Ostensibly, this is the story of the strange period of time between 1996 and 1999 when adults turned a child's toy into currency, but it is just as much an examination of the nature of a fad and the people who create them.
Beanie Babies were plush stuffed animals which had the then-unique characteristic of being understuffed and filled in key places with pellets which made them easy to pose. Available in a variety of colors and animal characters, the toys were slow to pick up interest. That lag time gave the toy company's founder, Ty Warner, time to tweak his models, which resulted in certain toys changing color or other attributes (e.g., spots and mouths). The fact that Warner insisted on his products being sold in small venues like gift shops and specialty toy shops and eschewed big box retailers like Toys 'R Us and Wal-Mart meant that when his toys did become popular there was a built-in scarcity. That made it a logical fit as a secondary market collectible (as much as anyone can apply the word "logic" to collectibles).
Ty Warner was (is?) a highly-focused businessman who obsessed over the tiniest details of his creations. He, like many other successful entrepreneurs, also had a finely honed gut feel for what worked for his audience. It's not a surprise that someone with his skills could create a high-quality toy that would appeal to children and adults alike. But Warner's story is only part of what made Beanie Babies a cultural phenomenon; the "early adopters" in the Chicago-area were the ones who not only evangelized the toys but also created and then reinforced the idea of "rare editions" and first started treating the toys like a kind of currency. However, it might be fair to say that Beanie Babies didn't really take off as a fad until they authors, both traditional and self-published, started producing guides that listed the current and projected values of the toys.
While this wasn't the first bubble, the sudden popularity of the internet and the World Wide Web made it possible for this to reach peak popularity much more quickly. Not only did Ty, Inc. use its website in ways its much larger competitors hadn't thought of yet to reinforce the "personality" of the brand, it also benefited from the second market trading that was taking place on eBay.
Bissonnette does an impressive job of putting together the history of the toy, the ensuing craze and the not-always-stable people involved, but it's his discussion of overall market behavior that makes this a worthwhile read. (Hint: if you think this story is reminiscent of the housing or Dot Com bubbles, you might be onto something.) Even if you walk away without a clear understanding of the economics behind a craze, you'll get a glimpse into a surprisingly fascinating moment in American history.
Recommended for fans of pop culture and economics.