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Building the Perfect Beast

At this shop, tots and grown-ups alike go through an assembly line to create the stuffed animal of their dreams.

February 11, 2001|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's 11 a.m. at the Build-a-Bear Workshop in Newport Beach's Fashion Island, and the bear-building business is brisk. "Welcome to Build-a-Bear," gushes Skip Davenport, the store's designated "FIB" (First Impression Bear), as he greets customers. "What we do here is make best friends. Let me tell you how it works." Such a used-car-salesman approach would normally send customers running, but something about the interactive workshop's lively interior, with its bright yellow decor and fanciful stuffed animals, beckons them.

Though parents often seem wary as Davenport delivers his spiel, the kids need no further encouragement. They head straight for the "Choose Me" bins, which contain heaps of unstuffed animals looking much like piles of pelts, and begin a novel assembly-line process reminiscent of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Only here, kids make "special friends," not candy.

These can be bears, of course, or dogs, cats, bunnies, turtles, horses, monkeys or frogs. Jillian Doke, 5, and her brother Adam, 3, of Huntington Beach, have come with their grandmother. Jillian has picked a white bear, which she's already named Snowball. Adam chose a Dalmatian and has aptly named it Dottie, though it's a boy, he says, "because I'm a boy."

Next stop is "Hear Me," where critter builders select a squeeze-activated voice box for their animal. Among the zoo of choices are animal sounds, short expressions and blank sound boxes on which you can record your own message.

Jillian picks the "I Love You" message for Snowball, then gets in the "Stuff Me" line behind a birthday party of eight 5-year-old boys toting bears, frogs and monkeys.

The stuffing station looks like a cotton candy machine full of fluffy white stuff. While a Master Bear Builder sticks a hose into the animal, the kids step on a pedal to blow in the fluff. Before pulling the stitch strings tight, critter crafters choose a small, red satin pillow heart and tuck it inside with a wish.

Then it's off to "Fluff Me" for a blow dry and brushing, and on to the wonderful world of wardrobes, where a customer's real inner bear is revealed. Choices run from fairy princess to train engineer, and Michael Leveque, 5, of Encinitas, is having a hard time. "I want 16 outfits," he says.

He's trying to dress his black bear, which he's named Inspector Gadget Boy, and can't decide between the construction worker outfit, camouflage gear or the black tuxedo. He picks up the construction outfit, then pairs it with a black patent handbag. "We'll need a purse, too," he says, "so if he finds gold, he can put it in."

Indeed, with a little creativity, you can wrap several fantasies into one creature. Davenport's favorite was the bear that a little girl outfitted with a princess gown, hard hat and sleeping bag.

Now 7 months old, the Newport Beach Build-a-Bear Workshop is one in a rapidly growing chain of 40 stores across the country. The first Build-a-Bear opened in St. Louis in 1997, and 30 more are scheduled to open in 2001, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Jensen. The next Southern California location is to open late next month in the Glendale Galleria. The store also has an online option at http://www.buildabear.com.

*

Back up front, Davenport is greeting more customers. He quickly tells three 50-something women how to choose, hear, stuff, fluff, dress and name, at which point one wryly says, "Then I give you my life savings, right?"

"Not really," he says with a chuckle.

But the a la carte items do add up. For example, one woman started with a dog ($18) and a doggy sound box ($3), then dressed "Honey" in a Valentine's Day sweater ($10) and saddle oxfords ($5), for a total of $36, which includes a birth certificate and "cub condo," the cardboard carrying case the critters go home in. The price can ratchet up by adding unbearably cute accessories, such as electric guitars, umbrellas, handbags, hats, surfboards and even Razor-type scooters.

Snowball is coming out of "Dress Me" looking very bride-like with a white satin and lace dress, veil, satin shoes and blue garter. But she's not a bride, creator Jillian explains. "She's a flower girl."

Now Davenport is off to help a woman in the restroom. The customer, Suzan Steinberg of Newport Beach, wants to record a personal message for her father's 81st birthday. The restroom, the only relatively quiet place in the workshop, doubles as a sound stage. After a few takes, she gets the message just right and heads to "Stuff Me."

The party has cleared, and there's a momentary lull at bear central. Only a few customers remain contemplating critters and costumes. One is 20-year-old Adam Rogers of Irvine, who's looking a little self-conscious as he stands at the "Hear Me" station with an unstuffed polar bear over his arm. It's a Valentine's present for his girlfriend, he confesses with a slight blush. Their song, he says, is Garth Brooks' "To Make You Feel My Love." He selects a blank voice box, then heads off to the restroom for a recording session.

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