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The American Girl Place store in Chicago: where dolls rule!

American Girl historic dolls in Chicago store American Place (photo by Sheila Scarborough)If your child is a fan of the American Girl dolls, books, movies and toys, there’s only one place to take her (or him) if you visit Chicago: American Girl Place, the flagship store for the American Girl brand.

The company was founded in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland, and the original dolls were fictional historic characters:  pioneer girl Kirsten, Victorian girl Samantha, World War II-era girl Molly, colonial girl Felicity,  slavery escapee and Civil War-era girl Addy, etc.

Even though I’m not a big doll person and neither was my now-teen daughter (she blew my money and her time on Japanese manga books) I talked about the ins and outs of the store with Char Polanosky, who blogs at Doll Diaries.

Look, call me a curmudgeon, but I wince when I read a store brochure that says, “Shop. Dine. Party, too! Come celebrate all the things girls love to do.”  To me, girls need to back away a little from this “we’re all about princesses and shopping” racket, but Char convinced me to consider it from a history and education angle.

The 1st floor historic dolls section, American Girl Place, Chicago (photo by Sheila Scarborough)That appealed to me, so I decided to visit the Michigan Avenue shop myself while in Chicago for a blogging conference.

American Girl Place is part of the Water Tower Place shopping complex on the famous Miracle Mile.

Talk about an empire….whip out those wallets, Moms and Dads. The dolls are certainly wholesome entertainment (I heard that over and over from parents, and the semi-slutty Bratz dolls suffered a lot of slings and arrows) but keeping them outfitted will cost you.

I overheard one customer tell another that at least one family “….flies from New York to Los Angeles regularly, and they arrange a Chicago stopover to come to the store – with an empty suitcase, of course.”

Er, all to support the economy, I guess.

American Girl hair stylist Veronica at American Place, Chicago (photo by Sheila Scarborough)The first floor is a display area for the historic dolls – there are artifacts from each era and the dolls are arranged with their era-specific clothing, toys and household items.

The ones for World War II Molly were particularly appealing for me, perhaps because she wears glasses like I did as a child;  the Depression-era Kit dolls were, um, unfortunately quite timely in their descriptions of Kit’s family economic crisis.

All the dolls are plucky. I support plucky! I like Nancy Drew!

Then I rounded a corner and was somewhat appalled to find Julie, an American Girl coming to grips with change in the 1970s. She wears a mood ring and peasant blouse. Her bedroom is pink and orange with a beanbag chair and hanging beads around her bed.

American Girl Nez Perce doll Kaya, American Girl Place, Chicago (photo by Sheila Scarborough)Hey, wait a minute – I went to high school in the ’70s, and now I’m a historic doll?! I had pink and orange sheets, too. I slunk off in old-lady shame to look at the rest of the store.

It was pretty amazing.

There’s a doll hair salon, where friendly staffer Veronica was tending to a perpetually-smiling, unblinking plastic head with shiny hair that apparently needed styling (pigtail braids, $20.)

Hairdressers spend a lot of time untangling hairy doll head messes, too, before they can style. Veronica says they will “swap heads, but only for the same head.” No sticking Molly’s head on Kit, apparently.

Doll ear-piercing is available  (18″ dolls only, for $14 – results in those rubbery ears are obviously irreversible.)  There is a photo studio where kids can take a formal portrait with their doll (cheapest package; $22.95.)

You can get a custom T-shirt for your doll or check her into the Doll Hospital for required repairs.  There is a nice café where patrons can dine with their dolls; there are cute little doll chairs that attach to the tables, and loaners if your child arrives doll-less.

There are tons of in-store special events with hands-on activities for kids, including grandparent days, cooking classes, character birthday celebrations, meeting the book authors, dates with Dad and one called “A Smart Girl’s Guide to Money.”

Young patrons of the American Girl flagship store, Chicago (photo by Sheila Scarborough)If you visit the Chicago flagship store, take a look at the Web site ahead of time and set a budget for doll fun activities. It’s hard to maintain equilibrium when everywhere you look are cute doll-sized things to buy and do.

Consider tradeoffs – new hairstyle, maybe a new doll dress but no doll furniture. Or, repair the mangled arm at Doll Hospital, get a new set of household items and a pair of shoes, but no hair styling or photo sessions. Or, one hair session, a kid’s Molly-style set of pajamas and a branded beach towel, but no doll clothes.

The café requires set seating times and the special events are usually by reservation, so call ahead to arrange. I was impressed by the cheery professionalism of the staff; they seem to really enjoy working there.

Any other suggestions for enjoying the positive aspects of an American Girl experience (but avoiding wallet meltdown or girly overload?)  Comments below are welcomed….