America's Love of Whimsy Made These Folks Blow Things Out of Proportion
04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT
Artists Phyllis Prinz and Bob Malkin gave up secure, high-paying jobs four years ago to sell oversize replicas of crayons, pencils, paper clips and other familiar items from a tiny shop in Manhattan's SoHo district. Their families and friends thought the idea was insane: Who would pay $60 for a nonfunctioning, five-foot orange Crayola or $90 for a six-foot plastic Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2? "We were nuts all right," says Phyllis, 44. "But I loved Pop art from the '60s—like Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can. And I thought giant products would be more exciting than posters and prints."
Prinz met Malkin, 42, in 1972, when the Long Island metal and plastics specialty firm he worked for made a sculpture for an exhibit she was producing in Manhattan. She admired his technical talent and his collection of large nostalgic sculptures of shoes and eyeglasses, which he had bought at auctions. Phyllis proposed forming a partnership to manufacture outsize baseball bats, postage stamps, toothbrushes and other oddities.
They pooled their savings, got a $15,000 bank loan, and in March of 1979 opened the Pop/Eye-Think Big Shop on SoHo's arty Thompson Street. At the time they had fewer than 10 products for sale. But people looking for kooky items for home decoration flocked to the store; 1,000 pencils were sold in the first year alone. "We became obsessed with the shop, working seven days a week," says Phyllis. "We were trying to learn the business. We finally got tough by paying closer attention to the bottom line." By last year they were in the black.
Now, with three more stores than Prinz and Malkin started with (a second, and larger, one in SoHo, an outlet on Manhattan's East Side and a San Francisco franchise), Think Big is selling 35 different items and will gross nearly $1 million this year. Lily Tomlin received one of the company's Crayolas as a gift, Woody Allen has a two-foot, $35 harmonica, and Rod Steiger plunked down $175 for a four-and-a-half-foot tennis racket.
Think Big's founders obtained the rights to trademarked items such as the Crayola for nothing because the companies involved like the publicity. As for sales, "We're encouraged after watching our customers squeal with delight," says Phyllis. Prinz has two sons, age 14 and 11, and a husband in the package-design business. Malkin, the Oxford-educated offspring of a Brooklyn taxi driver, is separated from his wife of 20 years and has two daughters, age 21 and 14. He has designs for 300 additional items on the drawing board and wants to open more stores across the country. "We have turned our fantasy into reality," he says. "Our lives have been touched with the luck that others only dream of."