bearIn some ways, it’s a good thing that Build-A-Bear didn’t exist when I was a kid as I’m not sure I would have otherwise survived to adulthood. One step into that store, with all its animals and especially all its outfits, would have surely stopped my 7-year-old heart.

I thought of this last weekend as I took my stepdaughter Gabrielle and lovely friend Lexie to the store, monitoring their vital signs as we crossed the threshold. Soon, their eyes were disturbingly glazed, and they were walking around like zombies, bumping into bins and racks like pinballs bouncing off the bumpers.

For those of you who have never been inside a Build-A-Bear store, let me fill you in on their concept. As its name implies, the purpose is to build a stuffed animal, a process that starts by choosing a limp, empty animal shell from a line of bins and then getting it pumped with stuffing — or life, as the case may be — using a powerful injection tool.

After much deliberation, Gabrielle decided on an owl, and Lexie chose a bear covered in peace signs and hearts. With their choices made, they went to the Build-A-Bear lady, who is always smiling, wearing an apron and standing beside a machine that looks a little like a movie popcorn maker but is instead filled with stuffing that is in constant rotation.

“Hi, girls, I’m Becky!” she said, her voice having the distinctive pitch of an elf. “If you want, we can do your heart ceremonies together.”

Gabrielle and Lexie nodded feverishly and were asked to choose a silken, stuffed heart, which would get rammed inside their animals in the process of getting stuffed.

“OK, now take your hearts and rub it on your funny bone so it’s silly. Rub it on your heart for lots of love. Rub it on your hair so it never has a bad fur day, and rub it on your ears so it listens to all your secrets.”

The girls blissfully followed the commands, and Becky took the hearts and dropped them inside the shells.

“Who’s first?” she asked and Gabrielle floated forward. Becky pushed a sewing machine-type pedal at her feet and poked a metal tube inside the back of the owl-to-be.

“OK, it’s time!”

Gabrielle pressed down on the pedal, and the popcorn machine whirred to life, sounding a bit like a lawn mower. The owl shell started to fill with stuffing, with Becky violently plunging the tube down every limb to make sure they got appropriately filled.

“OK, give it a squeeze to make sure it feels nice and cuddly!” she said.

“Feels. Good,” Gabrielle croaked numbly, trying to wet her lips but realizing her mouth had gone dry.

“Perfect!” Becky said. “Here you go!”

Gabrielle turned around as Lexie’s bear got stuffed and beheld the rest of the store, the majority of which was filled with tiny, stylish outfits that fit all of the animals.

Gabrielle shuffled forward and started to rifle through the racks. Soon Lexie was scanning too. While Gabrielle settled quickly on a witch’s costume, Lexie poked around, like a bee to blossoms, inspecting each perfect outfit and looking a little panicked by the thought that she had to pick just one. Finally, she came over and asked me to get a burgundy dress complete with rose-shaped fascinator from the top rack. I handed it to her and she looked at it gently, lovingly.

“OK, I’m ready,” she said.

Nearly on our way to the cash register, the girls saw the Small Frys, babies to Build-A-Bears that are, inexplicably, pre-stuffed. Tiny and adorable, they sat in French fry-like containers just waiting to be loved.

“Alright,” I said. “Go for it.”

So the decisions began anew and then the Small Frys needed outfits too.

By the time the girls went to fill out their animal’s birth certificate — oh yes, dear readers, no stone left unturned at Build-A-Bear — I could feel my nerves fraying. But I stood back and let them hunt and peck on the computers, filling in their animals’ birthdates, eye colors and names.

Finally, we got to the cash register, all of us exhausted from over-stimulation.

“That will be $98.50!” Becky said cheerfully and I handed over my credit card and a gift card that had prompted the whole excursion.

By the time we got to the car, the girls had revived and were busily dressing their animals in their gear. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Gabrielle squeeze her owl, while Lexie baby-talked to her Small Fry. And my heart stopped after all.

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