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The History of Build-a-Bear

Build-a-Bear was founded by Maxine Clark. She had previously worked for May Department Stores and served as the president of Payless ShoeSource from 1992 to 1996, but was seeking a change. While out shopping for Beanie Babies with her friend’s 10-year-old daughter Katie, Clark was inspired by something the young girl said: she suggested that if they couldn’t find the in-demand toys, it would be easy to make their own stuffed animals. Clark immediately began working on a business plan to open a store where kids could create and customize their own stuffed animals. From the start, the concept was based around entertainment and personalization. After almost a year of researching, writing, and redefining her business plan, Clark opened the first Build-a-Bear Workshop in 1997 at the St. Louis Galleria. She put up the initial $1 million investment for the business from her own personal savings. The business was also backed by private investment firm owners Barney Ebsworth and Wayne Smith, who saw a story in the St. Louis Business Journal shortly before the store was set to open and decided to invest. Clark says that many adults around her had their doubts, but children embraced the concept of Build-a-Bear right away. The store offered kids an entertaining space at a time when most malls were not geared toward children. From the stuffing process to the iconic “heart ceremony” and the opportunity to “bathe” and dress your bear in a custom outfit, kids were delighted by the store. By 1998, there were four Build-a-Bear locations. By 2000, there were 39. The 200th store opened in 2005 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Some of the earliest stuffed animals offered at Build-a-Bear Workshops included Curly Bear, Floppy Dalmatian, and Floppy Frog. According to some sources, Build-a-Bear had some contentious dealings with other retailers and reached a confidential settlement with the co-owner of the Basic Brown Bear Factory, who sued Clark for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation in 1999. Still, Build-a-Bear’s success was not negatively impacted by these legal issues and the chain went public in 2004. Cub Condos — the distinctive boxes that freshly made Build-a-Bears are packed into instead of plain bags — delighted kids and also served as free publicity as children toted them through the mall. (Notably, these now incur a very small fee as the store is trying to be more environmentally conscious.) While Build-a-Bear locations were originally designed to resemble toy workshops, complete with details like stitching and huge, stylized spools of thread, many of the stores were redesigned with a more "modern" look starting in 2015, although some locations still have the original branding and color scheme. Today, the store remains a favorite of kids and kids-at-heart all across the world who flock to the many locations (of which there are currently around 400, and most of those are in malls) to have fun and customize cute stuffed animals. The store has expanded their merchandise offerings in recent years to include collaborations with popular franchises and even has a separate online section aimed at adults called The Bear Cave, which offers a variety of nostalgic and collectible bears as well as a line of more adult-themed outfit options to choose from. The chain has also opened an additional online company called HeartBox which offers gift boxes for different occasions — of course, each one includes a stuffed friend. Build-a-Bear reported a record year in 2023 and continues to grow as people of all ages enjoy stuffing, dressing, and collecting the store's stuffed animals!

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