- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Brownie Troop 1351 of Alexandria loved every minute of a visit to the Build-a-Bear Workshop in Tysons Corner Center. The 16 girls were so busy selecting, stuffing, sewing, naming and clothing their bears that their leader, Beth Leto, says the field trip "tamed them."
"Our meetings are always rowdy," Mrs. Leto said as she rounded up the 6- and 7-year-olds, all clutching their newly built bears. "But everyone was totally engaged here even the moms," she added as a handful of mothers nodded their heads in agreement.
Most moms vowed to return some to share the experience with their other children, but some so they could build their own bears.
A recent weekday evening found the colorful store filled with adults and children, and everyone was intent on going through every one of the seven steps required to properly build a bear.
"Yes, we even spun around and made a wish when we put the heart inside the bear," admitted Michael Reese, who had come to the store with his wife, Joy, to create a birthday bear for his mother. "It's much more personal than just buying a present," he said. The Arlington couple said they recorded a message in their own voices that will be played and replayed whenever the bear's paw is pressed.
Build-a-Bear founder Maxine Clark said in a recent phone interview that the store's popularity with all age groups and its attraction as a family destination has been the biggest surprise since she opened the first outlet in St. Louis a little more than two years ago.
"Only half of our customers are under 12 years old," Ms. Clark said. "There's something about creating a fuzzy, cuddly new friend that transcends all ages and brings every member of the family together."
The former president of Payless Shoesource, Ms. Clark got her retailing start at the Hecht Co. in the District. After two decades working for a variety of large companies, she decided to start her own company and got her idea for the interactive store after going on a few field trips with some young friends.
"Kids love to see how things are made, and they also long to make things themselves," Ms. Clark says. "My first thought was to buy a toy factory." When that idea didn't pan out, she says, she came up with the concept of a do-it-yourself stuffed-bear store, in memory of a well-loved bear she lost when she was 10.
To ensure that every Build-a-Bear that strays from its owner will be able to find the way home, a bar-coded card is sewn into each bear's tummy and then matched with a computerized birth record. "You don't get over losing a special bear," Ms. Clark says. "Nothing replaces it."
The Tysons store opened in June and is the only Washington area facility among 15 company-owned stores, but a second store is scheduled to open in September in Howard County's Columbia Mall.
Store employees, called "master bear builders," must go through training at the Bear University in the company's St. Louis headquarters. Laurie Landay, assistant manager at Tysons, says the store is often filled with birthday parties and Scout outings, but families jam the second floor on weekends.
"It's so funny to see teen-age guys come here and build a bear for their girlfriend," she says. "They come because they think it's a good gift, but then they'll really get into the experience, right down to naming the bear."
Visitors can choose from 26 different unstuffed skins, which range in price from three $10 bears to a 21-inch polar bear that costs $25. The choices are not limited to bears. Dogs, a cat, a cow, a frog, a pig, a monkey and bunnies also are available. There also are seasonal choices; four bunnies are available for the spring.
The stuffing machine is the next step in the creation process. There, visitors help a staff member operate the machine by pumping on a foot pedal. Before the stuffing begins, visitors no matter how old are reminded to select a small, stuffed heart from a nearby bin and then infuse it with a wish by spinning twice and repeating a poem.
After stuffing, the animal is taken to a table where its back is stitched by a staff member. After stitching, the bear-builder grooms the animal on a tub-shaped table under faucets that blow air to remove excess fluff.
Visitors then create either a family history or a birth certificate on child-friendly computer terminals and finally end up in the wardrobe area. Although all animals are given a complimentary bow, it's hard to resist the extensive line of clothes, which includes everything from tuxedos and ball gowns to tiny surgical scrubs and soccer shorts. Holes for tails and ears are provided.
At checkout, the animal is placed in a large cardboard "bear condo" for the ride home.

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