The little girls gazed intently at the deserted display case, as if convinced that a familiar fair-haired doll must be hiding somewhere inside.
Slowly, their eyes lit upon the sign taped to the glass: "Soon, we'll say farewell to Kirsten. Bring this brave pioneer girl home for the holidays — before she moves into the American Girl archives."
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and a doll had gone missing from the American Girl store on Madison Avenue, a sprawling, twinkling mecca for dolls of many-colored tresses and the girls who collect them like baseball cards.
"They don't have Kirsten anymore?" asked a surprised 6-year-old named Piper Ehrlich, who had come in search of a bed for her own Kirsten doll. "I'm lucky I got her."
Kirsten Larson — "a pioneer girl of strength and spirit growing up in Minnesota in 1854" — is the latest creation to be retired by American Girl, the doll-making franchise famous for churning out wholesome dolls, books, clothing and movies steeped in history for more than two decades. Carefully timed to coincide with the holiday shopping season, the company's decision sparked a run on the doll and anguished "Save Kirsten" video tributes online ("First Samantha? Now Kirsten? This is too soon," one blogger moaned.)
Marketing ploy or changing times?
While retail experts chalk it up to a classic marketing ploy, some die-hard doll fans fear the company is moving away from its historical roots in favor of its more recent "Just Like You" line, which allows girls to purchase dolls engineered to look, well, just like them.
The company insists it is simply clearing room on the shelves for new historical characters like Rebecca Rubin, its first Jewish doll, who debuted earlier this year.
Losing Kirsten was all the more painful because almost exactly one year ago, the company retired what was arguably its most popular doll. Archiving Samantha Parkington — "a bright, compassionate girl living with her wealthy grandmother in 1904" — was the retail equivalent of sidelining a star quarterback at the peak of his career.
Samantha's enduring popularity was partly why she was first to go, said company spokeswoman Julie Parks. Like Kirsten, her departure generated buzz on the Internet, particularly among women who are now grown and having children of their own.
The strategy paid off, at least from a sales perspective. After announcing Kirsten's retirement in September, by mid-November the inventory was almost completely gone. So it went with Samantha.
The company refused to say whether more dolls will join them in toy obscurity.
"We know there are a lot of women like you, in their early and late 20s, who grew up on these dolls," Parks told me sympathetically over the phone.
Truth be told, a couple of months ago I, too, stood dismayed alongside that display case — only I am no longer of an age where that is considered acceptable behavior.
Back in 1986, when company founder Pleasant Rowland first introduced her quaint line of dolls to the public, I was among her target audience. Today, the company has a term for people like me: "avids," or longtime fans who have purchased many a doll-sized pinafore and taffeta bow over the years.
It's not a stretch to say that these dolls were a defining part of my childhood. I devoured the books — including such classic tomes as "Meet Samantha," ''Happy Birthday Samantha" and "Samantha Saves the Day" — and played with the dolls until I was well into adolescence (and far too embarrassed to admit I still played with dolls).
So I empathized with the outpouring on YouTube. One tribute video, set to a sappy violin soundtrack, features a photo montage of a Kirsten doll in assorted outfits and poses.
"Guess what guys... AG has done it again," it says. "This is not a joke. This is no rumor. This is REAL."
Then, a bitter complaint: "She never even got a movie."
Ashley Hendel, 11, of Woodstock, Ga., said she felt compelled to post her own tribute online.
"It just didn't really, like, feel right not to make a video," she said. "Because she was one of the original dolls. She needed a tribute because she's special."
Her mother, Dawn Hendel, was equally upset about historical characters being phased out, but for a different reason.
"The kids these days, they don't know as much about history," she said. "They don't know what makes America."
Past their prime?
But last month, as I browsed through the store in all its Christmas-decorated glory, I realized that I didn't see a single girl toting a Kirsten or Samantha doll. Then I realized, with growing suspicion, that most of the little girls who approached Kirsten's empty glass case were unfazed, skipping away to look at another, often newer, doll.
The ones who seemed truly upset, like 13-year-old Shannon Barry, were in their teens and 20s.
"I am really going to miss the dolls," said Barry, of San Diego, who owns — count 'em — 23 American Girl dolls.
The original historical characters' popularity may have already peaked, said toy consultant Chris Byrne, who likened the archival process to the Walt Disney Co.'s practice of placing classic films in a "Disney vault."
"They put the princesses in the vault, and every seven years they bring them back again," Byrne said. "How many times has Sleeping Beauty come back? Or Snow White?"
Perhaps, then, there's hope for us avids. People are already clamoring for 25th anniversary editions of the dearly departed.
So fare thee well, Kirsten Larson. I'll always remember your perfectly braided blonde locks and your red checkered bonnet. Rest assured that your pioneer strength and spirit will endure on the Internet, if not in stores.