Man About Town

So Britney Spears is taking a break. Great. Does that mean parents (and uncles) of little girls can breathe a sigh of relief? Will there be more positive role models in her absence? Don’t count on it. It’s been a year since J.C. Penney got its knuckles rapped for a “Back to School” campaign that featured kids sporting low-riders that would make Britney proud. But just when I thought there was going to be a referendum on this topic last September, some other things happened that, uh, rather shifted the national debate.

What kinds of images are we putting out there for young girls? And what’s the potential damage? I had this in mind while marching through Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast last month when I suddenly found myself in step behind a well-heeled mom and her two daughters. Call it a post-Britney aftershock.

The girls, who were 12 or 13 years old, sported the shortest skirts I’ve ever seen, and you would not believe how low they rested on their hips. One of them wore a backpack that forced her skirt even further down so I (and the rest of Chicago) could see her neon green G-string! What in the world was that mother thinking?

My mind was reeling when I realized (in the nick of time) that I’d seen a completely different set of images all week. Day and night, whenever I’d stepped outside, I’d seen an army of little girls skipping through the streets, brandishing treasures in crisp red packages. What were those bags? And what was in them?

I found out. And along the way I discovered one of the most inspirational companies I’ve come across in a long time. Do not despair, gentle reader, there is still a place where girls can explore, play, use their imaginations, laugh, have an old-fashioned “high tea” with their grandmother, bond with parents and friends and, most of all, read. It’s called American Girl Place, and I think it’s the most wonderful place on earth.

It’s owned, appropriately enough, by the Pleasant Co. (Don’t you just love that?) The founder is Pleasant T. Rowland. (That’s her name! Can you stand it?) Ms. Rowland was one of those people you read about in USA Today in those McDonald’s salutes to the country’s best teachers. But she went a little further than most of her peers. She built an empire based entirely on the importance of reading and history to the development of girls’ self-esteem. I thought Nike’s “If you let me play sports” was the most powerful positive message for girls that I’d ever seen. But that was before I got a load of “Girl Power Now!” on display at American Girl’s retail headquarters.

The experience begins across the street from the three-story emporium. The dark clouds of a rainy Friday were melted away by the sunny smiles of scores of young girls as they first glimpsed the inviting front doors and windows. The whole street lit up.

And here’s one reason I just love this company. The entire first floor is devoted to books. Yes, American Girl is a doll company, but it’s much more. Its world revolves around eight characters, each of whom comes with a complete storyline set in a different time in American history. The characters are introduced in wonderful books that are complimented by costumes, furniture and accessories and by what amounts to a mini-museum that further illustrates real history.

The store has a number of other features, including a theater that shows original musicals (like the current Circle of Friends) and a dazzling restaurant filled to capacity every day of the week. And just in case a doting dad finds himself at a loss for words, the restaurant has “Table Talkers”—cute little black boxes that hold fortune-cookie-style messages to jump-start conversation. “Would you rather be smart, athletic or pretty?” Wow! Another? “Have you ever been told you couldn’t do something because you’re female?”

I could go on and on. About the Doll Hospital, where girls bring their beloved dolls for some touch-ups (or limb replacement). Or (my favorite) the Doll Hair Salon, where the line is 40 dolls deep for some well-needed coiffing (10-20 bucks a pop).

This may not be news to you. You may have already discovered American Girl (and the Pleasant Co., which was bought by Mattel in 1998) through its considerable direct mail program (with more than 82 million books and 7 million dolls sold since 1986, it’s one of the top 25 consumer catalogs in the U.S.). But you haven’t lived until you’ve taken your favorite little girl to this little bit of heaven.

So take that, Britney. And take as much time off as you like. Maybe, in the interim, the Circle of Friends soundtrack will replace “I’m a Slave for You” in Barbie boom boxes all over the country. No? Well, an uncle can dream, right?