updated 07/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEY HAVE SOFT HEADS, FLOPPY ears and squishy bodies. They're also small enough to fit in your pocket. But to store owners like Richard Gernady, whose suburban Glenview, Ill., shop sold 5,000 of the pint-size, stuffed animals in the week before Valentine's Day, Beanie Babies are huge. They may become "the biggest thing ever in retailing," Gernady predicts. "Elvis, Sinatra and the Beatles combined."

Well, maybe. But at the very least, Beanies seem to be the next blip on the hula hoop-Pet Rock-Rubik's Cube-Cabbage Patch Doll toy-of-the-moment continuum. "I knew I had a winner," says Chicago toy designer H. Ty Warner, founder and sole owner of Beanie-producing Ty, Inc. With a production-line-busting, 1,000 percent increase in orders since last year, Warner is paddling hard to keep ahead of the tidal wave. A 30-year toy-industry veteran, the 50ish Warner—who shares his posh Oak Brook, Ill., home with girlfriend Faith McGowan, a former lighting store manager, and her daughters Lauren, 13, and Jenna, 11—has run his own stuffed-animal company since 1985. Seeing an opening for pocket-size, low-cost toys that weren't, as he puts it, "real trash," he developed the Beanies in 1993, purposely under-stuffing them to make them more huggable. Shop owners say the 66-piece line—which takes on new members every six months—appeals as much to adult collectors as it does to kids. Lately the appeal is getting stronger. In April, Warner leased three 737s to fly an emergency shipment of Beanies from the factory in Seoul to U.S. stores in time for Easter. "The more we ship, the more people want," Warner says.

The appeal of Beanies seems to be their sweet faces, soft structures and cartoony names (Chops the lamb, Chocolate the moose, Speedy the turtle). The $5 price tag doesn't hurt either. Jim Weaver, a Glenview, Ill., United Parcel Service driver who often runs gauntlets of Beanie-maniacs when he delivers to toy stores, says kids are just as excited about buying Tabasco the red bull as they are about Air Jordans. "How many times can you buy something for five bucks that's going to drive a kid bananas?" he asks.

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