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Need An Inflatable Mosquito or a Disintegrating Golf Ball? Archie McPhee's the Man to See

updated 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1990 01:00AM

A few minutes with Mark Pahlow are enough to convince anyone that this guy is not a Renaissance man. In the cluttered office of his wacky, tacky mail-order firm, Archie McPhee & Co., Pahlow, 38, pulls out a small plastic gun and loads it with rubber bugs. "It's great," he explains with childlike glee. "You put a bug in here, pull the trigger, and the catapult action flings your rubber bug across the room. We're not really into weaponry. The staff thought we could put in real bugs, but we don't want the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on our case."

Chances are the ASPCA won't bother with any of Pahlow's silly merchandise. But anyone who has been searching for a metal Mona Lisa brooch (four for $1.95) need look no further. Items range in price from 99 cents (fake rotten teeth) to $78.50 (bronzed statue of a Hindu god), but most are less than $10.

Since 1987, Pahlow's Seattle-based novelty company (the name comes from a distant relative of Pahlow's wife, Doni, 40) has offered up harmless, inexpensive trinkets guaranteed to provide at least 15 minutes of fun. For $2, Pahlow, a former collaborator on a '60s underground newspaper, sends out a catalog crammed full of up to 500 perfectly useless items, including a cicada key ring that boasts flashing eyes and an eerie, shrill sound that "lasts 20 whole seconds," according to the catalog. Yours for a mere five bucks.

Although Archie McPhee hasn't made the FORTUNE 500, its founder has reaped tidy profits. This year Pahlow expects to ring up about $2 million in sales. This Christmas season he expects to send out 225,000 catalogs, his largest mailing yet. Among his customers he counts gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and syndicated columnist Dave Barry. Pahlow's nonsense novelties also have popped up on TV and in movies. And every year, Pahlow gets a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter to verify the price of a rubber chicken for the august newspaper's "Rubber Chicken Index," a parody of the Consumer Price Index. For the company's seriously curious CEO (Collector of Extraneous Objects), the secret of his success is simple. "I took this stupid junk that you wouldn't be interested in at all, renamed it and gave it a new lease on life." says Pahlow.

He does, of course, have standards, although they are slightly more difficult to explain than Baltic history. Pahlow turns up his nose at plastic vomit and whoopee cushions; a three-dimensional Spanish postcard of the Last Supper, on the other hand, received an immediate okay. Little plastic pigs with magnets in their noses also got the big thumbs-up, but Pahlow sneered at a small plastic bag that emits laughing noises when touched. "The joke is so transparent," sniffs Pahlow. "It takes no subtlety or intelligence to get it." A $2 calculator that squirts water in your face when you press the buttons, however, was a shoo-in.

Pahlow, the son of a service manager for an office-supply company and his travel-agent wife, was born in Mansfield, Ohio. Whether he grew up there, or anywhere, is an open question. Frustrated with small-town life. Pahlow bummed around Europe for three years after graduating from high school. He supported himself by working odd jobs, the oddest of which was in Denmark, where he sold sweaters on the street while dressed as a Viking.

After settling in Los Angeles in the mid-'70s, he "started getting his first stirrings of wanting to be self-employed" and began scavenging around for weird items. "I used to comb the Yellow Pages of major cities and write or visit toy and novelty stores and say, 'What do you have that's old and weird?' " says Pahlow. He started snapping up and selling Howdy Doody key chains and gizmos that flipped cigarettes into your mouth.

The business took off when Pahlow moved to Seattle in 1983, even though he had trouble convincing loan officers of the viability of his proposed enterprise. "I would say to them, There are 800,000 plastic ants on this shelf, and this is my equity,' " says Pahlow. "The bank did not want to own 800,000 ants When a local bank finally lent him $10,000 in 1984, Pahlow set up his first company, Accoutrements, which is still the wholesale arm of Archie McPhee (Box 30852, Seattle, WA 98103).

The gadget business is so good now that Pahlow is shopping around for larger quarters for himself and his staff of 17. He has cut back on his buying trips to the Far East in order to spend more time with Doni and their daughters, Lily, 6, and Julia, 3. The family lives comfortably in an English Tudor house, but Pahlow is by no means ready to retire. With economic forecasters predicting gloom and doom, the man behind McPhee madness insists that rubber cockroaches (his best-seller) and elf shoes are just what people will need. "I think we're virtually recession-proof," says Pahlow. "If times are bad, people want something to cheer them up, and Archie is inexpensive. They think. 'Why not buy a load of slimy snakes and send them to my sister? It'll bring back those memories of me putting them down her blouse.' "

—Andrew Abrahams, Priscilla Turner in Seattle

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