The American Girl Store appears to have been designed by aliens who have had little girls described to them, but don’t actually know what they are. It’s a landscape drenched in pink with perfectly coifed and beleaguered employees stationed behind a hair salon for 18-inch dolls with puckered faces who have to up-sell frantic parents on “a doll for your doll” or worse, “historically accurate undergarments for your doll’s doll.” As much as its audience is kids, American Girl is run on the very disposable income of American Adults.
And for some, the expenditure doesn’t end at the store. The American Girl Cafe at the Grove in Los Angeles plays host to a rotating cast of childless regulars who are devoted collectors of the brand; they’re often seen frequenting both the store and high tea in the cafe. This is 2017, babe, and you don’t need a child to get into Chuck E. Cheese or American Girl, and the childless are leaning in so hard they’re calling out of their pink plush chairs. I’d known about them through the deep internet, but in person, they are merely solemn-looking people who look like they could talk you out of a parking ticket in a local courtroom.
The day my friend and I arrive, dressed to the nines, to grab lunch at a virtually empty American Girl Cafe on a Thursday afternoon, we are quickly confronted with the truth: one does not simply join the league of Childless Adults Who Are Obsessed With American Girl Dolls. We were curtly dismissed by the hostess, being informed that today is for people with reservations only. So we returned in the same nice outfits the following afternoon, looking slightly less nice because they smelled weird, because we did not wash them. Today, the hostess has no choice but to let us in.
“Someone’s birthday?” she asks my friend Lyndsey, who has brought her American Girl doll with her. We nod solemnly, and she brings us to our table. Several posh birthday parties are stationed throughout the dining room, which is pink enough to require an insulin shot upon entry.
Part of the beauty of the AG Cafe is that dolls are both seated and served pink lemonade and cookies with their owners, and people who don’t have their own dolls are welcome to borrow one for the duration of the meal. The new American Girl male doll, Logan, and I have a history, so I agree to let him sit with us.
There are less childless adults here than yesterday, but they still stick out. An important thing to know about the American Adults is that they do not sit with dolls at the table. The American Adults are not there to kid around, and they’re not there for kids. From what we can hear from our table, they are talking about “retired accessories” and “whether we’ll be seeing Kirsten again any time soon.” Their tone is hushed in the way one might discuss funeral arrangements. While dressed in the pastel business casual that feels appropriate for the venue, I’m terrified to approach them.
In the meantime, we are having the best meal of our lives. I won a bet and had my dream come true: They do have mimosas at AG Cafe. Every meal comes with three full courses: cinnamon buns and fresh fruit and cheese as an appetizer; an immaculately plated entree, from the infantile “Tic-Tac-Toe pizza” to more fine dining; and a delicate chocolate pudding dessert, complete with a fake daisy. This, plus all the coffee you can drink, is why the American Girl Cafe is the hidden gem of upscale Los Angeles dining and why I will be bringing all of my boyfriends there to break up with them from now on.
“We’ll both have the salmon,” Lyndsey says to J.D., the impossibly handsome waiter. He asks why we’re here, and I feel like our cover is blown. I bet J.D. doesn’t ask the American Adults that question. In fact, no one does, and they proceed with their meal and pink lemonade undisturbed.
While we wait for our food, I body shame Logan and drink his lemonade because honey, he’s had enough. Eventually, I find the inner strength to address the Adults. I make out with Logan for good luck, then head over.
“Hi, I was just wondering, do you come here a lot?” This is not the way anyone wants this discussion to start, but the Adults (who asked to remain anonymous) are cordial. Sort of, one says. They’re collectors, discussing trades. I explain myself a little, wipe some unidentified salmon dressing off my mouth and try to block the view to my table, where Logan waits expectantly.
Another thing to know about the American Adults: They operate quietly. Unlike other communities that flaunt their eccentricities, these collectors are aware that they’re not the target audience for products like Samantha Parkington, Victorian sophisticate; they are there to sip lemonade and discuss the nitty gritty of the Girls in detail more akin to an issue of Forbes than the diary of a nine-year-old girl.
During our conversation, I get a crash course in the slang of doll collectors, learning that there’s a new face mold in rotation (there’s eight now), and that there’s controversy “in the community” vis-à-vis the modeling on Logan’s face, because he is a white boy and has the same face cast as Kaya, who is a Native American girl. They share their opinions on racial representation in the series (“Looks like we’re finally making some headway; poor Addy and Kaya don’t need to do all the work anymore.”), the complimentary films made for certain characters (“Did you know Julia Roberts produces those? She’s a big fan of the brand.”), and the American Girl line of Bitty Baby dolls (“kind of creepy but I do have three”).
When one of the American Adults begins to feel the length of my presence stretching too long, I head into the big questions: Are there more of you, and do any of you have children?
The American Adult, a woman in her 60s, pauses before answering. “Sure, there’s plenty of us,” she says. “We meet online, and some of us just meet in the store.” She and the other collecter are great-aunts and grandmothers, but they assure us that the Adults are of all genders, ages, marital and parental status. They cite collectors they’ve met at “Doll-Cons” and in meetups like theirs as young as teenagers turning a dolly fixation into a serious pastime, as well as a sizeable following of single gay men who attend events and pre-order dolls as they’re announced.
“It’s a little secret society,” the other older Adult laughs. “Now, if you don’t mind…” She gestures to her lemonade, and it’s clear that our conversation is over, and I am not a part of the club.
Fair enough. I return to our table in time for J.D. and his hot waiter companion to return to sing Lyndsey happy birthday in gorgeous harmony even though it’s clear they know it’s not warranted. I fake an engagement and hasty breakup with Logan and linger in the cafe so long that J.D. offers us coffee to-go to nudge us the hell out. We oblige, and the Adults remain, refilling lemonade after lemonade and poring over catalogs. The customers with money and time to kill, no matter how conspicuous or creepy, are always right.