitedly and pointed out the Bistro sign. Alas, the Bistro was not open on the day of our visit, but we got to look over the menu—a tantalizing variety of kid- and adult-friendly meals at reasonable prices. The Bistro itself carries on the ultra girl-glam styling of the store, with sparkling pink lighting and special seats that let girls share their meal experiences with their American Girl dolls (even the restroom stalls have doll holders where the American Girls can “hang out” while their owners are “otherwise occupied). For girls eating in the Bistro who don’t have an American Girl doll, the store lends out dolls to make the dining event as complete as possible. The special party room was closed, in preparation for an event, but my daughters were thrilled to hear of the option to have their next birthday parties in such a special venue.
And that’s what the American Girl store is: a venue for memory-making, which is why the store is a destination outing for moms and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, godmothers and god-daughters, aunts and nieces—and every combination of girl, regardless of age. It’s a place to browse, dream, shop, and eat….everything an American girl wants.