Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Beanie Babies, Leo High School and Main Street Entrepreneurship

"It is clear that the quantity of product or of merchandise offered for sale, in proportion to the demand or number of Buyers, is the basis on which is fixed or always supposed to be fixed the actual market prices.. . .  It often happens that many things which actually have this intrinsic value are not sold in the market at that value: That will depend on the humors and fancies of men and on their consumption." Richard Cantillon (168?- 1734)  Irish Father of Modern Economic Theory

Notes from Chiberia - The Big Chill 2014.  I read about Ty Warner's legal problems and thought about the hundreds of dollars spent by the Family Hickey on Beanie Babies and my happy life.

In the mid to late1990's, I lived in Griffith, Indiana. My wife and I were blessed with three children, two girls and a boy and had a very modest bungalow one alley away from main street and three blocks from our parish of St. Mary's church and grammar school.   Mary worked as an art teacher in Hammond and I commuted to Leo High School in Chicago. Every morning we awakened to the great smells of Patty Cake Bakery and Dave & Lee's diner.  I made the trip through the alley to the back door of Patty Cake a couple of days a week and to Dave & Lee's with the Mary and the kids on the weekends.  I love main streets.

The main street of Griffith had an Italian Imports store, a drug store, music store, two insurance agencies,a sporting good store and a barber shop, as well as the municipal center with police and fire.  In nearly every business there began to appear displays of hand sized plush toy animals crafted from bean bag sacks.  Each had a name like Zippy the Zebra, or Bob the Baboon.  They were modestly priced and sold out quicker than an NSA tech aide with a GED.

Word of mouth and niche marketing made this juvenile necessity the commodity of the next ten years.  By the time, we moved to Chicago in 1999 I had baskets of Beanie Babies.  A remember going to a florist on Ridge Road in Highland, Indiana to order flowers for a wake and going with carefully written note to purchase three distinct bean bag toys.  I followed hand written notes and grocery lists from my wife to the letter,   "Don't ask why a purchase is necessary, just get it." Not only were kids buying Beanie Babies, but also adults.  Ladies and some guys collected the plush toys in the same manner as my Irish aunts did Waterford Crystal and Belleek china.

Later, Beanie Babies were modified and stuffed into Happy Meals at McDonald's.  As the kids grew up the Beanie Babies were given away to neighborhood youngsters here in Chicago, donated to St. Vincent De Paul Society, or Vietnam Veterans Charities.  I still shop main street which is Western Avenue between 111th & 99th Streets.  I don't see too many Beanie Babies these days. I learned that the guy who marketed these toys made billions.

He made billions of dollars because he was an entrepreneur - Ty Warner understood the difference between wealth and money.  Wealth is a condition of being; money is a medium of exchange. In the 17th Century an Irish ex patriot by the name of Richard Cantillon crafted the model of entrepreneurship. " Cantillon held that market prices are not immediately decided by intrinsic value, but are derived from supply and demand . . ."

What would you pay for a bean bag shaped like a jackass?   What the market ( happy household full enchanted kids) will bare.  Each Beanie Baby was marketed by a time table and number of the individual species.  They would be available only after an announced date and only in a limited number. You snooze; you lose.

We teach opportunity at Leo High School in Chicago.  We teach the guys who attend Leo that many, many people are backing their play so long as they meet our expectations as students and most of all as men.  College is promoted, but so are the skilled trades and public service and safety vocations. I take some of our more . . .obstreperous young gents for a visit to the boiler room and show them a rudimentary course in heat conduction and tell them what a steam fitter, pipe fitter or stationary engineer can make in a year.   All they need to do is develop a work ethic and learn some math and graduate with level of skill and commitment to be accepted as an apprenticeship.  They are always impressed.  Each day is a Beany Baby.  Leo has been a school of opportunity from the day it opened its doors in 1926.  Leo was a main street school located on 79th Street where every need "from obstetrician to undertaker" was filled according to the orders of its denizens.

Leo High School was considered a business entity as well as a school for young men. Though most of the neighbors living along the main street of 79th street were Roman Catholic, many of businesses were operated by Jewish entrepreneurs - Siegel's pharmacy, Blackman's Jewelry, Morris B. Sachs' Clothing for Men.  These entrepreneurs put skin in the game and were as much a part of the life of the Catholic high school for boys as they were in the community at large. They invested time, treasure and talent in the operation of Leo High School and were rewarded with the patronage of a vast Catholic army of consumers.

Maurice Blackman not only provided rings for Championship Leo football and basketball teams, but hired Hylands, McKeevers, O'Briens and Gerritys to work in his store for tuition and pocket money. The late Jim McKeever ( Leo '54) said the Blackman's were like family to him and taught him as much business and ethical lessons as the Irish Christian Brothers.  The entrepreneur sees wealth, while a hustler sees money.  Wealth is found in values and values create wealth.  Leo students were active in Catholic Action, a social justice club that helped the infirm, the indigent and the incarcerated.  Also, Leo students built aircraft identification models for the War Department through WWII.  Students and main street worked together.

As main street died, so too the wealth of wisdom and community.  CVS, Walgreens and banks with ever changing titles seem to dominate main street.  Corporations sole without a soul.  Schooling has become as blandly faceless as business - Algebra, Geometry, History, Physics, English, Spanish.  Teaching to the tests and aggregate scores now pass for 'education.'

I'd like to see our guys have an opportunity to experience the joy of a sale.  Imagine a 17 year old kid making a close, even if it were a Beanie Baby crafted to look like the Leo Lion at $ 5.75.  The founder of Beanie Babies used shoe leather to place his products in stores and businesses in Griffith Indiana in the early 1990's. 

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