Welcome to my blog. I write about fitting in, sticking out, and missing the motherland as a serial foreigner.

In which Miriam builds a bear

It's entirely possible that I am one of the last people in America to know about Build-A-Bear Workshop. Apparently, I've passed by the store many times in different malls around the country but I've never bothered to go inside. It always just seemed like another one of those annoying stores with bright lights and a garish logo - stimulation overload even in a mall, which defines that concept.

All that changed yesterday because Grandma and Grandpa Palmer were in town. We were already at the mall and Grandma asked if we wanted to take Miriam to Build-A-Bear. Since the mall play area was overrun with wild, too-big 12-year-olds playing tag and knocking over toddlers, we decided to go for it.

And what a pleasant experience it was! I'm generally not one for coerced, manipulative, profit-geared fun, but Miriam really enjoyed the experience, and I enjoyed it because she did.

Just in case there's anyone else out there who, like me (until yesterday), doesn't know what all the fuss is about, here's the deal.

First, you choose a stuffed animal carcass. I can't remember if they actually call it a carcass. Note to marketing team: if you do call it a carcass, consider choosing a new term. Then you bring it to one of the workers and they stuff it right there in front of you with this magical machine. Once the child decides it's cuddly enough, the bear is finished.

Then you put a heart inside of it, sew it up, and take it over for a "bath." I couldn't tell if the bath (actually a blow-dryer-type apparatus) had an actual purpose, like removing excess fluff, or if it was just for show.

Then you're all set!

They send you home with a cardboard box for a house and even a birth certificate if you want.

The genius of Build-A-Bear, in my opinion, lies in three areas.

First, the initial purchase of a stuffed animal is very affordable. The simplest bear carcasses cost as little as $10. Of course, there are $20 - $25 carcasses, too, but if, like us, you just want it for the experience, it's very affordable. (Especially if Grandma is the one actually buying it.)

After they've sucked you into a seemingly innocuous stuffed animal purchase, they rake in the dough with dozens of expensive accessories. The bear may have cost $10, but if you want to buy an outfit for your bear, it will cost you $15 and up. Brilliant!

Finally - and this is what really won me over - the staff members are low-key and don't pressure you. At least they didn't at this store. The woman who helped Miriam with her bear was pleasant, kind, and helpful. She also heard me tell Miriam several times that we weren't going to buy any extras, like a beating heart (really!) or clothes or shoes - and yet she still treated us with absolute courtesy. Nothing turns me off to a store more than employees who only treat you with respect if they suspect you will be spending a lot of money. I admit it annoys me more than is probably reasonable, but really, I shouldn't have to pretend to take my time looking at all the full-priced goods at Baby Gap or wherever when what I really want to do is make a beeline to the back wall where all the clearance stuff is, just so the salespeople won't roll their eyes at me.

In the same vein as the above, the employees didn't look down on us for not knowing how the whole Build-A-Bear process works. Instead, they guided us all along the way and didn't assume anything. Even some of the other customers in the store chipped in with advice and helpful commentary on the experience. I'll admit that sometimes I avoid going in "experience" stores or restaurants like these simply because I don't know how to do it and I'm afraid I'll be mocked if I try.

It was so refreshing to have a positive consumer experience, especially one that brought so much excitement and joy to Miriam. I'm sure whoever thought of Build-A-Bear is very rich now, and I'm very happy for them. After all, if they can manage to persuade parents to spend $25 on a police officer outfit for a stuffed animal, they deserve every penny.

Can you play the balalaika?

Flashback Friday: A foreign affair to remember